Looking at the pioneer dress of “Grandmother Nancy” — Mary Ann Downs Greenwell — one might think that this photograph is an early Sister of Charity of Nazareth posing with her family — without SCN headgear, that is. This picture, instead, is of family members of Sister Dolores Greenwell. Her widowed great grandmother is in the back dressed in pioneer garb almost exactly like that on which the first SCNs modeled their habit. The other persons in the pictures are her grandparents, James and Cordelia Newton Greenwell, and two of their sons.

Born Elizabeth Dolores Greenwell in 1925 to Robert Russell Greenwell and Mary Helen Hutchins Greenwell. Sister Dolores grew up in Greenbriar, Kentucky, on a 248 acres farm. The setting was spacious and beautiful. “We could see for miles,” she says. “We could see the Rohan and Balltown knobs in the distance and anticipate rain coming from them. We would run to bring in the clothes from the line or bring in the chickens for cover. On clear nights we could lie outside on the grass and watch the lovely stars. All of us had chores — getting water from the spring there on our land or wood for the fire. We used rain water, of course, but were fortunate to have access to water from the spring and well right on our very own property.”

The Greenwell family, during Depression years, had the advantage of having a large garden from which they could can fruits and vegetables to store in the cellar for cool safekeeping. They had their own livestock and a meat house, their own milk and cheese, and a brooder for chickens. “I remember the large box coming in the mail from Montgomery Ward with new little chicks,” says Sister Dolores with a smile. Mama Greenwell, whom many called “Lanie,” made the children’s clothing using feed sack material. At the store she only had to buy peanut butter and crackers for lunches, and white bread and coffee.

Dolores’ family originated in Maryland as did many of the Catholic settlers in the Holy Land of Kentucky. The family names in her heritage reflect those settlers’ names: Downs, Newton, Hutchins, and of course, Greenwell. Sister Dolores proudly remembers that her father was named for Rev. David Russell who figured significantly in the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth’s history.

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Dolores had 11 siblings. The first five were girls, all with Elizabeth as their first name. Because Dolores’ mother had lost her sister, Elizabeth “Bessie” Hutchins Bartley, at age 19 in the flu epidemic of 1918, she wanted to honor her sister in this way. (Bessie was the mother of a Sister of Charity of Nazareth, Sister Charlotte Ann Bartley. Sister Charlotte Ann as a child, after the death of her mother, found comfort and closeness when visiting the home of her Aunt Mary Helen. The Greenwell children she called, “my brothers and sisters.”)

Dolores’ brothers and sisters are a wonderful litany of children who knew a loving, strong and stable family life: Elizabeth Hester who died at two weeks, E. Lorene, E. Helen, E. Dolores, E. Valinda, Collins, Marvin, Albert Happy, Anna Lavon, Donald, and Charlotte Ann.

Dolores was the fifth child and had responsibilities for the younger six children. Later, when she left home for Nazareth, the baby, Charlotte Ann, was only four years old. Her brother Albert Happy was named for Albert “Happy” Chandler Jr., then Governor of Kentucky.

“My father made each one of us feel as if he/she was the special one in the family,” Dolores shared. She has a memory of sitting on his lap in their rocking chair, comfortable and secure. Russell Greenwell was a farmer and also worked for the State. Dolores shared that her mother said, “Your father never said an unkind word about anyone.” (What a tribute!) He was interested and involved in local politics and served as precinct captain for his area. Dolores’ mother, “Mama” to her children, was very motherly but was the disciplinarian and the accepted matriarch of the family. “It wasn’t hard to clash wills with Mama. I thought she favored the boys who were younger than me; nevertheless, I have always had a very good relationship with my brothers and sisters.”

Sister Dolores and her brothers and sisters attended a one room schoolhouse, Wimsatt Public Grade School at Greenbriar, Kentucky, about a mile from their home. The Greenwell children teased and called the cold winter road on which they walked to school, “Broadway.”

High school for Sister Dolores was with the Maple Mount Ursuline Sisters at Holy Cross, Kentucky. During this time she saw an advertisement in the Sacred Heart Messenger magazine from the Holy Ghost Sisters in Techny, Illinois. She cut out this ad because she thought of being a missionary.

