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Founding Day Address


Founding Event: Dominican Sisters of Peace
Keynote Address: Toni Harris, OP (Sinsinawa)  International  Co-Promoter of Justice and Peace, April 12, 2009

Several years ago, when I was visiting my family in Montana, my mother, aunt and I took a trip to Glacier International Peace Park.  Glacier straddles both the USA and Canada.  The mountains, lakes and wildlife are breathtaking.  The scenic beauty there is indescribable.  During the days that we were there, we listened to a forest ranger describe the realities of caring for such a world resource as this Park.  There I learned something relevant for the events of these days:  fire can be a source of renewal.

Founding Event of the Dominican Sisters of Peace

Specifically, I learned something about pine trees and fire.  There are a few types of pines – Jack, Knobcone, Lodgepole, and some others known as “fire climax pines” — whose pine cones do not open to release seeds unless there is extreme heat, namely, a forest fire.  Their seeds are stored in tightly closed cones for years until a forest fire kills the parent tree.  The cones are opened by the heat and the stored seeds are then released in huge numbers to repopulate the burnt ground.

Although often perceived as a source of destruction and upheaval, a forest fire can mean renewal for a forest.  After a fire, soil becomes more fertile, more absorbent, and more suitable for growth.  Some new forms of flora which the now absent overgrowth previously blocked from sunlight have a chance to grow in the cleared space. Seeds unlocked by heat have a chance to sprout.

Over recent years, many of you have experienced trial by fire as you have chosen to change the landscape of your congregational lives. This “burning” is an opportunity to revitalize for greater abundance — an abundance of renewed energy for Gospel preaching.  In keeping with this Season of the Resurrection, you have the chance to demonstrate that life overcomes every kind of dying.  You know both the fire that comes with commitment to the mission of Gospel-preaching and the tears that come with suffering and loss.  We can also imagine that Mary Magdalene of this morning’s Gospel experienced both fire and tears as Jesus commissioned her to go — “and tell my brothers.” The words of our sister, Catherine of Siena, “FIRE AND TEARS ARE MADE ONE IN BURNING DESIRE,” are particularly appropriate for this foundational moment.

You have chosen “Preaching with a New Fire” as the theme for your first general chapter.  It is this theme of fire and preaching that I hope to explore with you on this your Foundation Celebration Day.  “Fire” was a favorite metaphor of our sister, Catherine.  Let us first reflect together about the state of this Earth upon which Jesus came to cast fire.  Then I would like us to consider your new fire for preaching with the following metaphors:  fire as PASSION FOR JUSTICE; fire as FUEL FOR COOKING; fire as ENLIGHTENING TORCH; fire as WARMING HEARTH.  Finally, I beg your permission to offer some sparks of challenge as you enter into the fertile and receptive ground you are creating.


Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus announced:

 “I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! (Luke 12) 

As you inaugurate the new congregation of Dominican Sisters of Peace, it is essential to consider the realities of this Earth upon which Jesus came to cast fire, the world into which we are sent to preach the Gospel — a Gospel that is to be Good News for the poor.  Let us take a moment to reflect on some of these current realities.

We share this planet with nearly 6.8 billion members of our human family.  This family is distributed throughout more than 220 different countries and inhabited territories – the most populated being China, with more than 1.3 billion citizens, and the least populated being the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific, with 50 inhabitants.  A billion people in this world of ours live on live on less than $1 per day.  At least 77 countries are in crisis and are facing current or potential armed conflict.

Our Dominican Family is present in 116 countries of this world.  We live and breathe in some of the poorest and most conflicted places on Earth.  As Dominican Sisters of Peace, you are Sisters to more than 26,000 other Dominican Sisters in more than 160 apostolic congregations around the world.  You have nearly 180,000 Sisters and Brothers — Nuns, Friars, Laity, Sisters — like you committed to our shared mission of Gospel preaching throughout our Earth.

Today, we deliberately open wide our hearts and minds to our global Dominican Family and to the global human family.  I suggest that we examine some of the realities of this world in which we and our entire Dominican Family are inserted in the context of the Millennium Development Goals.  When the governments of the world adopted the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, they pledged to “spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty.”  We are now more than halfway towards the target date – 2015 – by which the MDG’s are to be achieved.  These Goals are not only development objectives for the world. They encompass universally accepted human values and rights such as freedom from hunger, the right to basic education, the right to health and a responsibility to future generations.

