SHAWANO — On their way to the Friday morning school Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Shawano, first graders will jump out of line in the church gathering space and latch onto Dottie Borowski’s leg.
“Miss Dottie” — as the children call her — is well aware that the youngsters’ warm recognition isn’t so much in appreciation of the time she reads to them as it is the home-baked cookies she always brings along when she volunteers in their classes.
She laughed and said, “They’ve been so good for me, those little ones.
“They don’t judge you, they don’t look at your past, they don’t care if you made a mistake, they just love you for who you are. They are the closest to the love of Jesus that there is.”
Eighth graders at Sacred Heart School know Miss Dottie, too. Their teacher had Borowski teach them how to do spontaneous prayer. She’s a prayer pal, too, writing letters back and forth with students.
Lots of adults have also been touched by this recently retired human resources professional.
She’s on the board of Shawano’s Safe Haven shelter for victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, takes Communion to residents of a nursing home and serves on the parish council at Sacred Heart. She’s been put in charge of the parish pictorial directory, organized the recent end of the Holy Year’s “holy hour of mercy,” and planned the big, secret party to celebrate the fifth anniversary of ordination for Sacred Heart’s pastor, Fr. Luke Ferris.
“I don’t take credit for any of these things,” Borowski said. “We have so many people willing to step up. There is an extraordinary list of volunteers here.”
Elisha Wagenson, principal of Sacred Heart School, however, is a Dottie fan. “I can’t imagine our church and school without Dottie,” Wagenson said. “She has drawn me closer to God by the example she sets. So many people have been touched by her.”
There is, of course, a back story.
“The driving force in all of this,” Borowski explained, “is God’s love for me when I didn’t feel I deserved it. I thought God was very disappointed in me. What he showed me was that deep love — and he infused that in me to give to others.”
Choking back her emotions, Borowski softly said that she was homeless 17 years ago. That she was a victim of domestic abuse. That she slept in her car. That she would sneak into hotels and motels to pilfer a pastry from the breakfast area because she had nothing else to eat.
“When I finally came back here to be with family and friends I had nothing,” Borowski said. “My whole life was in one suitcase.”
It was during confession, Borowski recalled, that a vision of Jesus Christ with loving eyes blessed her and gave her complete forgiveness of her sins.
Through the generosity of others she was given shelter, clothes and food.
“When I got a little apartment, strangers came forward to give me pots and pans,” she remembered.
She volunteers today, she said, because “the Sacred Heart gave me his sorrowful heart, his painful heart. I want to give back to people who had been through what I had been through. That’s why I feel such joy to be a part of Safe Haven.
“I tell people, there is life after this chapter,” Borowski said. “I want them to know that they’re worthy, that they’re valuable, that they’re loved.”
She credits Fr. Ferris with nudging her outside her comfort zone with “a slight elbow push.” At his recommendation she’s now a member of the Green Bay Diocesan Pastoral Council, an advisory group to Bishop David Ricken composed of people from many parishes.
“What I saw in Dottie,” Fr. Ferris said, “was a deep love for Christ and the church, and a desire to serve. She had brought to our pastoral council energy, enthusiasm, cooperation and organization. And I thought these abilities would be also helpful on the Diocesan Pastoral Council.”
“It’s vital to have that embrace with the Curia, the chancery and the parishes so that there isn’t misunderstanding, and that the love the bishop has is brought back to the parishes,” Borowski said.
“It’s not just a one-way communication, either,” she added. “Bishop Ricken has said with heart-felt sincerity that he wants to hear from us from the parishes.”
Borowski said she’ll continue serving with the Diocesan Pastoral Council, but she’s had to cut back on other activities; her husband Dennis was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“I’ve had to put a lot on hold,” she said. “I am now devoted to one person.”