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Joyful, Faithful, and Resilient, in Service to God’s People: Dominican Women Religious in the United States

Posted on April 11, 2023

Published in the September 2022 Issue of Dominican Ashram

When the first Dominican convent was founded in Kentucky in 1822, the sisters took joy in the blooms of the yellow jonquils that popped up in the valley annually. Nearly 75 years later, after a terrible fire left the sisters and their students homeless, they found hope when the jonquils bloomed again from the ashes. The beauty and resilience of these wildflowers have become a symbol for Dominican women religious across the United States.

As Dominican women religious in the United States celebrate 200 years of service to God and God’s people, we look back on the congregations that grew from that first convent in Kentucky, and the other Dominican Congregations that have helped to help shape not just the Order, but the church and the nation.

The first foundation of Dominican women religious in the United States was created at the request of Fr. Edward Dominic Fenwick, OP. Fr. Fenwick founded The Dominican Friars of the Province of St. Joseph in 1806 in Kentucky, and soon extended the ministry to Ohio.

Fr. Fenwick had big plans for his new ministry – but few hands to do the work. The Dominican Fathers of the Province of Kentucky had seen their brothers across the ocean having great success with foundations of tertiaries who opened schools in Asian nations and thought that a similar plan would work in Kentucky.

So it was that on a frosty February 28, 1822, Fr. Samuel Thomas Wilson, a priest in the frontier parish of St. Rose Church, rose to the pulpit to preach one of the most fruitful sermons of his life. With his friend Fr. Fenwick, Fr. Wilson dreamed of educating the youth of the new Kentucky settlement, and he wanted to find women to bring that dream to pass.

Nine women stood up and became the first foundation of Dominican women religious in the United States. Like their founder, St. Dominic de Guzman, and their patroness St. Mary Magdalene, these women lived in and among those they served, responding to the needs of God’s people with hope, care, and love. And like the Dominican Order itself, they continued to grow.

The Paradox of Dominican Women Religious
Unlike today, these early groups of sisters were not considered “Congregations,” but rather, communities, subject to the local friar or Provincial. Sisters moved from community to community to serve the needs of the Church. This itineracy, always a trait of Dominican life, was also the impetus for new communities.

One example is the Springfield Dominicans of Illinois. The sisters who founded that community were requested from Kentucky by Illinois Bishop Baltes. When they departed, the Kentucky prioress made it clear that the new mission was to be financially independent. When the time came for those sisters to return home, Father P.J. Macken told them they were no longer affiliated with the Kentucky community… and a new congregation was born.

American Dominican sisters were also caught in a paradox regarding their status within the Order. They were invited to serve in an active apostolate – but there was no concession for that sort of ministry in the Order. The Church approved only of those women who took solemn vows and entered the cloister – a lifestyle incompatible for the active ministry to which these sisters were called. Sisters were so concerned about their place in the Order that in 1848, every professed Dominican sister in the Kentucky and Ohio communities sent a letter to Pope Pius IX asking him to approve a modified Dominican life conducive to ministry.

In 1864, Master of the Order Vincent Jandel, OP, caused concern among the communities of Dominican women religious in the United States by making each community accountable to a local bishop, rather than to Dominican provincials and friars. As a result, sisters ended the practice of moving among communities as needed and began to form congregations.

It wasn’t until 1900 that Pope Leo XIII recognized all women and men who made simple vows as consecrated religious, clarifying their role in the Church.

The Expansion and Experimentation of Dominican Women Religious in America

From nine women in rural Kentucky, the footprint of Dominican women religious moved across the nation. This was the result of the rapid growth of the United States through immigration and expansion, and the Dominican fire to meet the needs resulting from that growth.

Less than a decade after the first founding of the Kentucky community, four Sisters began a second community in Ohio. Sisters from both communities responded to a request from the Dominican Bishop of Nashville, to start a school in in Nashville. The resulting community became the Nashville Dominicans.

In 1847, Fr. Venerable Samuel Mazzuchelli and four sisters established a community of Dominican sisters in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. Sisters from the Somerset, Ohio, congregation came to assist the fledging – and struggling – congregation in 1854, and Sister Joanna Clark remained to serve as prioress.

The Sinsinawa community became a laboratory of sorts for the formation of active Dominican sisterhood. Based on their experience, Friar Mazzuchelli created a commentary on the meaning of the Dominican Third Order in relationship to the lives of sisters in active ministry. This document recognized that all members of the community were equal in their rights and obligations, and that ministry was of utmost importance. His Rule of 1860 was meant to be a guide for the many groups of active Dominican Sisters springing up across the United States.

The Dominican family was not growing only by expansion. Many congregations were missions from other countries, coming to serve the families of immigrants flooding into America.