In 2008, the UN published a report that summarized some of the significant gains made and challenges remaining. In the area of challenges, this report stated that we now face a global economic slowdown and a food security crisis, both of uncertain magnitude and duration. Global warming has become more apparent. These developments will directly affect our efforts to reduce poverty: the economic slowdown will diminish the incomes of the poor; the food crisis will raise the number of hungry people in the world and push millions more into poverty; climate change will have a disproportionate impact on the poor. Some 2.5 billion people, almost half the developing world’s population, live without improved sanitation. More than one-third of the growing urban population in developing countries lives in slum conditions.

We cannot permit ourselves to forget that nearly 27,000 children die every day in our world, most from preventable illnesses.

The situation for women continues to challenge us:

  • Three-fifths of the world’s one billion poorest people are women and girls.
  • Two thirds of the nearly one billion illiterate adults are women.
  • 70 percent of the children who are out of school are girls.
  • Every year over 500,000 women die from complications resulting from pregnancy or childbirth.
  • At least one out of every three women worldwide is beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime, with rates reaching 70% in some countries.
  • Mass rape is an increasingly sophisticated weapon of war, used in many conflicts throughout the world.

However, the same UN report reminds us that some gains made in recent years cannot be undone.  A child will forever benefit from the primary education he or she might not otherwise have received – and more girls are receiving this primary education.  Many individuals are alive today thanks to a measles vaccination or antiretroviral therapy for AIDS.  Millions of tons of ozone-depleting substances have been prevented from entering the atmosphere. Some external debts have been written-off, freeing resources for development.   Communications have improved with the spread of mobile phone technology throughout the developing world.

Holding these realities about our world tenderly in our hearts, I invite all of us (who are able) to stand.  Let us take a moment to turn and embrace the peoples of our world.

Please turn with me to the East.  I invite you to extend your arms to all the people of the eastern USA, to Ohio, across the Atlantic, to the peoples of Europe, the Middle East, and northern Asia.  Recall especially our Sisters in Iraq who continue to operate schools and hospitals in the midst of conflict.  Recall our Sisters and Brothers in Eastern Europe who work to recover from years of living under repressive political regimes. Recall your Brothers and Sisters at Santa Sabina in Rome — the center of the Order of Preachers, the home of Dominican Sisters International.  Remember the roots you have in Germany, Ireland, the former Czechoslovakia. Bring these people into our gathering here and into your chapter days ahead.

Please turn with me to the South.  I invite you to extend your arms to all the people of the southern USA, to Kentucky and Louisiana, across the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic, to the peoples of the Caribbean, Latin America, and the African continent.  Recall especially members of our Dominican Family ministering among those displaced by the ongoing conflict in Colombia. Remember our Sisters in Zimbabwe who struggle to minister in the midst of extreme poverty, corruption and violence.  Recall your Sisters in Peru, Honduras, Nigeria.  Bring these people into our gathering here and into your chapter days ahead.

Please turn with me to the West.  I invite you to extend your arms to all the people of the western USA, to Kansas, across the Pacific, to the peoples of the Far East, and all of southern Asia and Oceania.  Recall especially our Brothers and Sisters who minister among those who barely survive in the “informal settlements” or slums of Manila. Recall our Sisters who comfort and support women trafficked into Taiwan.  Recall our Family Members persecuted in Pakistan and India.  Bring those people into our gathering here and into your chapter days ahead.

Please turn with me to the North.  I invite you to extend your arms to all the people of the northern USA, to Michigan, to the peoples of Canada and those who live at the top of the world.  Recall especially our Sisters and Brothers who minister among diverse immigrant populations in Canada.  Recall those who work to develop new ways of preaching to those for whom a church pulpit has no meaning.  Bring those people into our gathering here and into your chapter days ahead.

Please turn to the center of your table and hold in a moment of silence all those whom your arms embrace.

Please be seated.