One day at Mass Dolores realized that God was calling her elsewhere. She said to herself, “I want to go to Nazareth.” Her dear first cousin, Mabel/Sister Charlotte Ann Bartley, was already in the SCN Community, and that, of course, made the SCN community an attraction for her. She knew of Nazareth from their visits there. Her brothers and sisters told Sister Dolores that her mother cried for a month after she left in September, 1943.

(Very touching was reading this line from an earlier autobiography Dolores had written: “Since I could not become a priest, SCN was the next best.”)

Dolores did not find Novitiate life hard. “Maybe I should go be a Carmelite,” she thought. She believes that the well-meaning but faulty belief that there should not be close, personal friendships during Novitiate time was a drawback to the emotional growth of the young novices. Talking about one’s family was not encouraged.

It was a joy when Sister Mary Aquinas, novice director, announced that Ms. Elsie Buckman was entering the SCN Community. Elsie, later Sister Joseph David, had been Dolores’ teacher at Wimsatt Public School when she was in grades one through seven. Elsie also boarded at the Greenwell home for five years. “She taught me some prayers that have stayed with me.”

Sister Dolores received the habit of a Sister of Charity of Nazareth the next year, March 1944, and the name Sister John William. It was the name of a Father Miles whom Dolores appreciated very much. “He had helped me with my discernment into religious life and had challenged me to do something great with my life.” Sister Dolores would have been glad had she received the name Helen Robert for her parents. Nonetheless, Father Miles was pleased that she had taken his.

The dearly loved Mother Ann Sebastian was a favorite with Sister Dolores. Mother Ann knew that Sister Dolores’ father would have sent her to nursing school had she stayed at home. She did not want to remain at home because of the fear that she would lose her strong desire to be a religious. The message that stirred in Dolores over and over was, “You have not chosen me; I have chosen you.” When Mother Ann spoke of London, Ensley, and India, Sister Dolores could hardly believe that one day she would serve or visit these missions.

After first vows Sister John William/Dolores went into nurses’ training at St. Joseph Infirmary in Louisville, Kentucky, and received her R.N. status. Later she would get her B.S. in nursing from Spalding College, now University. After the R.N. training Sister Dolores’ first mission was to Our Lady of the Oaks Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. It was a challenge to be a nurse/supervisor there when she was so young. The patients needed psychiatric care and could be difficult to care for.

Sister Dolores at her Silver Jubilee

Sister Dolores at her Silver Jubilee

For many of her nursing ministry years Dolores would serve as nurse/supervisor. Besides Our Lady of the Oaks, she served at St. Joseph Infirmary in Louisville, Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., Flaget Hospital in Bardstown, Kentucky, St. Vincent Infirmary in Little Rock, Arkansas, Holy Family Hospital in Ensley, Alabama, and Our Lady of Peace in Louisville.

She remembers that during her ministry at St. Joseph Infirmary in Louisville, Dan Rice and Jim Cox, two Jesuits scholastics from West Baden, Indiana, came for their physicals prior to their departure for Patna in the Bihar District of India. Sister Dolores, and perhaps others, told them that the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth had wanted to open a mission in China but hostile situations there did not allow them to go.

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When Dan and Jim arrived in India, Rev. Marion Batson, SJ, with the encouragement of the Bishop of Patna, B.J. Sullivan, spoke to them of his hopes for a religious community who could staff a hospital so desperately needed in Mokama, India. Dan and Jim thought of the SCNs they had met and known at St. Joseph Infirmary. That was the inspiration of what became a great blessing for the SCN Community!

Many years later, in the 1990s, in India, Sister Dolores would again meet Dan — Rev. Dan Rice, SJ — who had been a missionary there for over 50 years. He was a patient at Nazareth Hospital in Mokama. He was transferred to a Patna Hospital where he died soon after. Sister Dolores is very grateful that she was able to be present for his funeral.

