Cushioned in layers of fleece for warmth, Maryknoll missioner Sister Dorothea Hudert recently spent two weeks in Juneau catching up with family and friends during a vacation from her home in Namibia, Africa.
Sister Dorothea—or Sr. Dossie—began her life as a Maryknoll sister with her vows in 1959. Today, at age 76, she is still actively serving the community in and around Windhoek, Namibia—although technically ‘retired’ from mission work—and living in a small community with two other Maryknoll sisters.
Her journey to the religious life began in Alaska, living and attending school in Nome and Juneau. After witnessing the results of a polio epidemic while in junior high school, she focused her vocational dreams on becoming a physical therapist to help those handicapped by the disease. Although she never seriously considered religious life as a vocation in high school, she remembers attending daily mass in Juneau with her father as a nourishing and peaceful time. While attending Marylhurst College, she shared a dormitory room with a young woman who had plans to become a doctor and medical missionary. Not too many years later the roommate was married and the mother of four children—and Dorothea was a Maryknoll missioner/physical therapist in Africa.
Sr. Dorothea received her “call” while spending time in prayer in the college chapel. After kindly listening to the young Dorothea explain her wish to join the Medical Mission Sisters and become a physical therapist, the college chaplain pointed out that one generally doesn’t enter the religious life with a specific occupation in mind—one enters with obedience in mind. And further, he suggested that with two Maryknoll family members already, that order might be a more likely choice. (Dorothea’s Uncle, Fr. John Coffey, had been a Maryknoll priest in Korea, and her older brother, John Hudert, was a seminarian.) After her acceptance into Maryknoll and eight years spent in both education and community ministry in New York, Sr. Dorothea finally found the opportunity to explain to her superiors at Maryknoll ‘what she really wanted’ was to become a physical therapist in the missions. They replied, “Well, why on earth didn’t you tell us?”
Receiving scholarships to New York University, she added to her biology degree a physical therapy certificate, master’s degree and hospital experience, and was quickly recruited to develop the new physical therapy department at a hospital under construction in Mwanza, Tanzania, East Africa. At age 34, in 1970, she entered the African missions and began her many years of service there in physical therapy. After building the Burgando hospital physical therapy department from scratch with a generous grant obtained from the World Rehabilitation Organization, she devoted her time to training nurses and facilitating the development of a department to build much needed prosthetics.
Her next 40 years were filled with ministry in Tanzanian hospitals, in rural East African communities, and at home in the United States on promotional work for Maryknoll. Along the way she met Maryknoll lay missioner Barbara Bechtold who worked in Tanzania from 1973 to 1976. Barbara now lives in Juneau with her husband John Tomaro, where they are members of St. Paul the Apostle Parish, and were among the friends who made a point of catching up with Sr. Dossie on her visit to Juneau.
Today Sr. Dossie is based in Windhoek, Namibia. Although not certified to practice physical therapy in that country, she devotes herself to a ministry of assistance in the physical therapy field, and to serving as a chaplain to cancer patients at a local hospital.
Reflecting on her life in ministry and the challenges of the last fifty years, Sr. Dorothea shared that although language can be a barrier and occasional loneliness a challenge, those times have encouraged her to turn to God in prayer and to others for support. She has been blessed with always having the opportunity to live in a praying community of Maryknoll sisters and to help many physically challenged adults and children through physical therapy. Changes in the last fifty years? One of the biggest she has experienced within the Maryknoll life was the change from habits to lay clothes, as well as declining vocations.
“The change from habits to lay clothes has helped in our witness to Christ because folks see us as caring persons before they come to know we are Sisters. The impact can be stronger. New vocations are diminishing because there are so many opportunities for short term missionary commitment (i.e., Maryknoll lay missioners). We are all called to be missionaries bearing witness to Christ’s love in our ordinary activities. I have hope that all Christians will truly do this.
Entering Maryknoll Sisters or any missionary community means a lifetime commitment to Jesus through the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. In community I feel there is greater opportunity to witness Christ’s love.”