In 1853, a group of four cloistered nuns from the Holy Cross Monastery in Regensburg, Germany, landed in New York with the intention of founding a school to teach German immigrant children. No one met them at the dock, and these four women knew little English. They were taken in by the Redemptorist Fathers, and soon founded a school for 140 young women. As that congregation grew, their missions became communities of their own. Among the congregations that were born of these four sisters are Dominican Sisters of Hope, Dominican Sisters of Amityville, Caldwell Dominicans, Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, and Adrian Dominicans.

In 1850, Friar Joseph Sadoc Alemany met Sister Mary of the Cross Goemaere, a Belgian novice, in Paris. She volunteered to accompany him to the United States, where she was to teach French at St. Mary’s in Somerset, OH. Upon arriving in the United States, Fr. Alemany decided to send Sister Mary Goemaere to California, where she was later joined by two sisters from Somerset, OH. This little community eventually became known as the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael.

The Effects of Vatican II

Dominican sisters across the US embraced the challenge and call to renewal of Vatican II. They continue to preach Christ’s Gospel through numerous ministerial involvements and are active in addressing many of the social justice issues that impact Americans, speaking out and acting against racial injustice, economic disparities, the death penalty, the arms race, climate degradation and more.

Another result of Vatican II was the creation of Perfectae Caritatis, focusing on the adaptation and renewal of religious life. Under this document, independent institutes considered as belonging to the same religious family were encouraged to form federations, especially as membership begins to decrease.

Conferences, Clusters and Mergers

In 1935 Martine Gillet, OP, the Master General of the Dominican Order, requested the formation of the Conference of the Dominican Mothers General of America. By 1939 all 28 congregations in the U.S. participated in annual gatherings of congregational leadership to discuss common aims and problems.

The Conference transformed over the years to allow members to deepen their Dominican spirituality, strengthen the mission, and develop relationships and collaborations. In 1972 the sisters included the Dominican Friars in the conference, creating the Dominican Leadership Conference (DLC), and sponsoring an NGO representative at the United Nations.

In the early 21st century the sisters began to discern a need for a separate conference dedicated to their needs and missions. Following a two-year process of study and consultation, a vote of the members of the DLC in 2009, and a vote of the Federation in 2010, the DLC held its last meeting in Maryknoll, NY, in October 2010, and The Dominican Sisters Conference (DSC) came into being. Today, the Dominican Sisters Conference unites U.S. Dominican Congregations in their mission to preach the Gospel of Jesus, standing as a clear voice for truth, justice, and peace.

Another important result of the Conference of the Dominican Mothers General of America was the formation of regional “clusters,” groups of congregations in relative geographic proximity. These “clusters” gave Congregations the opportunity to collaborate on ministries, laying the groundwork for future unions of religious congregations.

The Creation of “Peace”

The formation of Congregational clusters combined with the opportunities made available by Perfectae Caritatis set the stage for a new era in the life of North America’s Dominican women religious. In 2002, seven congregations: Kentucky Dominicans, the Dominicans of St. Mary of the Springs, the Congregation of St. Mary, the Dominican Sisters of Great Bend, the Eucharistic Missionaries of St. Dominic (EMD), the Akron Dominicans, and Congregation of St. Rose of Lima, began to discern the possibility of a union.

In many ways, this group of congregations was a perfect sample for such a large union. The founding congregations were of varied origin – homegrown, like Kentucky and the EMD’s, expansionist, like St. Mary of the Springs and Akron, or founded by Sisters who immigrated to minster here, like St. Mary’s and St. Rose of Lima. For nearly two centuries, these seven congregations of Dominican Sisters had educated children, cared for the sick and the wounded during war and plague, ministered to the poor and marginalized, and acted as spiritual centers in their communities. They had also conducted missions in China, South America, Vietnam, and Africa, even helping to create an indigenous congregation of Dominican sisters in Nigeria.

Each of the seven congregations had common ministries across the country that could benefit from partnership. Most important, each Congregation was dedicated to the preaching mission, and desired that the mission continue – and that was good enough reason to take the leap of faith that such a union would demand.

The “Peace” Dominicans

The story of the Dominican Sisters of Peace began in the frontier town of Springfield, Kentucky. The women who responded to Fr. Wilson’s sermon, including two blood Sisters, Angela and Benven Sansbury, received the Dominican habit in 1822 and founded the Dominican Sisters of St. Mary Magdalene, the first congregation of Dominican Sisters in the new nation. This congregation later became known as the Kentucky Dominicans and were foremothers to today’s Dominican Sisters of Peace.

The sisters promptly began the work requested by Bishop Fenwick and the Dominican friars – educating the children of the Kentucky frontier. The tiny cabin that they lived in left no room for students or supplies, so the new congregation moved to the Sansbury family farm, located on the banks of Cartwright Creek. There they established the first permanent Dominican convent in the United States, as well as the first Dominican school, built in a rehabilitated a “still house” formerly used for making bourbon. The sisters welcomed 15 local students in July 1823.

