Sister Dorothy Beck, 87, who for 63 years was a nun with the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, died May 6 of congestive heart failure at Holy Redeemer Hospital in Abington.
Sister Dorothy was a leader in her community for years, acting in roles varying from principal of Assumpta Academy to Mother Superior of the United States Province of her order. Until her retirement in 2016, she was the director of the St. Raphaela Center, a retreat in Haverford.
Sister Dorothy grew up in Southwest Philadelphia, the oldest of Ernest and Dorothy Beck's five children, to whom she remained close her entire life.
"She was Mother Superior to her family, too," said Sister Kathleen Helbig, assistant director of Ancillae-Assumpta and a longtime friend of Sister Dorothy's.
Sister Dorothy joined the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in December 1954.
She began her teaching career in Baltimore, but soon came to teach at Ancilla Domini Academy, the Handmaid school in Germantown. In 1964, Sister Dorothy was assigned to teach religion to seventh- and eighth-grade students at Assumpta Academy in Wyncote, formerly the boys' school of what is now Ancillae-Assumpta Academy. She threw herself into the job, even volunteering to shuttle students in the sisters' station wagon.
Generations of Ancillae-Assumpta students knew "Mother Dorothy" as a gentle, welcoming spirit, members of her community said. She never missed a school Mass or family bingo night, even into her 80s.
Sister Dorothy served as principal of Assumpta Academy from 1966 until 1969, when it merged with Ancillae Academy. She later served as local superior in Wyncote, Miami, and Haverford, and as U.S. leader of her order three separate times, for 18 years in total. During her time in Miami, she worked as director of religious education in Broward County, Fla., overseeing 42 parishes and three missions.
She founded the ACJ Associates program locally, a group of men and women dedicated to learning more about the Handmaids' charism, or special commitment — "to share in the loving, reparative mission of Christ, to bring reconciliation and healing to people's hearts and to their relationships with God, with one another, and with the whole of creation." Sister Dorothy founded groups in Wyncote and Haverford, and led them until her retirement. Even after she became too frail to work in active ministry, she got someone to drive her to the ACJ Associates' monthly meetings.
As leader of Saint Raphaela Center into her 80s, she delighted in planning programs, retreats, and services that brought 5,000 people annually closer to Christ, said Sister Kathleen.
Sister Dorothy attended Most Blessed Sacrament parish school and was a 1948 graduate of West Philadelphia Catholic High School for Girls. She was named to the West Catholic Alumni Hall of Fame.
She held degrees in secondary education from Villanova University and religious education from Fordham University.
She was physically imposing — a brother, Ernie, played NBA basketball — and her titles and stature in the community earned her respect.
"When people say they looked up to her, they really did," Sister Kathleen said. "She might have seemed scary, but when you talked to her for two minutes, you realized what a warm and loving person she was. She was always interested in what you were doing, what you were involved in."
She was also passionate about sports of any kind.
"I don't think there's anyone who screamed louder when the Eagles won the Super Bowl," said Sister Kathleen. "The sisters who were trying to sleep had to run down and see what was wrong."
After her retirement, she remained sharp, interested in the world around her. She would keep in the loop those sisters whose active ministry kept them too busy to keep up with current events.
In addition to her brother Ernie, Sister Dorothy is survived by brothers John and Jim Beck and a sister, Miriam Zimmer.