Sisters of Charity Federation Archives

Hill, Sr. Dorothy Marie, D.C. Oral History [Excerpt]


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Name of Sister:

Sr. Dorothy Marie Hill [Excerpt]


Audio-Cassette (35-TC; #712)

Original Recording: August 26, 2003

Sister Elaine Wheeler

Transcriber and date of transcription:

Elissa Armater, December 3, 2005

Which Daughter of Charity seemed to impress you most and sort of led you into the
No one Sister had any major influence. I applied. When I finally came to the
Community, I finished college at St. John’s [University], and I don’t know why I became
a Daughter of Charity. My ambition as I was finishing college was to be a cloistered nun,
and I approached in very tentative ways both the Carmelites and the Trappestines. I
really can’t at this length of time pin down why I became a Daughter of Charity. I
remember looking at the time. There were no Sisters [referring to the Daughters] in
Brooklyn or in New York. The whole difficulties between the black caps [Sisters of
Charity of New York] and the white caps had kept them away.
I remember looking up “Daughters of Charity” in the Catholic Encyclopedia and reading
that St. Vincent’s telling them that “The Poor shall be your Office.” One of my great
ambitions was to recite the Divine Office in choir as the cloistered sisters did, which was
one of the reasons I wanted to be a cloistered nun. And that saying, which I have never
seen any place else except that article in the Catholic Encyclopedia, impressed me very
I joined the Community on September 8, 1951 as a postulant at Emmitsburg. We were
the first band that made our postulatum at Emmitsburg and there were 38 of us.
Postulatum was extremely disappointing to me. I had a very good time, but I felt as if I
was in boarding school with a whole bunch of young kids because I was a mature woman
at 21 and they were all 17 or 19!
The seminary was more satisfying. My father was in awe of the whole thing, but my
mother kept saying what a peculiar outfit this was. And she meant not just the clothing,
which she found very peculiar, but the entire outfit. Everything about it struck her as
funny or horrifying.
I received the habit in January of 1953 and went to Seton High School very soon after
that as my first mission. I spent 25 years teaching high school at Seton High School, at
Bishop England High School in Charleston, South Carolina; in Portsmouth [Virginia;
Portsmouth Catholic High School], in Syracuse [Cathedral Academy], in Petersburg
[Virginia; St. Joseph’s School], and in Emmitsburg [Maryland; St. Joseph’s High


School]. My 25 years of teaching were a delight. I enjoyed the subject matter, I enjoyed
the children, and I think I was fairly successful.
What subjects did you teach?
Mostly English and later Religion. I had other things, as we all do, but those were the
subjects I was prepared in and enjoyed teaching.
I gave you a list of places I was, and they were all high schools. Most of them, either the
Sisters aren’t teaching in the school anymore, as in Bishop England High School, or the
school is closed. When I was thinking about saying all this, I began to think about how
trendy my life has been. The closing of the schools that I attended and the schools I was
taught at is one of the big marks of the history of the Church in the United States during
these years, the 20’s through the 60’s. It certainly has affected my life but whether it has
been for the good of the Church or for its loss, we’re too close to to really come to any
well thought out conclusion, but my own history certainly does prove out.
One of the great turning points of my life came right about the time that I finished
thinking about teaching for 25 years. I went to Seton High School actually three times on
mission – my first mission and then in the 60’s again. When Vatican Council II was just
coming to an end – I think it ended in ’59?
I think it’s closer to ’62.
Sixty-two. At that time, when it was still in session, but very close to an end, I was at
Seton High School teaching English. Sister Enrica Federal was the principal, and Sister
Enrica, an innovator and very impulsive sort of person, and she decided it would be good
to institute a real religion department as an academic unit rather than as a frill, which it
was up to that time. Every Sister that had a home room taught religion, which meant that
you really had no professional religion teachers. She decided that it would be good to
make it an academic department and get a few people trained in the new trends that
would be coming with the end of Vatican II. She went around, and she asked people if
they’d like to study religion or theology. I had the sense to say yes, and three of us went.
It was very delightful experience and a soul changing, life changing experience. Three of
us from Seton High School in Baltimore went every Friday night by train. We went up to
New York City, stayed at Kennedy [Child Study] Center [where Daughters were
missioned], and on Saturday morning went up to Fordham [University] and took a course
with the Novak Brothers [Joseph and Vincent Novak], who were Jesuits who were trying
to form a Vatican II curriculum for high school religion departments. Every Saturday
morning for a semester, we went up there and listened to the Novaks.
One of the high points, one of the magnificent things that happened, one Saturday
morning, Vincent Novack brought in the New York Times for that morning, and he read
to us the unofficial translation of the Vatican document on the Liturgy. We were sitting
in the back of the classroom, because we were still were wearing the cornette, and I sat