Just as Christ sent out the 72 apostles and Dominic assigned friars to preach across Europe, the Dominican sisters in Kentucky knew that they needed to evangelize and grow. Just eight short years after their foundation, the Kentucky sisters sent four sisters, including founder Benven Sansbury, across the rutted trail of Zane’s Trace to the new frontier of Ohio. Bishop Edward Fenwick was the first priest to serve this parish. He and his nephew, Fr. Nicholas Dominic Young opened Holy Trinity Church, near Somerset, Ohio, in 1827, and welcomed the help of the Kentucky sisters in their mission.

Once they arrived in Somerset, Ohio, the sisters rehabilitated an old carpenter’s shop to serve as their first school, which they named St. Mary’s. Within a month they had welcomed 30 students.

As the sisters in Kentucky and Ohio were building schools in Kentucky, Ohio, and later Tennessee, a Cabra Dominican nun from Dublin, Ireland, responded to a request from Fr. Jeremiah Moynihan to staff a school for Irish immigrant students in the New Orleans parish of St. John the Baptist. Mother Mary John Flanagan and six other sisters made the journey across the sea to found the Dominican Sisters of St. Mary’s, New Orleans. On December 3, 1860, the Sisters of St. Mary’s opened their first school to 200 young women.

The Sisters from Ireland might have crossed nautical paths with a new convert to the faith, Lucy Eaton Smith. The Brooklyn native was traveling to Europe to fulfill her own spiritual aspirations. There her Dominican spiritual advisor, Father Aquilanti, introduced Lucy to the Cenacle, a religious foundation devoted to strengthening the spirituality of women through retreat work. After entering the Order as a Third Order tertiary in 1876, Smith returned to the United States to create an institute whose mission was to meet the need for faith formation and spiritual development of women.

It was difficult for Lucy to garner support for this mission because the local bishop did not believe it could support itself. But with the cooperation of Bishop Francis McNeirney of Albany, NY, Lucy began to offer classes and programs in spiritual formation to women in Glen Falls, while opening a much-needed school. Before she died, Lucy Eaton Smith, who took the religious name Sr. Catherine de’Ricci opened two retreat houses, pioneering the ministry of spiritual retreats and formation for women in the United States. The de’Ricci sisters were not part of the 2009 union that created Peace but merged into the Congregation in 2012.

As important as spiritual renewal and healing was to our founding congregation in New York, the Dominican Sisters in Great Bend, KS, ministered in another sort of healing. Mother Antonina Fischer, six sisters and two candidates left Brooklyn, New York in 1902 with the intention of teaching the Catholic children of the pioneer town of Great Bend, KS, but soon discovered that the residents were much more in need of a hospital.

Mother Antonina decided to serve both needs, and opened a school in 1902, an eight-bed hospital in 1903, and a 20-bed hospital in 1904. As the healthcare centers grew, so did the need for trained nurses, and the Congregation opened a nursing school in 1917.

By the time the Congregation in Great Bend celebrated its Jubilee, the sisters had founded schools in Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Colorado, as well as three hospitals in Kansas and one in Nebraska.

Back in Louisiana, Catharine Bostick had caught the attention of Archbishop Shaw of New Orleans. Shaw supported Catherine’s vision of a foundation that would evangelize, catechize, and offer nursing and social services to ALL people – white and black, rich, and poor. This was radical thinking in rural Amite, LA! Catherine and her companion, Zoe Grouchy, made their first vows in 1927, naming their new congregation the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Eucharist.

Five years later, at the request of the newly installed Archbishop, the Congregation moved to New Orleans. In 1939, in response to a request from Bishop Gerke, two Sisters traveled to Tucson, AZ, to help teach and evangelize among the native Americans and immigrants there.

In 1956, the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Eucharist were re-established as the Eucharistic Missionaries of St. Dominic and incorporated into the Dominican Order.

At the urging of Bishop Joseph Schrembs of Cleveland, the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, New Jersey, founded a new provincial house and school in Akron, OH., in 1923. Housed in a mansion known as Elm Court, the sisters named their Ohio affiliate “Our Lady of the Elms.”

During a 1926 visit by the Bishop Thomas Walsh of Newark, Bishop Schrembs arranged to create an independent congregation of Sisters to serve his diocese. The bishop supported the separation of the two communities, which was formalized in 1929. Twenty-seven sisters elected to return to New Jersey, while sixty-seven stayed in Akron to create The Sisters of St. Dominic of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

The new Congregation faced significant financial challenges, but the sisters continued to expand their ministries. By 1935, there were 105 Akron Dominican Sisters teaching in Ohio elementary and high schools. In the 1960’s, their missions expanded to care of the elderly and campus ministry.

