After lying awake all night, Shirley Dolan arose at 3 a.m. Wednesday with the prospect — however remote — of being the mother of the next pope.
She spent much of the day with other family members, glued to the television at her granddaughter’s home in Washington, Mo.
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By afternoon, just minutes after the new pope was known, she was back at her own home nearby, relieved that her son, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, would not bear the burden of being the next leader of the 1.2 billion-member church.
But she did so as a mother would, expressing the utmost confidence in her son’s abilities.
“He’s wonderful and I know he could do it,” she said from her driveway. “It should have been him, but thank God. He is so family oriented — all of us are — and he wouldn’t be coming home. He comes home all the time for baptisms.”
Sure enough, as soon as the conclave concluded, the first news Dolan asked about was whether his niece had given birth while he was locked inside the Sistine Chapel. She had, he told reporters Wednesday afternoon, to a boy named Charlie.
Shirley Dolan said she’d felt selfish about not wanting her son to be pope and asked him about it during a recent telephone conversation. She said her son laughed at the idea of being pope and said: “That is so far-fetched, Mother, I haven’t even given it a thought.”
For weeks, speculation had built that Dolan, who now leads the New York Archdiocese, could emerge as a long-shot pick for the papacy. Those theories grew as the conclave began, despite a long-standing assumption that no American could fill the position.
Even so, Shirley Dolan had thought her son — who is known for his cheerful and approachable style — “would bring the religion down to Earth, and that’s what we need.”
Nonetheless, she said, Pope Francis would be “very, very good.”
“The only thing is he’s not jovial. He looks very stern or something, but he’ll be OK — Tim would have been better,” she said with a loud laugh.
She said her son was 4 when he first talked of being a priest. She credited most of his Catholic enthusiasm to Irish nuns who staffed Holy Infant Catholic School, the K-8 grade school he attended in Ballwin near his boyhood home on Victor Court.
In his book, “Life Lessons,” Dolan’s brother Bob Dolan says that today the cardinal “credits the priests, nuns and families of Holy Infant for most everything he has achieved in life. Holy Infant gave him his foundation.”
At Holy Infant on Wednesday, students in Melinda Carel’s second-grade class spent time before the announcement making small paper signs to welcome the new pope. Sure, they had a favorite.
“Most of them say, ‘Go, Tim Dolan,’ ” Carel said while her class watched the televised coverage. “The kids were just so excited about the possibility of seeing Cardinal Dolan.”
In another classroom, sixth-grade students sat on the edges of their seats when the announcement was made.
Sister Rosario Delaney, principal at the school and close friend of Dolan’s, tried to manage the student’s expectations — and her own.
They watched the news from a live broadcast. When the news registered, there were a few seconds of stunned silence.
“Boy and girls, we still have to welcome our Holy Father,” Delaney said.
The students broke into a polite clapping.
“It’s a sense of relief,” Delaney said, afterward, glad Dolan would still be accessible to those he loves in St. Louis. “It would have been wonderful if it had been Cardinal Dolan, but it is also a relief. He still belongs to us.”
First-grade teacher Kathleen Lenger, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Cardinal Dolan, said she was not disappointed.
“He would be a great shepherd,” Lenger said. “It would be something. It would be huge. He’s young. He still has time.”
The possibilities of Dolan papacy drew in even St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson. After a news conference in which he expressed delight for the choice of a new pontiff, Carlson was asked if he was disappointed the Ballwin native was not picked. “Of course. How could you not be?”
Meanwhile, back in Washington, Mo., Dolan’s sister Lisa Williams, 50, who works at a sandwich shop, summed up the feelings of her and her family in more personal terms.
“We weren’t ready to give him up,” she said.