by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Denise Dressler remembers many years ago riding horses through the streets of Sacred Heart Parish in Kansas City, Kansas, with her best friend Bridget Dickason riding double behind her.
“I only had one horse at the time,” she recalled. “And Bridget always had to ride on the back — rain, sleet, snow.
“We rode that horse all over these streets.
“I remember riding down Shawnee Drive with a blanket over us because we were so cold.”
Decades later, the two are together again. But Dickason is now a Benedictine Sister. And instead of a horse, they’re traveling the streets of Wyandotte County in a truck — collecting donated furniture and appliances and delivering them to those in need.
They’re joined in their efforts by Sister Bridget’s sister, Connie Johnson, and friend Kristie Pawlowski.
“We joke and call ourselves ‘Three women, a nun, and a truck,’” said Pawlowski.
Sister Bridget, the nun in the equation, is the force behind the charitable effort.
A former educator, now associate director of the Keeler Women’s Center in Kansas City, Kansas, and furniture mover on the side, Sister Bridget sums up her life in one sentence.
“I taught the Gospel for 25 years,” she said. “Now I’m living it.”
Called to educate
As a young girl, Sister Bridget went to Benedictine College in Atchison with the goal of becoming a teacher.
To help pay for school, she worked at the convent at Mount St. Scholastica, washing dishes. And through the process, she cultivated a budding interest in religious life.
“I just got to know the Sisters better working with them,” she said. “And I had this feeling that wouldn’t go away.
“So my senior year I made a convent live-in.”
After graduating from college, she left Atchison to teach English at Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kansas.
“But I would go back to the convent to visit,” she said. “So I just decided to enter.
“And here it is 28 years later.”
Sister Bridget has done a lot in those 28 years. She taught English and religion at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park and Mount St. Scholastica Academy in Atchison, getting her master’s in theology along the way.
She also obtained a master’s in school administration and was principal at the academy when it merged with Maur Hill, continuing in that position at Maur Hill-Mount Academy for three years.
Her last teaching assignment was at Bishop LeBlond High School in St. Joseph, Missouri.
“Then the prioress asked me if I would consider working at Keeler,” she said. “After being in education for 25 years, I was up for a change.”
Accepting the position at Keeler Women’s Center brought Sister Bridget back to live in the convent of her home parish.
And across the street from her childhood friend, Dressler.
Called to serve
Sister Bridget enthusiastically embraced the mission of the center to empower women in the urban core through education, advocacy and spiritual and health development.
To further that goal, she completed her certification as a spiritual director through the Souljourners program at Sophia Center in Atchison.
“It’s very Spirit-driven here,” she said of the Keeler Women’s Center. “I felt that way teaching also, but when you teach, you plant seeds.
“Here, you can see the women as they change.”
Independent of her duties at Keeler, Sister Bridget has her furniture “business” to which she donates much of her spare time.
“The whole furniture thing started because somebody called and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got some furniture. Do you know anybody who needs it?’” she explained. “And not an hour later, somebody called and said, ‘Hey, I need some furniture.’
“So I just kind of hooked people up.
“And then, I kind of slowly took over the basement of the convent.”
Indeed, Sister Bridget has the small basement divided into areas for kitchen, bedding and furniture items, so people can come and pick out what they want.
She has never advertised or asked for donations; things just seem to show up in times of need.
And people in need seem to show up, too, by word-of-mouth. Often, they are women who have recently been released from jail and are getting their lives back together.
“I just figure it’s a real Spirit-driven thing,” she said.
The only payment she asks is that those who receive donations pray for those who give.
“She called me once and asked if there was any way I could help her move some furniture,” recalled Dressler. “I told her absolutely.
“We went to one lady’s house and picked up beautiful furniture. She told me,
‘We’re going to go on the other side of town now to deliver this furniture.’”
Dressler was touched by the experience.
“When we got there,” she said, “I felt so bad because the people were sleeping on the floor.
“To go there and supply all their needs . . . it really is good for your soul to know that you’ve helped someone.”
Pawlowski had a similar experience.
“Because I happen to have a truck,” she said, “[Sister Bridget] asked if I would mind helping her move some furniture — just one time.
“I said sure, and it just kind of grew from there.
“I’ve done it for three years now.”
Pawlowski is rewarded by the generosity and gratitude she sees.
“There are very generous people out there,” she said. “And the last time we delivered a sofa — the people were just ecstatic.
“They were so excited and happy.”
Sister Bridget is grateful to Rockhurst High School students in Kansas City, Missouri, who sometimes help with heavy lifting.
But most often, it’s just the three women, a nun, and a truck to do the job.
“I have Denise, Kristie and my sister, who also has a truck,” she said. “I rotate through those three.
“I tell them they get to do their community service through me.”
The sun nun
The reason people are so willing to help Sister Bridget out may be found in her nickname. She’s often called “the sun nun” because of the way she exudes life.
And even though being her friend means you may get called on at any moment for hard labor, people want to be near her, so she can shine on them.
“She’s just got a glow about her,” said Dressler. “I don’t know what it is, but her smile and everything — it’s infectious.”
“She’s just a wonderful person,” said Pawlowski. “It’s not easy [hauling furniture], especially for women our age.
“But she makes it fun.”
Balancing work with fun is important to Sister Bridget. She loves a good game of pool, darts, Frisbee or softball. But her favorite form of fun is fishing.
“Absolutely,” said Dressler. “We are die-hard competitive fishermen.”
Sister Bridget tries to go fishing at least once a month because, she claims, it gives her permission to do nothing.
“I can sit back and enjoy nature,” she said. “I can feel the breeze and the sun, enjoy the water.
“And if I catch fish, it’s a bonus.”
“We have a thing,” said Dressler. “Whoever catches the first fish has to kind of wait on the other one for the rest of the day.”
And Dressler never minds when Sister Bridget wins the bet. She is an easy person to serve.
“I think she’s a saint,” said Dressler, “all the good she does for everybody. I think it’s great that she continues on helping people.
“And I’m so proud to be a part of that.”
As for Sister Bridget, her life’s philosophy is very simple.
“Do the next right thing,” she says. “That’s my mantra.
“Just do the next right thing.”