Now, how will the “new fire” of your preaching respond to these people and realities which we embrace?  Reflect with me on the following four metaphors for fire: passion; fuel; torch; hearth.

FIRE as Passion for Justice

My heart was hot within me,
While I was musing the fire burned;
Then I spoke with my tongue . . . (Psalm 39)

Consider the FIRE associated with passion:  we think of excitement, enthusiasm, ardor.  This is the energy that ignites your minds, spirits and bodies as you recommit yourselves to BE the Holy Preaching.  If our Gospel-preaching is authentic, we are compelled to be engaged in action for justice; we participate in the transformation of this world of ours.  We cannot be aware of this global reality on the one hand, and take the Gospel seriously on the other, and then fail to respond.

The Gospel requires that we walk with two feet: charity and justice.  Charity involves responding to immediate human needs: hunger, shelter, clothing.   Justice means working to change the oppressive systems that cause human needs.   Both charity and justice are important and essential.  However, as Pius XI stated years ago, “Let no one attempt with small gifts of charity to exempt themselves from the great duty imposed by justice.”  Our times call for efforts to change systems: systems that control economies; systems that influence the world’s food supply; systems that affect the well-being of the planet.

How will the new fire of your preaching bring new energy, new passion, as you work together to create a more just world?  How will every Dominican Sister of Peace understand that action for justice is not optional but is a dynamic perspective reflected in every ministry?

Let us recall our Sisters who have confronted unjust corporate policies through shareholder actions on behalf of our congregations.   Remember our Brothers in Congo-Kinshasa who have struggled to provide democracy education for people who never have had the opportunity to vote in the history of their country.

In your proposed Constitutions you say:

“In our constant pursuit of truth and justice, we willingly accept the challenge to be a prophetic voice in solidarity with the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed, and to work for human rights.  Our various ministries promote the fullness of God’s desire that all will live in harmony and peace, respecting one another and the natural environment that sustains us.”  (#26)


So when they got out on the land, they saw a charcoal fire already laid and fish placed on it, and bread. (John 21) 

Consider the cooking FIRE – the instrument of nourishment from which comes the Bread of Justice, Truth, and Peace — the bread of your lives, broken and shared.  How will your preaching be food for the many hungers of today’s world?   During your Pre-Chapter Assembly in October, our Sister Carol Zinn identified several spiritual hungers that exist in our world and suggested the response that our Dominican charism can offer to those hungers.  Recall the human hungers that Carol named:  Unity; Interdependence; Justice; Wholeness; Reverence; Sense of the Sacred; Wisdom.

In addition to these spiritual hungers, we know that much of our world suffers from physical hunger:

  • Nearly one billion people do not have enough to eat – more than the populations of USA, Canada and the European Union;
  • Asia and the Pacific region is home to over half the world’s population and nearly two thirds of the world’s hungry people;
  • More than 60 percent of chronically hungry people are women;
  • Every six seconds a child dies because she or he is hungry.[2]

How will the directions that you set in the coming days reflect these many hungers of the human family?  Will your Holy Preaching as expressed in your lives and your ministries provide nourishment for any of these diverse hungers in our world today?

Let us recall our Sisters and Brothers in many places throughout our world who distribute food to the hungry.  Remember our Dominican Sisters in the Philippines preparing and serving a meal to the indigenous school children in the hills beyond Manila.

In the Prologue of your proposed Constitutions you say:

“As Dominic was moved to tears by the moral and intellectual disintegration of his time, we too encounter Christ suffering in those who are oppressed, in the wounded Earth and in all who long for the fullness of life.”


Then He led them with the cloud by day and all the night with a light of fire. He split the rocks in the wilderness
And gave them abundant drink like the ocean depths.
(Psalm 78) 

Consider the FIRE of the torch, the beacon.  Illumination is connected with contemplation.  The root meaning of the word “contemplate” has to do with the temple and the augurs of the temple who examined the remains of sacrifices and discerned meaning in bones and ashes.  These augurs saw beyond mere appearances to a deeper meaning.  How will your sharing of the fruits of your contemplation enable others to see beyond appearances to the truth of our world’s reality?   Will your lives and ministries cast light so that truth about our sisters and brothers around the world may be known?  We know well the tradition that Dominic’s mother, Jane of Aza, had a dream while pregnant with Dominic: she gave birth to a swift running hound with a torch in his mouth that illuminated the world.   Recently, I heard one of our Dominican Brothers remark that he now understands this torch as Dominic’s capacity to illuminate the Other, the Stranger, and to recognize that one as Sister or Brother.

