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Obituary of Sister Dorothy Clark: Educator here and in Africa, chaplain, clown

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 17, 2009 - Sister Dorothy Clark, who spent 20 years teaching and ministering in Africa, was among the many religious people the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expelled from Uganda. Her banishment came as a relief to her family.

"We were very happy she was kicked out," said her sister, Georgia Clark Zimmerman. "We wanted her home where we thought she'd be safer."

Safety did not seem to be Sister Clark's first priority; she gave precedence to a life of service and learning until her death last month after a long battle with thyroid cancer. Sister Clark died Jan. 20 at the de Greeff Hospice House in St. Louis. She was 67.

Her life will be celebrated at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday (Feb. 21) in a memorial Mass at the Shrine of St. Philippine Duchesne in St. Charles.

Dorothy Clark was born in 1941 and graduated from St. John's High School in south St. Louis. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from Maryville College and was certified to teach high school science, music and math in Missouri. She entered the Society of the Sacred Heart at Kenwood in Albany, N.Y., in 1963. In the late '80s, she earned her master degree in pastoral studies from Loyola University of Chicago.

For several years in the late 1960s and early '70s, Sister Clark taught science, math and music at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in St. Charles. In 1972, she went to Africa, taking her final vows in December of that year in Nkozi, Uganda, following preparation there.

For 20 years, between 1973 and 1992, Sr. Clark taught and ministered in Uganda and Kenya. She started the mission in Kenya doing whatever work was needed. She learned to speak Kiswahili, the official language of four East African nations and immersed herself in the culture of the country, according to Zimmerman.

"She wasn't one to talk much about what she did. She liked listening to the world, not inflicting herself on the world, but listening to see what she could learn," Zimmerman said. "I know that she loved the Kenyan people, loved their joy and freedom. She thought it was a beautiful environment. She'd visit with people in their homes and provide pastoral care. She would take in the culture and be part of the people."

She also shared part of herself, particularly with the women.

"She worked at lifting women up to a better place," Zimmerman said. "It was important to her that women understand their value. She may have ruffled a few feathers doing this but she believed in women's equality."

Sister Clark, a woman of many talents, a yoga enthusiast who ran a half marathon at age 62, fit few, if any, stereotypes.

"She was a very deeply spiritual person who cared for the earth, loved her time in Africa and was a multi-faceted jewel: a scientist, chemist, artist, musician (she played guitar, harp and piano), and was just a lot of fun," said her lifelong friend Marilyn Lorenz. "We played the piano together at my house every Sunday. We played Bach and music she wrote and some silly pieces."

Lorenz said Sister Clark, who was known as "Sister Dotty" by everyone who knew her, also had "a cornucopia of ways of bringing healing to people."

After returning to the United States and her beloved Cardinals in the early '90s, Sister Clark became a hospital chaplain at St. John's Mercy Medical Center and the Pratt Cancer Center in St. Louis where she served until shortly before her death. During the last five years, she had lived in a residence of her order, the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in the Central West End.

In reflecting on Sister Clark's hospital work, Sister Frances Gimber said, "She developed many different techniques to use with patients. She was a person of great versatility, wide interests and accomplishment that she put to great, inventive use in all of the ways she had of being with people who were often suffering."

That included making puppets with the children she visited in the hospital and using one special puppet to entertain and reach children. The puppet's name is Sweetie Pie. Sweetie Pie, who has her own hospital chaplain's identification badge, was part of Sister Clark's act as Dots It the Clown. The two wore matching brightly colored polka dot outfits to perform.

"What I have learned about her in our community from people who knew her in Africa, was the vastness of her interests," said Sister Gimber. "She was adept at painting, watercolor and all kinds of crafts (like wood carvings using her father's lathe) that she gave as Christmas presents. She never lost her interest in science, what we call the new cosmology, just ways of looking at the world and the universe. And she composed music for her own enrichment."

The latest music she composed was for her own fortification in her long battle with cancer.

"When she was going through research drugs, chemotherapy and radiation," Zimmerman said, "she worked real hard at living. She still loved to dance to Mamma Mia. When it got tough, she wrote music of her journey through cancer, just as she had composed music of her journey through Africa. This is how she coped."

Sister Clark was preceded in death by her parents, George A. Clark and Dorothy Bussen Clark. In addition to her sister, Georgia (Thomas) Clark Zimmerman of St. Louis, she is survived by her brother, George (Peggy) Clark of Columbus, Ohio, and their children and grandchildren.

In a final tribute to a talented musician who loved music and loved Africa, an indigenous drummer from Africa will perform at the Memorial Mass that will be celebrated for Sister Clark at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 21, at the Shrine of St. Philippine Duchesne, 619 North Second Street, St. Charles.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Society of the Sacred Heart, 4120 Forest Park Avenue, St. Louis, Mo. 63108.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.