Sister Mary Ellen Dow
November 28, 1948 –October 4, 2017
We seek to follow the way of simplicity, obedience and charity, which was characteristic of Julie and our first sisters, a way marked by joy and confidence, by contemplative prayer and action, and by perseverance in the face of difficulties. (Article 11, Constitutions and Directory of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur)
Born to parents of English, Scottish and Irish descent and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Mary Ellen Dow was especially close to her maternal grandmother and step-grandfather. Mary Ellen’s parents divorced when she was in the seventh grade, and Mary Ellen, her mother and her sister moved into her grandparents’ home on North Laramie Avenue. Mrs. Dow worked as a secretary, while Grandma Helen took care of the housekeeping. Grandpa Hank, who had never had daughters of his own, thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Mary Ellen and Cathy. He would take Mary Ellen on long walks in the Chicago Nature Preserve, nurturing her sense of awe and wonder and her deep love for all of God’s creation. Hank also took Mary Ellen to ball games and taught her how to fish. Fishing trips with the family continued into the next generation and memories of family fun during those trips were among Mary Ellen’s most treasured.
Mary Ellen first met the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur as a student at St. Peter Canisius Parish School, and continued to get to know the Sisters when she went on to Notre Dame High School. An active member of the Sodality, Mary Ellen was inspired by the Sisters and their lifestyle, but her call to religious life was more than that. In 1976 she wrote:
But more importantly than my attraction for the lifestyle of some religious women that I knew was a growing realization that the Lord was asking something special of me. During my junior and senior years in high school particularly, I felt the Lord inviting me to love Him, to give myself to Him in a unique way… I desired to offer all of me, all of my love to the person who had become the focus of my life. I hoped to love God, not through loving a husband and a family, caring for them and their needs primarily, but through a growing knowledge and love of His Son, Jesus Christ.
Mary Ellen entered the community in September of 1966, less than a year after the Second Vatican Council published its decree on the renewal of religious life. That meant Mary Ellen was part of the first group of postulants not to wear the traditional postulants’ garb and habit. She did not take another name, she made promises instead of first vows, and change was the norm from the moment she joined the community. However, like almost every Sister who had gone before her, Mary Ellen began her work with God’s people as a classroom teacher. At St. Robert Bellarmine Parish School in Chicago, Mary Ellen was part of an unstructured primary department for four years before being asked to serve as Vocation Director for the Ohio Province.
As Vocation Director, Mary Ellen traveled the Province, collaborating with her peers of other communities to offer retreats for young people discerning their vocations, workshops on Church Ministry for high school and college students and on vocational discernment for young adults. Mary Ellen gave presentations about the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and religious life in schools and parishes to which she was invited. She also worked with women individually as they discerned their call to Notre Dame - meeting with them, matching them with mentors, walking them through the entrance process and creating formation plans for their pre-novitiate experience.
With six other SNDdeNs, Mary Ellen opened Bethany House in the South Fairmont neighborhood of Cincinnati as a “welcoming community.” It was a place women could come and live short-term. By meeting, talking and living with the Sisters who were engaged in a variety of ministries, women would gain first-hand experience of contemporary religious life. As Mary Ellen put it, they would see “women who find life in community living, who feel that shared prayer and faith in Jesus Christ is essential to our ministry, that what we are doing we could not be doing on our own.” Mary Ellen also started the “Summer in the City” program - a month-long experience of living and ministering with the Sisters in an environment of community support and prayer. The program was designed to help participants learn something about themselves and about the Sisters. It eventually became “Service in the City.”
After her term as Vocation Director finished, Mary Ellen returned to full-time teaching. This time she was assigned to Chaminade-Julienne: an inner-city co-ed high school in Dayton, Ohio. There she taught morality and social justice classes to high school juniors, helped coordinate student and faculty retreats, helped plan all school liturgies and prayer services, and added her skill with the guitar to liturgical celebrations. An excellent teacher, Mary Ellen kept firm yet gentle discipline in the classroom while managing to engage the students’ hearts as well as their minds in the subject matter. Her classes required that the students both research the causes of injustice and get involved in service to people trapped in poverty. After five years at Chaminade-Julienne, Mary Ellen was missioned to the Religion Department of her Alma Mater - Notre Dame High School in Chicago. At NDHS Mary Ellen continued using her gifts to help her students both open their minds and hearts to the gift of faith and to grow in their faith through service to others.
In the late 1980’s, the Ohio Province once again asked Mary Ellen to lend her gifts to recruitment and formation of new members. This time her work was based in Chicago and her primary responsibilities were working with the novices and Sisters in temporary profession. Mary Ellen collaborated with formators of other religious congregations and with SNDdeN formators from around the country and around the world. She was chosen by her peers to attend an international formation meeting in Nigeria and a mid-chapter meeting in South Africa. Those experiences awakened in her the desire to serve in Africa. As late as 2008, she wrote about both her willingness to serve and her doubts about her ability to serve because of the severity of her diabetes. While she was never missioned to Africa, our Sisters and their ministries there were always in Mary Ellen’s prayers.
The next stage of Mary Ellen’s life involved many of the same skills that had served her well in the classroom. Recruitment and formation work made her an excellent campus minister at Bridgewater State College, Merrimack College and Trinity Washington University. Her work at Bridgewater included walking with individual students on their faith journey, preparing and delivering regular homilies and reflections, preparing and giving talks on various religious topics, preparing students to receive the sacraments and even raising funds to keep the campus ministry program going. Her supervisors noted Mary Ellen’s genuine care and concern for and sensitivity to the needs of the students, her welcoming presence, her ability to collaborate with other members of the campus ministry team, her willingness to address controversial issues and her generosity in supporting students through attendance at extracurricular activities. At Merrimack College Mary Ellen was given the responsibility of directing the Office of Campus Ministry and with her team she engaged students in a multitude of activities to enhance their spiritual growth. The students at Merrimack voted her the most supportive administrator on campus. At Trinity Washington University Mary Ellen quickly became a valuable member of the administration as she developed programs to help Catholic students deepen and celebrate their faith while also creating a respectful and welcoming atmosphere for the students from other faith traditions.