The Akron congregation branched off to serve two geographically separate parishes. The Oxford Dominicans, founded in 1950, was part of a division that happened at the request of the Congregation.

Originally founded as the American Province of the Olomouc Dominican, the mission was formed for the “for the salvation of their souls and the preservation of the Slovak heritage.”

World Wars I and II greatly affected the Slovak people, and sadly, tension between the Slovaks and Czechs within the Congregation began to influence their ministry to Slovaks and their relations to one another. In January 1949, a secret ballot to determine the question of separation resulted in 50 in favor of and one opposed to separation.

In August 1950, the American Province of the Olomouc Dominican would become the Oxford Dominicans, and the new Congregation moved to the Coyle Estate in Oxford, MI. Over the years, the property was transformed to meet the needs of the congregation and the community, creating a retreat house for women, a junior college, and, at the request of Archbishop John Dearden, a 100-bed nursing facility. The new facility, named Lourdes, continues to provide care for the residents of the area to this day.

The Union of Peace
In the early years of the twenty-first century, as these seven congregations began to look to a combined future, they formed committees to discuss everything from community life, prayer, Dominican mission, the location of Motherhouses, and the continuation of ministry to the name of the new Congregation. After seven years of discernment and prayer, the newly formed Congregation, The Dominican Sisters of Peace, held their inaugural General Chapter on Easter Sunday, 2009, and were blessed to be joined by the Master of the Order, Father Carlos Aspiroz, OP.

In 2011, after nearly 10 years of research, discernment and prayer, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de’ Ricci requested to merge with the Dominican Sisters of Peace. The merger ceremony took place on December 15, 2012.

Looking Forward in Peace

In the 12 years since the union, the Dominican Sisters of Peace have continued to work in all the ministries to which the sisters were originally called – and more. As we celebrate the 200th year since our founding, we are blessed to also celebrate a combined ministerial history of nearly 1500 years of service to God, God’s people, and the Church – and we are not done yet.

Thousands of children have been educated at the hundreds of schools founded in states across the country., and today, we are still affiliated with schools in Louisiana, New York, Ohio, and Tennessee. Our educational ministries also include two colleges and three adult learning centers.

Our hospitals in Kansas and Colorado were founding facilities in Common Spirit Health, the third-largest health system in America. Our long-term care homes in Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio offer compassionate care for both Sisters and laypersons.

Our four eco-spiritualty ministries hold more than 1000 acres of land for sustainable food production, ecological education, and the enjoyment of God’s precious creation.

Our community outreach and retreat centers in Kansas, Louisiana, New York, and Ohio work with their local communities to promote physical and spiritual health and community peacebuilding.

Across the country, our sisters’ personal ministries include spiritual guidance, pastoral work, health care, teaching, service to the poor, immigrants, enslaved and imprisoned persons, and preaching of every kind.

Around the world, we collaborate with partners in Africa and Jamaica to offer education, healthcare and hope.

The Dominican Sisters of Peace presently have eight women in various stages of formation, who bring a variety of gifts from medical care to administration, to teaching. The Congregation is active in national and international planning for the future of the Order’s women religious and continue to preach the Gospel of Christ’s peace in word and in action, in our lives and our ministries.

The future of religious life is one that will require resilience – the strength to move past obstacles both secular and clerical to preach Veritas, the truth who is Christ. As we look forward to the next two hundred years, we women of the Dominican Order in the United States, we hope that we can be as the jonquils that our foremothers loved so much, and like the spirit of our beloved founder St. Dominic – joyful, faithful and resilient in the service of God and God’s people.

The Dominican Sisters of Peace were founded on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009. The current Leadership team includes Sr. Patricia Twohill, OP, Prioress; First Councilor Sr. Anne Lythgoe, OP; Second Councilor Sr. Carol Davis, OP; Third Councilor Sr. Cathy Arnold, OP; Fourth Councilor Sr. Susan M. Leslie, OP

2 thoughts on “Joyful, Faithful, and Resilient, in Service to God’s People: Dominican Women Religious in the United States

  1. You mention serving persons “across the country” including “enslaved” persons. This is said in the present tense. The year now is 2024.

    Are you aware of enslaved persons in the USA?

    If so, you have a duty to report this to the authorities.
    If you don’t—if this is hyperbolic language—or worse—deceit—you are really not representing the Lord properly because it’s hard to take seriously anyone who does such a thing. Either that was written and approved but rather unintelligent persons or persons with some kind of political agenda.

    What then, is it?
    A poor choice of words?
    An error?
    Some kind of liberation theology linguistic structure?

    1. There are thousands of enslaved persons around the world due to the sin of human trafficking. Yes, we report this to the authorities. We also work with those who are taken advantage of due to poor language skills or lack of knowledge of the law so that they can advocate for themselves. You may want to assist us in this work by reaching out to your representative to support HR 1325, the Work Authorization for Asylum Seekers Act.

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