In the late afternoon of Wednesday 6th March, Ash Wednesday, God called Dorothy to the fullness of life, aged 94.
Born in Lincoln's Inn, London on 8th September 1924, Isabel Dorothy Norah Bell was the only child of her parents' marriage - though her mother, who had been widowed in World War I, also had a son, more than a decade older than her. Dorothy grew up as an only child in a family very much part of the British "establishment": they were Anglicans, and her father was a successful barrister who also wrote articles on legal matters for the Evening Standard. However, individually and collectively, they began to journey towards Catholicism: even a century after Catholic Emancipation this was still regarded as controversial, and in later life Dorothy would recall that for a while her father's career was affected by his conversion.
Dorothy became a pupil at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Roehampton in September 1935, and was received into the Church three months later, making her First Communion on the 8th December, feast of the Immaculate Conception. She settled happily into school life, eventually becoming head girl, by which time the school was in its temporary home near Rugby due to wartime evacuation. Her life then changed dramatically, as her father had been appointed a judge of the High Court in Madras, and she and her mother travelled with him to India - a hazardous journey due to the constant danger of being torpedoed while crossing the Atlantic.
Dorothy remained with her parents until 1943, when she travelled to China, where she spent 13 months working as a temporary secretary in the British Embassy in Chongqing, the town where Chiang Kai-Shek, president of free China, had established his headquarters. By the end of the War, though, she was feeling strongly called to religious life, and to the Society, which meant leaving her parents. This decision was hard for them, but they came to accept it, saying "if it's her vocation, then it's ours too." Dorothy travelled back to England, and, after a year teaching at the Sacred Heart school in Tunbridge Wells, she entered the noviciate on 5th August 1947, making her first vows on 14th February 1950 - St Valentine's Day. For years afterwards her mother would send her flowers on her anniversary - causing her pupils to speculate that they came from a jilted lover! She made her final profession six years later, in Rome.
The 1950s and most of the 60s were spent either teaching - mostly at Woldingham - or studying. Dorothy studied geography at St Anne's College, Oxford, from 1951-54 (click here for a short video of her recalling this time), and later gained a Diploma in Education from Fenham and a Diploma in Theology. Then, in 1967, she moved to Digby Stuart College in Roehampton - on the site of her old school - where she lectured in geography whilst preparing to take over as Principal from 1968.
In all, Dorothy spent 20 years in this post, during which time government changes to teacher training led to the closure of many specialist teacher training colleges. Digby Stuart survived, by forming an academic federation with three other nearby colleges - Froebel, Southlands and Whitelands - in 1975 to form the Roehampton Institute of Higher Education, offering an expanded variety of degree courses. There were other changes taking place, too, in the Church and in religious life, which Dorothy's conservative nature initially resisted and found difficult to embrace. But by 1982, when she welcomed Pope John Paul II to the College, during his visit to this country, she had started to adapt, and become more open to new possibilities and horizons.
Dorothy retired from the College in 1989, aged 65, but remained just as busy and active as before, always finding new and different ways to be of service. Until 2006 she was the Diocesan AIDS Co-ordinator for Southwark, and also served as a governor of several schools and VI Form colleges, and of Heythrop College. In 2006, aged 82, she became a member of the Westminster Diocesan Education Board, as well as continuing other commitments. Her hard work and contribution to Catholic education were officially recognised, with an OBE in 1999, an honorary fellowship from Heythrop in 2000 and honorary doctorates from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Roehampton - and unofficially recognised by those she served alongside, who appreciated her willingness to help, her experience and grasp of matters.
As Dorothy approached her nineties she eventually scaled back her commitments, though she still kept in close contact with her former colleagues, and took a keen interest in whatever was happening, in education and the wider world. She never learnt how to use the internet, instead maintaining a lively handwritten correspondence with friends, sisters and former pupils, remembering birthdays and significant events, and details others might easily overlook. This was only curtailed when her eyesight began to deteriorate; she also had to give up her knitting, for which she is still remembered by so many. She had been living very independently, somehow shrugging off various health scares, but in 2017, following some time in hospital, and aware of her declining health, she accepted that she needed the care and support provided by Duchesne House. Nonetheless, Dorothy lived her final two years as fully as she could, and was always delighted to go out or receive visitors - which she continued to do until just a few days before her final, sudden and very brief illness. She died shortly before the sun began to set on Ash Wednesday: it seems entirely appropriate that God, knowing very well her restless, questing spirit, knew she couldn't wait a full six weeks until Easter, and has instead brought her more speedily to the fullness of the Resurrection with him.
Silvana Dallanegra rscj
Dorothy Bell in her own words
Sister Dorothy's life less ordinary (TES article)
Kindness and great little things (from Silvana's blog)