Remembering: Sister Dolores O’Dwyer

2018 Editions February News Obituaries

Sister Dolores O’Dwyer, the principal of St. Bernard Catholic School in Glassell Park for 36 years – from 1968 to 2004 – passed away peacefully on Dec. 16, 2017, age 94.

Sister Dolores, who entered the religious order of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) in 1941, grew up in San Francisco, the youngest of three children of Irish immigrant parents. Her sister, Mary Catherine, also became a nun in the BVM order, and her brother, William, became a priest with the Lasallian Christian Brothers. The three siblings were encouraged to pursue religious vocations by their mother, Margaret Meany O’Dwyer. They were also influenced by their Catholic education at schools that were run by sisters of the BVM order.

Under Sister Dolores’s leadership at St. Bernard, academics came first, but sports were never far behind. During her tenure, the school featured prominently in speech leagues and in the Archdiocese Academic Decathlon and won numerous sports championships – with Sister Dolores regularly attending all school activities and games. The words “wisdom,” “grace” and “enthusiasm” come up repeatedly in remembrances by St. Bernard’s alumni and teachers and by other sisters in her order.

In all, Sister Dolores’s tenure spanned eight presidents and three popes. It spanned political upheavals from the Vietnam War to the end of the Cold War to 9/11, and all of the cultural, technological and religious shifts from the late 1960s, when she first became principal at St. Bernard, to the mid-2000s, when she retired. Even her name reflects a sea change: When she took her vows, she was given the name “Wilmetta,” but church reforms in the 1960s allowed nuns to use their given names. 

The way Sister Dolores navigated it all was summed up in 1991 when she received the Distinguished Principals Award from the Department of Elementary Schools of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA): “Sister Dolores has a clear, integrated philosophy of Catholic Education…She firmly believes that a Catholic school is a place where children are allowed to grow to maturity in finding God and contributing to society,” read the commendation.

Her other honors and awards include Principal of the Year of the Western States in the early 1990s; serving as an NCEA delegate in 1994 to visit Catholic schools in Australia and New Zealand; and the Lifetime Achievement Award from Catholic Charities in 1994 for her involvement in Catholic Youth Organization athletics.

At a tribute to her upon her retirement from St. Bernard in 2004, another secret to Sister Dolores’ success was recounted in a story told by another nun: When she was a girl, Dolores injured her right hand roller skating down a hill she had repeatedly been told to avoid. Unwilling to confess, she taught herself to write with her left hand and tried to carry on as if nothing had happened. But the nun who taught her class noticed the curling of her right hand. Her wrist had to be broken and reset. “This formed Dolores’ lifelong compassion for the foibles of children,” read the tribute, adding, “She also retained the ability to write with her left hand.”

Sister Dolores O’Dwyer, who was preceded in death by her siblings, Mary Catherine and William, was laid to rest at the Mount Carmel cemetery in Dubuque, Iowa, where the BVM order is headquartered.

If you wish to write a remembrance of Sister Dolores, you can leave comments in the “Guest Book” on the BVM website: bvmcong.org/contact_guestbook.cfm

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