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She was parish saint of my church.

Since 1978, John Paul II has canonized over 450 saints and declared over 1,300 others as blessed. His 17 predecessors, from Clement VIII (1592-1605) to Paul VI (1963-78), have put a combined total of only 296 people into the canonized Hall of Fame.

Uldaricus (973 A.D.) is generally accepted as the first canonized saint. But no one could pronounce his name. So, Ulric, bishop of Augsburg, a city in southern Germany, enjoyed the first formal canonization by John XV in 993.

Prior to that date, canonizations were local affairs. The people gathered outside the cathedral and cheered until the bishop agreed to the promotion or until they began tossing cobblestones through his stained glass windows.

Sadly, the celestial roster is skewed toward clergy and laymen. There is just a sprinkling of women--mostly founders of congregations of nuns. There is only one married couple. The parents of Therese of Lisieux, popularly known as the Little Flower, are on the waiting list. However, much of their marriage was spent practicing celibacy, thus making them hardly an example of married love. (Therese's parents finally read the directions and produced five girls, all of whom became nuns.)

The United States' still has over 19,000 parishes--more than McDonald's has golden arches. Each parish has at least one parish saint who is, more often than not, a woman.

Our parish saint was a woman named Dorothy Connor who worshiped at St. Clement's for over 50 years. Indeed, that is just where she was going a few weeks ago, as she did every morning, when she sagged to the floor outside the door of her Chicago apartment and died in seconds.

Dorothy was 91, as thin as a goat and quiet as a lamb. But the wispy manner belied a piece of steel that was buried inside her. According to Judith Gross, pastoral assistant at St. Clement's, Dorothy was a "feminist before her time, an independent, self-sufficient woman who did an awful lot of little things for an awful lot of people."

Dorothy was the only child in a Church of Ireland family in Tipperary. She lost her father when she was only 6. Raised by her blind mother in Catholic Ireland, she spent years in boarding schools before going to England for College, then back to Ireland to Dublin's Trinity College, after which she began her career as a psychiatric social worker.

She was in Dublin in 1945 when she became a Catholic in a liturgy that would have staggered an elephant. The Irish Catholic church suspected converts. The priest didn't even turn on the lights, as if Dorothy were an untamed bee. She entered the true church in the dark.

In 1954, she came to Chicago at the invitation of Msgr. Tom Burke, pastor of Sts. Faith, Hope and Charity, a lace-curtain suburban church in Winnetka, Ill., where even the trees have college degrees. Burke was a nobleman--a favorite of the late Cardinal George Mundelein--a good-looking man with enough clout to convert Barabbas' mother. He promised Dorothy that she could find work in Chicago. I don't know how he did it, but the day after her arrival, she was employed as a social worker at Mercy Hospital in Chicago.

Tom Burke died in 1976. He was a good example of how the church helped the likes of Dorothy Connor even as other clergy stole her rosary beads. For every priest who demeans his flock, there is at least one who exalts them.

Some faithful abandon the church at the mere hint of perceived injustice. Dorothy had many reservations. She prayed conservative but she thought liberal--and with a healthy, dry Irish humor.

Professionally, she became an effective counselor, one whose clients often called her years after their sessions ended. She earned her master's in social work from Chicago's Loyola University. She worked well into her 70s. She worked in areas that were definitely not peanut-butter-and-jelly neighborhoods. The people loved her but mugged her anyway.

She continued her volunteer work at the Cenacle Retreat House and at two local Catholic hospitals. For years, she taped readings for the blind--a gift to her blind mother.

Dorothy was well into her 80s when her health began to wane. Slowly, she resigned from numerous parish ministries, including eucharistic ministry, lector and commentator, sacramental preparation, sacristan and a host of other chores. However, she still arrived at church at 6:15 a.m. for the 8:00 Sunday Mass. She opened the church, arranged the sanctuary and then passed out the liturgy programs.

Gradually, her life slowed to a crawl, especially after she tried to flip her mattress one morning and it balked, snapping some bones and putting her in St. Joseph's Hospital for weeks.

Dorothy was as compulsive as a bishop's mother. She was forever changing her funeral plans. She gave her body to science and planned the entire funeral liturgy.

At her funeral, her pew in the second row had a sanctuary lamp and a vase of flowers. People approached, talked with a few friends and cried.

Dorothy had a sweet tooth. People brought chocolate cakes to the party after the evening funeral Mass, sweets rich enough to put a diabetic into a coma.

We told Dorothy Connor stories. People remembered her as the matriarch of St. Clement's, a master at little things that meant a lot. In a parish heavily larded with single professional women who lived alone in one-bedroom apartments with a Monet poster and a cat, she became the model of a woman who led a full and happy life. Indeed, there are parishioners at St. Clement's who will swear that Dorothy's prayers brought them through a crisis.

She won't be canonized. That would take over a million bucks and clout galore. Dorothy wouldn't even show up.

We should revert to parish or diocesan saints.

Let John Paul II elevate Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her helicopter. Send us Dorothy Connor.

[Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago, where he's been in remission for three years thanks to St. Dorothy Connor.]
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Title Annotation:Column
Author:Unsworth, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 8, 2004
Words:1006
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