A tearful reunion took place in Buffalo this past month. Lynn Stephens met the woman she calls her second mother, Sister Dorothy Feltz. It had been over 40 years since they last saw each other. When Sister Dorothy saw Stephens safe and sound with her adopted family, she faded away.
The first five years of a child's life form who the person will be. Lynn believes she became whom she is during her two years with Sister Dorothy ages 5-7.
"The years that I was with you just molded me," Stephens told Sister Dorothy at their reunion. "You gave me my childhood I didn't have."
The two first met in La Paz, Bolivia. Stephens, then known as Lilian Ramos was living with her elderly grandfather and sickly mother.
"I have pocket memories," she said. "I just remember being in this house. I don't have a consistent memory of things. I have memories of caring for my mom. My mom had a prosthetic leg. I remember helping her put that on. I remember cooking. I remember a presence of a grandfather there, but do I remember having an interaction with him? No."
Stephens wonders why, at the age of 5 or 6, she was the one doing the cooking.
Bishop James McNulty, the 10th bishop of Buffalo, sent priests and sisters to serve as missionaries in South America. The Sisters of St. Joseph and diocesan priests lived in a compound in La Paz and served three parishes. Stephens lived in the hills of Al Alto. Neither Stephens, Sister Dorothy nor Msgr. Vincent Becker, who helped run the parishes, can recall how they first came to meet. As they sit around a table discussing their memories, they all come up with different answers. Msgr. Becker thinks they met in 1969, but Lynn recalls being in the States when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon August of that year. She thinks they met in 1966 or '67. Sister Dorothy thinks they visited the family, then took care of Lynn after her mother died. Lynn disagrees.
"She passed away when I was under your care, she recalled. "What happened was, you guys found me and saw the condition her health was in and the conditions we were living in. Got her help. Took her to the hospital. While she was there, I was with you and you would take me to go see her."
What they do agree on are the happy moments. For two years, Sister Dorothy took Lynn into her convent and acted as a mother to her. Teaching her about Christmas and Easter, turning her life around from 5-year-old caregiver of her mother, to a child living like a child should.
"In the short time I lived with her she managed to create so many memories for me for a short time she gave me back my childhood. She created the most awesome memory of what Easter was and created the most awesome Easter hunt for me," she said. Sister Dorothy wrote clues on small pieces of paper, spread them throughout the yard, and led the young girl to the first Easter basket. "She prepared me for my first Communion, bought me my first Communion dress and made the event special for me. She was the mom my biological mother was never able to be."
It was common for the nuns to get involved with the families while the priests took care of parishes. But, it was uncommon to get this involved.
"She was happy with us, and she was just a delight," Sister Dorothy said. "We sent her to a special school because the schools there were terrible. They didn't have desks, books, anything, but we sent her to a special school."
Sister Dorothy met Steve and Jill Ball, Peace Corps volunteers at the end of their hitch, who agreed to take Stephens, then 8 or 9, back to South Bend, Ind.
"They said, 'We will take her.' That's how she got adopted," said Sister Dorothy.
Although she had aunts in Bolivia, they all agreed that the Balls would give Lynn a better life.
At 18, Lynn was given a folder of all the paperwork involved in her adoption. It wasn't an easy process at the time to adopt a foreign child. The Balls had to lie and say they couldn't have any more children, but got pregnant with a daughter before the adoption was final.
"The saddest day in my life was when she traveled to United States with me for the last time to drop me off at my new home, though she prepared me for this day, the emotions that came that day will forever stay in my head. As we said goodbye and her car drove off, all I remember was running towards the car as it drove off screaming for her to come back," Stephens recalled. "My life was never the same, and I closed off to people and built barriers and had a hard time showing emotion or allowing anyone to get close to me because of fear they might leave me."
The family quickly moved when Steve Ball accepted a teaching job in Elmira. Sister Dorothy and Msgr. Becker visited her in Elmira once, most likely just after the 1972 flood caused by Hurricane Agnes.
The thought of Sister Dorothy never left Lynn. The family moved to Brownsville, Texas, a home Lynn "hated." Her mother wanted to be Lynn's only mother, so there was no more contact with the kind nun. Jill Ball also threw away much of her toys, including a Latino Raggedy Ann doll Sister Dorothy made for Lynn, and wouldn't allow her to speak Spanish. Eventually she forgot the language. So, she lived in a border town with brown skin, but not speaking Spanish surrounded by her blonde, blue-eyed siblings. She asked to go back to South Bend, where she built a close relationship with her grandparents.
Fast forward, to 2017, Lynn and her son Liam get rear ended by a drunk driver that flipped their car over. They are lucky to have survived.
"After that, it just made me think about life. How, in the blink of an eye, you can be gone. I started to think back," she said. "My adoption and my past has always been a very emotional thing for me. I always try to push it back and not think about it.
"(Sister Dorothy) was never ever far from my mind. I always thought about her. In my mind, next to my mom, she was like a mom to me. She's the one who has my heart. She's the one who created memories for me that will always be there. After that, I started to think about her more and started to realize I needed to see her."
She Googled "Sister Dorothy Buffalo, New York," and found a story from 2015 in the Western New York Catholic. She then sent a letter to the editor asking for contact information.
"She sent an email saying, 'None of us is getting any younger,'" Sister Dorothy revealed.
The reunion took some time to get together. Lynn, the mother of four, works for a non-profit in Atlanta that keeps her busy. She canceled an October meeting to visit her mother, Jill, who is battling dementia in Houston. The two didn't always get along, but had been getting closer in recent years.
Sister Dorothy said she thought of Lynn "lots" over the past 45 years. She had saved a list of all her family members she met in Bolivia.
"I would look at that often and wonder where she was and how she was."
Lynn has not been back to South America, but did receive a message through Facebook, by her niece. Surprising since her Facebook account uses her American name. The family in Bolivia only knows her as Lilian, but knows the Ball family adopted her. "How they narrowed it down to that, I don't know."
Her brother became a doctor due to a lack of medical care their mother received. He now works in remote villages outside Bolivia caring for people who cannot make it to a hospital.
Stephens would like to meet her family, but would need help with the language.
"I think that's the next step," she said.
Stephens credits a lot of who she is to Sister Dorothy's influence, from her love of Simon & Garfunkel to her hard-working generous nature.
"I was blessed to have a lot of people in my life who were very giving, very thoughtful, selfless," she said.