Sister Dolores reflects on those years in hospital ministry in this way:

“I spent 27 years in Hospital nursing, mostly in a supervisor capacity. Twenty-four of those years I worked in hospitals owned and operated by my (SCN) religious community. I served one year in an all-black mission in Ensley, Alabama. From 1961–1963 I was Nurse Supervisor at the Georgetown University Hospital (Washington, D.C.). During that time I attended Catholic University, taking a few courses in advanced nursing.”

(Dolores has every reason to be proud and grateful for her service in this healing mission of Jesus.)

After Vatican II, new awakenings came to Sister John William, who changed to her baptismal name Dolores. She asked and received approval for a 9 month sabbatical at Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario, which had been opened by Catherine de Houek Doherty. There she had spiritual direction and time and place for prayer which reinforced Dolores’ vocation call to live her life “for the sake of the Kingdom.”

She returned to Kentucky in 1972 and spent a year at Nazareth caring for the Sisters in the Infirmary at Nazareth, particularly those on the third floor who needed psychiatric care. Remembering the blessing of being at Madonna House, she hoped to find a place of quiet prayer and solitude. It came about in this way:

“Sister Mary Madeline Abdelnour took me to meet Brother Richard (now Joe Schmidlin) at Gethsemane. Through his efforts on our behalf, the Trappist monks gifted us with two mobile units for personal retreats at Nazareth. Newer editions of them are known today as Casa Maria and Vincent Cottage.”

Dolores was next missioned at St. Thomas-Vincent Home, which had been placed under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Louisville. While there, she was involved in the care of the children. “It was a time of fun and growth. I did look around for ‘poustinia,’ a place of solitude and prayer for SCNs and others. I found such a place on the top floor of the St. Thomas-Vincent gym. I was also able here to take classes at nearby Epiphany Church.”

Next Dolores decided to take a refresher course in nursing. She was then invited by Sister Margaret Dillier to join her in Ruskin, Florida, ministering to migrant workers. Dolores would need an interpreter but appreciated her nine years there. She had the responsibility for giving immunization shots to migrant children and keeping proper records. She had to certify mothers for WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) which is a supplemental food program to assist needy families. Most difficult of all, she was a triage nurse trying to determine which patients were most in need of urgent care in their clinic. With the help of a friend, Mary Sue Taylor, a former social worker, she again set up a very small house of prayer where persons could come for quiet and reflection.

A time for quiet and prayer had always been a desire for Dolores. In the 1950s she initiated a Holy Hour during her ministry at Our Lady of Peace Hospital in Louisville. What a wonderful balance for the busy life of a practicing nurse!

Other ministry calls would come to Dolores: Hospice of Big Sandy in Paintsville, Kentucky, Home Health Nurse in Floyd County, Kentucky, and then various volunteer ministries at Nazareth and Bardstown. In 1990 she had the opportunity to visit India as a part of the SCN global exchange program. She was also able later, with Sister Patricia Kelley, to travel to New York and visit the UN where they joined SCN Roselyn Karakattu, who was there sharing her ministry in India.

In 1998–1999, when the major renovation was being done at the Nazareth Motherhouse and space was at a premium, Dolores offered to move to Vincent Cottage. These months were a joy for her and a benefit for freeing up space in the Motherhouse during renovation time.

In her calm and peaceful way Dolores continues to offer her services wherever and whenever, she can. As she has for many years, Dolores keeps the SCN mission in Banakal, India, in special prayer. The Sisters there are very busy, but Dolores keeps up with the mission and its needs.

She remains devoted to her living brother and sisters — and is grateful for the blessings she has known as a daughter of the Greenwells and as a Sister of Charity of Nazareth.

Besides wonderful pictures of her family, friends and missions , Dolores shared with me some of her lovely poetry and haikus. Let me close with just one:

Ice covered nature

Heaven’s frozen tears on the world

Unifying all.

The memory that this interviewer will take away is Dolores’ reflecting on her time after Vatican II when she was the instrument in the opening of houses and times of prayer and solitude. “ I seemed to be always searching for God.” What a beautiful inspiration this is!

Written by Sister Maria Vincent Brocato, SCN August,2015

*The remarks of the interviewer are in italics.