At all three institutions Mary Ellen organized and accompanied students on service-learning trips to other parts of the United States and abroad. Often the trips extended her own volunteer work with the homeless and Habitat for Humanity. Mary Ellen had started volunteering with the homeless while in Chicago and continued outreach to the homeless during her years in Massachusetts and Washington, D. C. Because prayer rooted her in her service to her brothers and sisters in need, Mary Ellen included an element of prayer in the service trips she planned. She said, “Every evening when we are doing this work, we kind of put everything in the hands of God. We do the service, live in community and try to process why we're doing what we're doing as Christians." In 2016 Mary Ellen described what it was about campus ministry she found so fulfilling: “… to see the light in the eyes of young adults as they found within themselves the God or spirituality they had been searching for! I also feel tremendous elation when they receive a degree that will open doors to life and make a difference for others…that is God’s goodness revealed!”
In community, Mary Ellen related well with Sisters of all ages. She valued simple, honest conversation, faith-sharing and sharing of life with one another. Mary Ellen communicated at home, as well as in her ministries, with a reverence and humbleness that drew everyone in. Mary Ellen approached life with joy, confidence, openness, grace and humility. She was compassionate when the situation called for it and firm when needed as well. Mary Ellen loved good music and good movies, and especially loved sharing both with friends. An excellent listener and a great conversationalist, she laughed easily, and could say as much with her eyes as with her words. Mary Ellen treasured her experience of the Julie Renewal program at the SNDdeN Mother House in Namur, Belgium. She also treasured her pilgrimage to Italy and her visit to Ireland where she connected with extended family. Mary Ellen loved nature and animals. Her Sisters teased her about the birds she kept as pets and her love of dogs and cats. Mary Ellen was in heaven when the community where she lived had a dog, and her special companion while she was in Washington was her beloved cat, Murphy. She readily shared the tasks of community living, was active on community committees at local, regional and national levels and served on the Ohio Unit Assembly. While in New England, she appreciated the opportunity to share life and develop friendships with so many Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in that area.
Mary Ellen had close relationships with her mother and sister, Cathy, and her nephew, Brett. Part of the attraction of living and working in Chicago and New England was the opportunity to spend quality time with family. When she moved to Washington, D. C., and then to Cincinnati, Mary Ellen kept in touch with Cathy via regular phone calls and through texting. She was so grateful she was able to spend extra time in Florida with Cathy in 2016, and for Cathy and Brett’s visits to Cincinnati. Mary Ellen was only in her second year of ministry at Trinity Washington University when the symptoms of her final illness began to appear. She had to give up the ministry she loved as her physical mobility and speech became more and more restricted. Her illness slowly took away Mary Ellen’s ability to verbally share faith and life with those around her. But the illness could not take away her love and concern for her family, friends, Sisters, co-workers and the world beyond.
When asked what her special interests were Mary Ellen responded: “being a friend.” The same survey asked what her favorite thing to do was, and she responded: “be with a friend.” As we gather to celebrate Mary Ellen’s life, we thank our good God for all the ways Mary Ellen has been Sister and friend to us, for all the ways she has incarnated God’s goodness for us. We take comfort in her release from suffering and in her continued prayers for all of us as we hear her say, with Saint Julie, “I meet you every day in the Lord. You can count on my heart's being closely united with you all.” (St. Julie Billiart, Letter 323)
Born November 28, 1948 in Chicago, Illinois
Parents: Robert Phillip Dow (born in Brooklyn, New York) and Dorothy Marie Hamrock (born in Chicago, Illinois)
Sister: Cathy Dow-Royer
Baptized December 12, 1948 at St. Genevieve Church, Chicago, Illinois
Confirmed November 1, 1959 at St. Peter Canisius
Entered September 8, 1966 at Mt. Notre Dame
First Profession: August 20, 1969
Final Profession: August 20, 1972
St. Peter Canisius, Chicago, Illinois, 1962
Notre Dame High School, Chicago, Illinois, 1966
Bachelor of Science in Education, University of Dayton, 1971
Master of Arts in Theology, Fordham University, New York, New York 1978
Masters in Pastoral Studies, Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois 1990
1970-1974 St. Robert Bellarmine School, Chicago, Illinois
1974-1979 Vocation Director, Ohio Province, Cincinnati, Ohio
1979-1984 Chaminade-Julienne High School, Dayton, Ohio
1984-1989 Notre Dame High School, Chicago, Illinois
1988 Formation Director, Ohio Province, Chicago, Illinois
1989-1990 Student, Chicago, Illinois
1990-1997 Formation Director, Ohio Province, Chicago, Illinois
1997-2006 Campus Minister, Bridgewater State College, Bridgewater, Massachusetts
2006-2010 Director of Campus Ministry, Merrimack College, Andover Massachusetts
2011-2014 Director of Campus Ministry, Trinity Washington University, Washington, D.C.
2014-2017 Ministry of Prayer, Mount Notre Dame Health Center, Reading, Ohio
Died: October 4, 2017, Cincinnati, Ohio
Sr. Kim Dalgarn SNDdeN
October 5, 2017