and listened to Vince Novak and cried like a baby because it was so – it fulfilled all the
aspirations and yearnings that I had had about Liturgy and what Liturgy should mean in
our lives. That was only one of the great excitements. And sure enough through the next
couple years, the religion classes at Seton became the equal of all the other classes and
we had a religion department with a faculty and tried to form a modern Vatican II
curriculum. Those days of the Council and of the post-Councillor changes – I don’t like
to call them changes because it’s a more profound conversion than just changes – were
probably the most exciting and hopeful optimistic days of my whole life because so many
of the wishes and dreams and ideals that were hardly expressed or hardly recognized
began to become true.
Sister Cecilia Geary and I in I think it was 1964 went out to St. Louis to the liturgical
conference, and it was the first time in the United States that a congregation, an assembly,
at Mass had recited the Our Father in unison in English. With a huge stadium type
meeting hall in St. Louis, so you had thousands of people all as excited as I was about
Vatican II saying the Our Father together. Again, it was this exciting high point in
individuals’ lives and in the life of the Church.
For me, one of the big effects of all of this Liturgy and Bible study – that’s when I got
into the Bible. I went to Catholic University for a couple summers in the religious
education department and had a few Bible courses and just fell into Bible study. I didn’t
go to school enough. I would have liked to have gone more, but I was not permitted to.
But I’ve been able to follow on my own Bible study, and I must say, it has so enthralled
me that, I’m more disciplined about Bible study than about any studying that I’ve ever
done in my whole life.
One of the effects of all this was that I came to the conclusion that I should not teach in
high school any more because the service of the poor became more and more important
and primary in my life. High school became more and more expensive so that the service
of the economically poor was almost impossible. That’s when I decided that I would try
change my ministry. I was lucky enough to come to the Northeastern Province where
Sister Mary Basil [Roarke] at the time was the Provincial. She looked very kindly on
those sorts of aspirations. So without too much ceremony, I was able to go to St. Mary’s
Parish in Troy [New York] to become a Parish Associate.
I went to St. Mary’s – I forget the year [1973-74 school year] – but it was the year St.
Mary’s School closed, which was extremely traumatic on everybody because St. Mary’s
for the Community was such an old mission. Sisters had been teaching there for 150
years or something since 1848. That hundred and more years had become so traditional,
and for the Parish, the institution of the school was one of their great prides. They gave it
up not just with reluctance but with hostility. That year in which the school closed was
very traumatic, but it was a very happy year for me, because we had priests in the parish
at the time who were very anxious to form a team ministry and to share ministry not just
among themselves but with the whole Parish. We formed a team ministry of priests and
sisters and lay people, seven people all together. I remained at St. Mary’s for six years.
It was, for me, a very happy experience.


Because of the freedom of that team ministry and the members of the team, I was able to
minister in very untraditional ways. We did the traditional things. One of the joys was
that I taught the First Communion class. I became sort of a a paralegal, an advocate for
people on welfare, food stamps, SSI – Social Security – what have you, to help them
negotiate those systems. These were the poorest of the poor, and Troy was rich in poor
people. Again, it was a turning point in my life to discover the poor and to discover the
joy. St. Vincent said, “The poor are my burden and my sorrow,” and I found that to be
true, but I also found it to be true that the poor were my joy and my delight.
As that period of my life ended, I was missioned to Boston to Laboure Center in South
Boston. I was supposed to work there, but somehow I just didn’t fit in. I didn’t fit into
South Boston, and I didn’t fit in very well to the work of Laboure Center. Just by
accident, truly – I’m sure not accident, but providence, but it seemed very casual at the
time – I met a group of people who were interested in serving the homeless, and we
became friends, and eventually just very sweetly it worked out that we started a shelter
for homeless families, the fist shelter for homeless families in Boston. Sister Adele
Waters was part of the circle, and the other four founders were a Jesuit priest and three
young graduate school students all in their twenties, very wise, very charming young
people [According to the National Jesuit News, the three other founders were Father
Andrew Sedensky, S.J., Patti Muldoon, and Mike Whelan].
By guess and by gosh, we managed to find the money to find a building, a parish rectory
in Roxbury in Boston and to start Sojourner House. S-O-U-J-O-U-R-N-E-R, Sojourner.
It was named for Sojourner Truth, one of the great heroines of the abolition movement
and of Women’s Rights in 19th Century America. It was also named in honor of the
Biblical concept of the Sojourner. In the Book of Deuteronomy, it speaks of the
Sojourner in your midst that Israel must always look out for the Sojourner and take care
of the Sojourner and not oppress the Sojourner even though that Sojourner is far from
being an Israelite.
That again was another high point in my life because we were penetrating further into the
depths of poverty and into the depths of the wealth of the poor and the straights to which
poverty can drive people.
We finally, I think it was the fourth year of operation, when we realized we had a budget
of $150,000. Up to that point, we had a few small grants, but mostly it was free will
donations. I might mention here that both the Jesuits and Daughters of Charity gave the
services of their members free. The Daughters of Charity never demanded any kind of
salary or compensation and neither did the Jesuits for the work of the Jesuit priests.
I spent six years working without a salary at Sojourner House. Actually, I asked to be
missioned, because I knew if I stayed there much longer I wouldn’t be able to leave.
What kind of people came to Sojourner House?


