Obituary: Carrie Dorfman blazed trail for women's ordination

  • Article by: MARY LYNN SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 1, 2012 - 9:48 PM

Rev. Carrie Dorfman

About 40 years ago, Carrie Dorfman did what most women at the time wouldn't think to do: She became an ordained minister.

"She was a trailblazer," said the Rev. Gwin Pratt, pastor at St. Luke Presbyterian Church, where Dorfman had long been a member before entering the seminary. "Forty years ago, women's ordination was still an issue. These women [Dorfman and a few others] had the courage to step out."

Once she was ordained, Carrie Dorfman took her ministry into the women's prison in Shakopee and a nursing home. She ran a retreat center, led study groups on cosmology and provided spiritual-direction counseling.

On Aug, 27, Dorfman, whose given name was Mary Carolyn, died of congestive heart failure and pulmonary fibrosis. She was 70.

"She was incredibly compassionate," Pratt said. "She met people where they were without judgment. She would hear their pain and their stories. When she did that, a [person] would feel safe and heard, and then have the freedom to examine themselves.

"She was a salt-of-the-earth person whose eyes and heart were open to the cosmos," Pratt said. "She was a wise woman, a mentor, guide."

Born in Quebec, Dorfman left Canada when she was 9, first moving with her family to Minneapolis and then Illinois. After graduating high school, she returned to Minnesota to attend Carleton College, where she met her husband-to-be, Thomas Dorfman. Eventually, they settled in Shorewood, and Carrie Dorfman became an elementary school teacher in Maple Grove. While raising a family, Dorfman decided to enter the seminary.

"It was a calling," said the Rev. Sheila Gustafson, who attended the same seminary -- United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities -- at the same time. "We both wanted to make the world a better place."

In the 1960s, becoming an ordained minister "put us in the vanguard," Gustafson said. "The Presbyterian Church ordained its first female pastor in 1956, but it was many years before women served in parish ministry."

Dorfman's strong pull to social justice issues drew her to minister in the women's prison, Gustafson said.

The prison, where she served as chaplain for a decade, not only became a place where Dorfman counseled the women, but also where her own children learned life lessons.

"We spent many Christmas Eves at the prison," said her son, Aaron Dorfman of Hyattsville, Md. "One of the things I learned from it was that people sometimes are where they are because of circumstances, and that everyone has value and is beautiful in the eyes of God."

She shared those same lessons with those she met in her last days while in the hospital, said her daughter, Jeanine Dorfman of Minneapolis. "She would have these deep conversations with the nurses, the housekeepers and anyone else." One of the nurses wondered why some people do hurtful things, her daughter recalled. Her mom's response: "Some people haven't received enough love or guidance, or they have had to endure hardships. They don't know any differently."

"Rather than judge people, my mom wanted to help people," Jeanine Dorfman said. "She could see the soul of people."

When she wasn't ministering, Carrie Dorfman had her hands in the dirt, transforming her daughter's yard into beautiful, bountiful flower and vegetable gardens.

People were drawn to Carrie Dorfman, said the Rev. Gretchen Fogo, a United Methodist minister. "She was magnetic," Fogo said. "She was a very good listener who would let you find your own wisdom by letting you tell your own story. Even when she was dying, she embodied serenity."

Dorfman's husband died in 1987. In addition to her son and daughter, she is survived by two grandchildren. Services have been held.

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788

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