Sisters’ Words of Wisdom: Sister Mary Lou Dummer, OSB

What could be better than celebrating gratitude? I love that America has a holiday dedicated to thankfulness. As we Minnesotans enter the dark days, below-zero temperatures and ice and snow of winter, it’s especially heartening for us to embrace gratitude.

Something I’m thankful for was the opportunity to visit with Sister Mary Lou Dummer last November. We had several delightful discussions during which Sister Mary Lou spoke about and with gratitude.

About choosing a vowed religious vocation, Sister Mary Lou said that “I had no idea what was ahead of me. It turned out that I had chosen a life blooming with possibilities and full of surprises!” When you meet Sister Mary Lou, it is clear that the joy of the Lord and deep gratitude are the result of this choice.

“We were a family of deep faith and our life revolved around the farm, the Church, and school. That’s what held us together. It was a nurturing life and we had such a happy childhood.

“My story begins on a farm four and a half miles West of Bird Island (Minnesota), just as the New Ulm Diocese was forming. My mother and father, Ed and Gertie (Gertrude) Dummer, had a 160-acre crop and livestock farm and my seven brothers, sister and I were the ‘hired help.’

Sister Mary Lou with one of her seven brothers, Eddie, in 2017

“I was the first girl born after five boys, and we were told that my mother and the doctor danced with joy upon my arrival. With seven brothers, I was a ‘tomboy’ playing sports and working side by side with them. We got a solid work ethic from our parents, especially our father, which I have been grateful for my entire life. Along with our work ethic, like all farm kids, my siblings and I learned to accept responsibility and take initiative.

“Our home was a gathering place for neighboring farm kids. We played basketball and baseball and swam in a quarry nearby. One vivid memory is that we had one bicycle, which was a lesson in sharing; and, believe me, that bicycle was in constant circulation! Whether it was work or play, though, we had a lot of fun.

“From first through twelfth grade, I attended St. Mary’s Catholic School in Bird Island. I would often stay in town with one of my grandmas who loved the Sisters there and talked about them a lot. In my junior and senior years of high school, I began to hear God’s call.”

The summer after high school, Sister Mary Lou got a job babysitting for her Aunt Ginny and Uncle Walt Stadelman who lived in Richfield (Minnesota). “My Uncle Walt loved the Benedictines, and he took me to visit St. Paul’s Priory that summer.

First profession: June 1957, Mary Lou Dummer (at left) and Mary Lorraine Hagen (Sister Paula) prepared to become Sister Stephen and Sister Paula. Sister Mary Lou’s dress was borrowed from her sister-in-law. “I was maid of honor at the wedding, and the dress fit me perfectly.”

“When I entered the doors of 301 Summit Avenue, it felt like I’d come home. The Sisters were so friendly and welcoming. They spoke with such joy about the beauty and kinship of praying together as a Community and their ministries, and I made up my mind to join them. When next I entered the Priory doors in September 1956, I did so as a postulate.”

Pursuing the training to begin her ministry, Sister Mary Lou (or, until Vatican II, Sister Stephen) graduated in 1963 with a B.A. in elementary education from St. Catherine’s College. In addition, she said that “We also had classes at the Priory. We of course studied the Rule of Benedict with our various formation directors, Monastic Community Living with Sister Rose Alice (Althoff), Latin with Sister Luanne (Meagher), and history with Sister Claire (Lynch).”

For 19 years after completing her degree, Sister Mary Lou taught youth and worked in administration at various parish schools, beginning with teaching 3rd grade at St. Bernard’s in St. Paul. In 1969, Sister Mary Lou got a call from her Prioress, Sister Rose Alice Althoff. The St. Philip’s Parish School in Litchfield, Minnesota, needed a principle, and Sister Rose Alice wanted to assign Sister Mary Lou.

“I was pretty scared about taking this step, and I didn’t want to do it. But Sister Rose Alice said: ‘I will not accept your “no” until you at least make an attempt to fulfill this ministry.’”

The “no” never came.

As a novice from June 1957—11 July 1958, Sister Mary Lou wore a white veil. After her July 11th profession, she became Sister Stephen Dummer and donned a black veil.

“I spent nine years as principle at St. Philip’s. My Pastor there, Father Myles McGowan, encouraged me to also become involved with music and liturgy, which then led to me furthering my education. In 1986, I completed my master’s in Theology at St. John’s in Collegeville (Minnesota), after which I served as Director of Liturgy and Music at various parishes for 27 years.”

Along with other roles in the Community, Sister Mary Lou served three times as Subprioress. From 1980-84 with Prioress Sister Duane (Moes); from 1996-2000 with Prioress Sister Marie (Fujan); and 2014-19 with Prioress Sister Paula (Hagen). Since 2013, Sister Mary Lou has served as Director of the Monastery’s Oblate Program.

“After I stepped down as Subprioress in 2019, for the first time since I entered our Community in 1956, I only have one job (as Oblate Program Director)! And you know we Sisters don’t ever really retire, we just get re-hired.

“In this life, I have been called to fulfill many roles and tasks. Of all the hats I’ve worn, the difficult moments, challenges and sacrifices, I don’t think I could have done any of these things without someone who came along to guide and encourage me.

Sister Mary Lou has served as the Monastery’s Oblate Program Director since 2013.

“I consider them my angels and, because of these angels, I discovered talents and abilities I never thought I had or could do! I encourage others to look for your angels who encourage and challenge you and raise you up. We find God in the most surprising places and ways, always trusting that we are in God’s care. So look for those who will empower and encourage you to say: Here am I, Lord, send me.

“My goal now is to stay true to and be open to what I can do and how I can serve. One lesson I have learned belonging to this Community, is to look for gratitude wherever and however it can be found. When you look for and cherish the good in whomever and wherever it may be, that is its own reward.

“This pandemic has slowed me down and quieted my mind to allow me to become less of a ‘do-er’ and much more a listener and aware of God in my life. It has deepened my private prayer time. Each morning, I make an intention of being aware of God’s presence throughout the day. It makes a big difference and, at day’s end, I pray: Thank you, God, for your faithful and steadfast presence throughout this day and in my life. Amen.”