Homeless families. Generally women and children. The husbands and fathers were
either non-existent or were very shy about coming to live in a family shelter. So in
general, it was women and their children who came. We did have a couple of fathers in
the course of the years. These were people who were... At the time, the homeless
problem in Boston was growing by leaps and bounds. The rental housing was becoming
exorbitantly expensive. There was a great deal of gentrification of parts of Boston that
had been low income. The rate of vacancy in rental housing was estimated at one
percent, which meant that actually there wasn’t any. So that there were many, many
families who were either doubled up with relatives or friends in horrible circumstances or
actually living on the streets.
We had one very beautiful young woman who came to us who was unmarried and had a
child about 18 months old when she came to our house. When I asked her how long she
had been homeless, she told us she had been homeless since she left the hospital with the
baby. I said, “What did you do with a newborn baby and no place to go?” She said, “Oh,
I left her here and there.”
We had another woman who had two small children who was in somewhat the same
straights. She used to leave her children at McDonald’s. She would go in and buy food
and then leave them there and go about whatever business she had. One of the problems
with being homeless is that, at the time, it was very hard for people to get welfare if they
were homeless because the welfare system in its wisdom wouldn’t give them rent money
because they were homeless and therefore they didn’t have to pay rent! So they ended up
with literally nothing. To negotiate the ins and outs of welfare is a full-time job. These
were the sorts of people that were referred to us. What happened was that we came to
know the workers in the welfare department, and they would refer people to us that they
were not able to help. So it was the lowest aspect of the welfare system were the people
who were referred to us, and they were treated in exactly that way, as the lowest kind of
human being.
Sojourner House was a residential shelter in that we stayed open all the time. Nobody
had to leave at 8 o’clock in the morning or anything like that because they were children,
or the vast majority. We could only accommodate only six families at a time. We had
part of a very old large old rectory, St. Joseph’s in Roxbury. People had all their meals
there. When we finally managed to help them to get on welfare, they would give us a
portion of their welfare money, which we banked for them so that they would have some
kind of seed money when they were finally able to find a place to live. Our hope was that
people would stay about three months, but it ended up that they had to stay six months or
more because of the shortage of rental housing.
I went from Sojourner House in Boston to Syracuse and really didn’t find a niche in
Syracuse either. I lived in Syracuse and commuted to Cortland [New York], which is
about 25 miles south of Syracuse and worked in a soup kitchen. I was part-time for the
soup kitten and part-time for Catholic Charities food pantry. That was satisfying, but it
was sort of a comedown from Sojourner House because it wasn’t as – nothing was as
acute as the homelessness that gave rise to Sojourner House.


Is Sojourner House still functioning?
Sojourner House is still functioning. There are no Sisters or priests involved in the
administration any more. It’s become totally lay. It’s independent. We incorporated, so
it’s Sojourner House, Inc., and it’s independent. As far as I know it’s still functioning. I
haven’t had any contact there in three or four years.
I stayed at Cortland for about six years. The soup kitchen was in the Episcopalian
Church in Cortland and I was fortunate enough to become very good friends with the
rector of the Church and his wife [The soup kitchen was called “Loaves and Fishes.” It
was located at “Grace & Holy Spirit Episcopal Church.” The rector of the church was
Rev. William James Greer II]. They were very, very dear people. One of the high points
of my stay in Cortland was that we formed an ecumenical prayer group. There was a
Lutheran minister, a bachelor, and myself, and for a while one of the priests of St. Mary’s
Parish in Cortland, and a few other people. We tried to meet once a month for an hour’s
prayer session, which was very delightful because we all came from such different
prospectives and were able to pray together and talk together in very intimate ways.


Dublin Core


Hill, Sr. Dorothy Marie, D.C. Oral History [Excerpt]


Hill, Sr. Dorothy Marie, D.C.; Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul; Church and social problems--Catholic Church--History--20th century; Homelessness--Religious aspects


Sister Dorothy Marie Hill describes the changes that took place in the Catholic Chuch and the Daughters of Charity after the Second Vatican Council and her work combatting houselessness in South Boston.


Hill, Sr. Dorothy Marie, D.C.; Wheeler, Sr. Elaine, D.C.


Daughters of Charity Archives, Province of St. Louise, Emmitsburg, MD




Armater, Elissa (Transcriber); Keefer, Scott (editor)


Permission for any type of publication of archival materials, including text, photographs, video, or audio must be secured from the Daughters of Charity Communications Director before publication.ÿ Contact archvies staff for appropriate forms and contact information


Audio/mp3; Application/pdf




Oral History


Hill, Sister Dorothy Marie Oral History



Oral History Item Type Metadata


Wheeler, Sister Elaine, D.C.


Hill, Sister Dorothy Marie, D.C.

Original Format





Hill, Sr. Dorothy Marie, D.C.; Wheeler, Sr. Elaine, D.C. , “Hill, Sr. Dorothy Marie, D.C. Oral History [Excerpt],” Sisters of Charity Federation Archives, accessed July 14, 2024,


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