Sister Virginia Dunker, a Daughter of Charity who spent her days as a literacy tutor to state prisoners, died Feb. 26 when the car she was driving was hit head on on Highway 65. She was 74.
Sister Virginia began her day as usual. She gathered with the three other sisters in the convent in Gould (Lincoln County) for morning prayer at 7 a.m. They prayed the Liturgy of the Hours, and Sister Virginia read a reflection on obedience and listening from "Quantum Grace: Lenten Reflections on Creation and Connectedness" by Judy Cannato.
"The night before was Ash Wednesday and we got our ashes," Sister Kathleen Miles, DC, said. After prayer, "she just left and said, 'I will see you in the afternoon.'"
She got in her Chevrolet Cavalier at 7:30 a.m. and began the five-mile trip north to her volunteer job at the Varner Unit. About two miles south of the prison, a woman from Oak Grove, La., in a Sport Utility Vehicle crossed the center line and killed the sister instantly. The other driver was taken to a local hospital where she died.
Born Nov. 15, 1934, in Perryville, Mo., Sister Virginia was first called to religious life in seventh grade and never thought of any other order because the Daughters of Charity were present in her life. She joined the Daughters 56 years ago.
She received her bachelor's degree in history and her master's degree in religious education. She served as an elementary school teacher and director of religious education in Nevada, Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri and Maryland. She worked as the RCIA director at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Little Rock in 1989-1990. She returned to the state in 2003 and volunteered at Helping Hand and Catherine's House in Little Rock.
About two and a half years ago she sought out a way to work with inmates in the Department of Correction. She moved to Gould and was assigned as a full-time volunteer to work with prisoners who were preparing to take their GED.
"It was just one on one with those who wanted to read and write. Lately it was (with) Hispanics," Sister Kathleen said. "She really looked forward to it. It was meaningful and a blessing in her life ... She always wanted to work with prisoners all her life. It was a dream of hers."
Sister Virginia told Arkansas Catholic in 2007 that she liked her ministry because she felt that she was helping the inmates.
"I feel that what I do makes them feel better about themselves and about what they can accomplish," she said.
Another housemate, Sister Judy Warmbold, DC, said Sister Virginia never treated her volunteer ministry lightly. She would spend extra time at home making flash cards and researching how to help certain inmates with their reading and writing.
"She never, ever thought of them as prisoners," Sister Judy said. "She thought of them as men who wanted to learn."
Even though she was a volunteer, she spent most of the day at the prison four or five days a week.
"She hated to take a day off, but her work ethic was like that," Sister Judy said.
Sister Kathleen said Sister Virginia was received well at the prison because of her personality.
"She was soft spoken, quiet and not obtrusive," she said.
But Sister Judy added, "She just comes alive with the guys learning to read ... She loved teaching anybody. She was a natural-born educator."
In her spare time, Sister Virginia liked to read and would write letters to the editor to comment on various social justice issues.
And she loved her cat.
"Kitty has been the love of her life," Sister Judy said. "She is an outside cat, but Virginia became her protector and guide."
She is survived by two brothers, Douglas Dunker and Buddy Dunker, both of Perryville, Mo.
A Mass of Christian Burial was held March 2 in Star City. Burial will be in Marillac Cemetery in St. Louis.
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