If you walked the halls of Brescia University College over the last 50 years, chances are you would have encountered Sister Mary Frances Dorschell. Between establishing Brescia’s reputable French for Teaching program to hosting the Supper Club for students to acting as Special Advisor to the Principal, Sr. Mary Frances touched many lives and gave to Brescia in a variety of ways. After a tenure of being one of Brescia’s longest-resident Ursuline Sisters, Sr. Mary Frances moved to “Villa Angela” in Chatham in 2018, but has left a lasting mark through her student-centered teaching, service leadership and bold spirit that will remain with Brescia over the next 100 years and beyond.

Why did you choose Brescia for university?

Choosing Brescia was a fortunate happening for me! When I was in Grade 13 at Corpus Christi High School (now called Brennan) in Windsor, our Principal Mother Gerald suggested that I apply for a scholarship to Brescia.  Because I was entering religious life, I knew I wasn’t going to begin University immediately after high school. However, at the end of the summer, I received a very kind letter from Mother Saint James, who at this time had only a few short months to live.  She warmly congratulated me for winning a scholarship and assured me that a place would be kept for me for when I would one day attend Brescia.

What path led you to becoming an Ursuline and teaching at Brescia?

I knew that I wanted to be a Sister since I was eleven, but didn’t know which order to enter. I was first introduced to the Ursulines when I changed schools in Grade 13.  Right away I noticed something special about them – they were very friendly and cared about each student as an individual. Whether they taught us or not didn’t matter. They really cared about us and always had the time to chat with us before and after school and during the lunch hour.  This impressed me greatly.

I also noticed that just a few short weeks after I started Grade 13, when I would be alone in the evenings doing my homework, I seemed to hear a voice saying to me, ever so gently at first, “You are going to be an Ursuline.” I thought that this was a bit odd, so I replied, “No, I’m not!”  Night after night this same voice seemed to speak to me and always with the same message. The only difference was that each night the voice seemed to get louder and more insistent. Finally, since I couldn’t stand hearing this voice any longer, the last night I replied in a loud voice, “Fine then!  I’ll be an Ursuline.”  I have never heard that voice speak to me like that again and I have never once felt that I made the wrong decision in becoming an Ursuline.

Becoming a teacher, and entering a teaching order, was a natural choice for me as I had always wanted to follow in the footsteps of my mother and become a teacher. After I had become an Ursuline, I was thrilled to learn that the Ursulines are a teaching order founded by St. Angela Merici in Brescia, Italy. St. Angela’s purpose in founding the Ursulines was to teach women so that they could restore the spirit of family life which had been lost during the Renaissance and so she encouraged her daughters to be good teachers and to be mothers to the children they taught.  This is something I always kept with me and strived to emulate throughout my teaching career.

Before even getting my B.A. or any formal teacher training, I started to teach at Ursuline College “The Pines” at the age of 19.  After a couple of years, I was allowed to go to Brescia to finish my General B.A. in Latin and History. I then returned to “The Pines” and spent the years from 1963 to 1982 teaching a variety of courses to students in Grades 9-12 and also to our ESL Latin American students. While teaching at “The Pines” I also furthered my own education and obtained my permanent High School Teacher’s certificate, by taking several English courses at night school. I also obtained my M.A. in Spanish after spending several summers in Mexico City at the Universidad Iberoamericana, a top ranking Jesuit university.

Finally, in 1982, the General Superior of the Ursulines asked me to go to Brescia to become Dean of Students and to think about becoming Chair of our Modern Languages Department.  I realized immediately that in order to be Department Chair I would need to have a PhD in French.  So while working full time in charge of the Residence and then part time in teaching French, I managed to complete my Honours degree in French Language and Literature, my Masters, and my PhD in 10 years. Immediately after my doctoral defense, I was appointed Chair of Brescia’s Modern Languages Department.

What are some of the learnings that you have been able to take away from your experience as a Brescia student and apply to your career/working life?

Most of my learnings, initially, came from my admiration in how the Ursulines who taught us really cared about their students. They were definitely following the teachings of Saint Angela who taught us to be like “mothers” to our students.  Perhaps, this is why in the early days of the order Ursulines were called “Mother” and not “Sister.” Because of this, I always wanted to do better for my students – and I always could get great advice from my Sisters, and in particular from Mother Moira, my first principal.

I also learned from my Ursuline teachers that to be an effective teacher, you must generate creative ways to engage your students. This played a large role in my early days of teaching (at “The Pines”), as money was limited, and I had to figure things out on my own.

Finally, I also learned that in order to be a good teacher, I had to become as well qualified as possible. So, I took further academic courses and joined academic organizations, such as the STLHE (Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education) where I met colleagues from across Canada who were interested in improving the quality of university teaching. We enjoyed sharing experiences and ideas on teaching. I became friends with a professor from the University of Saskatchewan who gave me some wonderful help and encouragement at the time when I was creating Brescia’s Major in French for Teaching.

To what do you attribute your professional success?

I have always been interested in putting my students in first place. Their welfare and learning was always important to me, which is why I spent hours making courses and engaging material for my students. I carried this mindset with me throughout my teaching career, including when I became Department Chair, where I had only one rule: our students come first and we come second. No one ever disagreed with this and we had a successful and happy department.

What advice would you give to Brescia alumnae and students?

I would tell our alumnae and students to try to see how they can be of service to others in their future career. Rather than choosing a career for its monetary reward, they should choose a career where they will be of service to society and help others. They should ask themselves two questions, “What does God want me to do with my life?” and, “How can I help others to have a better life?”

How do you define leadership? Or, what characteristics make a great leader?

For me, the term “leadership” means being a “servant leader,” which implies observing the needs of others and doing what I can to help them. Montaigne, a French author of the Renaissance Period, used to ask himself two questions: “Qui suis-je?” (“Who am I?”) and “Qu’est-ce que je dois faire?” (“What must I do?”). I think that the answers to these two questions describe what a leader should be: a human being who has a responsibility to other human beings. As St. Angela has taught us, we must help others, always doing our best to provide a better life for them.

What are your hopes for Brescia in the next 100 years?

I hope that Brescia will continue to grow and to be the type of women’s university whose graduates will be devoted to the loving service of others that St. Angela, Mother Xavier, Mother Clare and Mother St. James longed for.

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