Last Benedictine nun assigned to Sts. Peter and Paul retires
by Katie Hyde
Special to The Leaven
SENECA — There have been Benedictine Sisters here since before Dodge City hired Wyatt Earp.
On June 26, Sister Delores Dolezal, the 255th and last Benedictine Sister assigned to Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Seneca retired, thus ending 135 years of ties between this rural community and the Benedictine Sisters.
Parishioners, community members, Benedictines and others who had taught at the school crowded into the church that day for a Mass celebrating nearly a century and a half of dedication to the community of almost 2,000 people.
The shared history of Seneca and the Benedictine Sisters began in August of 1869, when the order branched out from its motherhouse in Atchison to establish its first mission in Seneca.
“God directed [the settlers of Seneca] to Kansas and gave [them] the strength to stay put,” said Abbot Barnabas Senecal, who celebrated the Mass, during his homily. “There was little in the way of manna from heaven, but [they] had many blessings. The Benedictine Sisters were one of those blessings.”
After establishing their mission, four Benedictine Sisters began working at Sts. Peter and Paul Grade School in 1876, six years after the school had opened.
Especially after adding Seneca Catholic High School in 1920, the number of Sisters steadily grew. When the high school closed in 1974, however, only five Sisters were left.
Now there are none.
A changed community
Generations of Senecans have been changed by the influence of the Sisters — by their mission and dedication to prayer.
“This community has grown up with Benedictine Sisters,” said Sister Mary Ellen, who worked at the church in pastoral ministry. “Even the county has. There are Sisters all over Nemaha [County].”
Their influence can be seen especially in the townspeople, many of whom attended Sts. Peter and Paul School and remember the nuns that taught them there.
One such member of Seneca is Mary Ann Haugsness, who remembers every Sister who taught her in elementary school.
She remembers Sister Wenceslas, who would let students change the clothing on her statue of the Infant of Prague if they were good. She remembers Sister Immaculatta, who told everyone, “Stand tall and be proud.” She remembers Sister Georgia, who taught her eighth-grade class a lesson in Christian modesty and forbade the girls from wearing cancans beneath their skirts.
“You don’t forget those people,” Haugsness said. “They leave a lasting impression on you. A good impression.”
The ties between Seneca and the Benedictine Sisters are also clearly displayed in the 12 native Senecans who became Benedictines themselves.
But though the Benedictine Sisters may leave Seneca, parishioners and the Sisters alike agree that their influence will never be forgotten.
“They’ll stay here in the parents and in the grandparents,” Haugsness said.
Father Michael Koller, former pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul, also is hopeful that the mission and the love of the Sisters will remain in the community.
“[The Sisters] have been a tremendous asset to community, parish and school,” he said. “And they will be deeply missed.”
A servant of God
The church was crowded for the 9 a.m. Mass on June 26. There were nuns and Knights, families and friends gathered to honor Sister Delores Dolezal and all the other Benedictine Sisters who had served Seneca for these past 135 years.
When the congregation was asked, “How many of you have either been taught [by] or have a relative who has had Sister Delores Dolezal as a teacher?” nearly the entire congregation raised their hands. What started as a soft chuckle rippling through the crowd quickly turned into thunderous applause.
Sister Delores, who had taught first grade at the school for 24 years, celebrated her 50th year of monastic life last year.
“I’m just honored to be the last [Benedictine at Sts. Peter and Paul],” Sister Delores said. “Just to be part of the heritage is so amazing — to say ‘I, too, have been part of the history.’”
Sister Anne Shepard, prioress of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, who lauded Sister Delores at the ceremony for her golden anniversary of monastic life, was amazed at the creativity and love for Jesus apparent in the educator’s classroom.
“Delores’ room is full of life,” Sister Anne said. “You have to look hard to find the kids, because they are working and learning.”
Sister Delores, who grew up near Omaha, Neb., also engendered a love of nature in her students. She was a major influence in the creation of Sts. Peter and Paul’s nature center where an old parking lot used to stand.
“Children need to experience nature, they really do,” Sister Delores enthused. “There’s something about being outside, looking at ants or following rabbit tracks in the snow. All creation is waiting for Christ to come.”
Before she moves back to Atchison — hopefully to become a master gardener, tutor children, and take painting, sculpture, calligraphy and horticulture classes — Sister Delores had a message for the community of Seneca.
“First, I want to say thank you to the people of Seneca,” she said. “Thank you for allowing me to be a part of their life and their children’s.
“Second, I want them to forgive me. I am human and I have made mistakes. I want to apologize if I have hurt anybody.
“Third, I do love them all so much. They’re just good people.”