by Therese Horvat
Special to The Leaven
LEAVENWORTH — As a child — the fourth of 13 in her family — Sister Marie Carmel Dunning, SCL, rode atop a horse with several siblings to travel the nine miles to Sunday Mass in rural Montana.
As a young woman, she taught in one- and two-room schools and spent summers cooking on a dude ranch.
As a Sister of Charity of Leavenworth, she touched many lives through her ministries in education and health care, and with her poetry.
As she approaches her 100th birthday on June 12, Sister Marie Carmel says that she never resented the idea of getting old.
“Because of that, I was always happy,” she said. “I felt that, as a religious, I was assured of a life with people who think as I do about religion.”
Early lines in Sister’s autobiographic poem capsulize her story:
“Called by God
Called to new life
Called to new service
But never to forget
Her roots . . .”
Sister Marie Carmel has never forgotten her origins because they shaped the person she became. She is a poet who began writing as soon as she held a pencil in hand. Even before that, she composed poems in her head.
She is familiar with hard work; she kept house for multiple families to earn money for college. Hers is an adventurous spirit that grew up on a ranch with horses.
In her late 60s, Sister served as chaplain of the medical corps that accompanied the Great Montana Centennial Cattle Drive on its 60-mile trek. She chose to travel by wagon — but only because she didn’t want to be responsible for a horse she didn’t own.
As a child, Sister Marie Carmel attended summer vacation school taught by Ursuline and Franciscan Sisters. Returning home after the sessions, the children “played” school: the younger ones playing the students; the older girls, the Sisters.
Before she met the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Sister Marie Carmel knew about their origins from reading the biographies of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac to whom the religious community traces its roots. From these formative years, it was the Sisters that Sister Marie Carmel grew to love.
At age 30, the young woman applied to enter the SCL community. Over the past 70 years, her ministries have included teaching in elementary and high schools in Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Montana and Nebraska. In the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, Sister Marie Carmel taught at the former St. Rose of Lima School in Kansas City, Kansas, and at Hayden High School, Topeka.
She next helped develop volunteers for the home health program at De Paul Hospital in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Upon completion of clinical pastoral education, she worked in pastoral care at St. Francis Hospital, Topeka, and St. Vincent Hospital, Billings, Montana.
In her retirement, Sister Marie Carmel busied herself with writing poetry, corresponding, and doing outreach and prayer with women in the Kansas City area. She moved to the SCL motherhouse in 2003.
Sister Marie Carmel reflects on her retirement in her autobiographic poem,
“I ache to be of real
But God’s ways are
Not my ways
Nor His time, my time.”
Even at 100 years, she said she still doesn’t know what God has prepared for her.
She admits that she can’t read the way she used to and that she has difficulties with her hearing. But she says she is happy to still have her own teeth!
The centenarian said she hopes to write “something memorable to mark her 100 years,” and likes the idea that someone might enjoy her expression of what she is thinking and feeling.