In the Prologue of your proposed Constitutions you say:

“God continues to speak to us, calling women and men into this family of Dominic and Catherine, sending us to be light for the world, preachers of grace and truth.”


Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  (James 2)

Consider the FIRE of the hearth – the place where a circle of people may gather for warmth and comfort;  the place of hospitality, welcome, community.  Can you imagine a future where the Dominican Sisters of Peace are known for their lived example of community, for their spirit of hospitality, for their participation in building a society and church where strangers are made welcome, where the Other finds a place at the table — in the circle around the hearth.

An overwhelming, universal concern of our times in the number of people “on the move.”  More than 280 million persons in our world are migrants, victims of trafficking, refugees, internally displaced or stateless persons.  The majority of these people on the move are women.   How will you continue efforts underway and begin new initiatives to preach the Gospel of warmth and welcome to so many who are uprooted in our world?

Let us recall our Sisters and Brothers along the Texas-Mexico border who at this moment are responding to the needs of migrants from Central America.  Remember our Sisters in southern Italy working to assist those risking everything to travel the seas from northern  Africa.

In your proposed Constitutions you say:

“Through the search for truth, we strive to create and sustain a more just society, one that reflects the compassion and generosity of God.” (#22)

We have considered the current realities of the Earth upon which Jesus came to cast fire;  we have considered four fiery forms that your preaching may take: passion; fuel; torch; hearth.  Working for a more just world, addressing the hungers of human family, illuminating the truth about our world, and making the Other welcome at the warming hearth are efforts that lead to the creation of a culture of peace.  These new fires of your Gospel-preaching can give substance to the new name you claim as Dominican Sisters of Peace.

Now, please permit me to offer some sparks of challenge as you recommit yourself to your Dominican vocation in a new congregation.  As you inaugurate a new congregation of Dominican preachers, you have a window — an opportunity — to renew the Holy Preaching here in this continent and beyond.  Don’t waste this moment.  I remember several years ago a conversation with a former prioress of one of your founding congregations.  She said that she overheard one Sister trying to console another about this proposed union.  She heard one say to the anxious other, “Don’t worry.  We’re really not going to have to change very much.”  The former prioress practically shouted in the retelling, “If we don’t have to change very much, then why the heck are we going through all this?!”  You have a moment to embrace renewal of our Gospel-preaching mission in a way that few others have.  Don’t miss this opportunity.  Don’t let the window close.

Don’t let the Dominican Sisters of Peace simply be a more efficient way of managing the decline of apostolic religious life in the USA.  Don’t settle in to a more comfortable mode of going out of business — with fewer elected officials and fewer Sisters in administration, etc. — a sort of “tidying-up” as you wait in relative comfort for someone else to turn the lights out.  You have the chance to be a witness, an example for the rest of us.  You have a moment.

There is a story about a congregation in Europe whose members were all very elderly and new vocations were non-existent.  These Sisters decided to identify a place where needs were great and to invest all their human and financial resources in responding to these mission needs.  They invested themselves somewhere in Latin America; they “went for broke,” as we say.  The result was the foundation of a new, vibrant congregation in that place.  New life came out of the risk they were willing to take.   It is also helpful to recall that — after decades of expulsion —  communities of Dominican Sisters were refounded in Ireland by a small number of Sisters in their 60’s and 70’s.  Additionally, you are already an intercontinental congregation:  you have Sisters in Peru, in Nigeria, in Honduras, and histories and relationships with Haiti, Guatemala, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Vietnam, Zambia and other countries.  How will you build on this international experience in the days to come?

Imagine your patrons and elders standing around the edges of this room:  imagine Fr. Samuel Wilson, Sisters Angela Sansbury, Benvin Sansbury, Emily Elder, Agnes Harbin, Catherine Mudd, Mother Mary John Flanagan, Mother Antonina Fischer, Sister DeSales Zavodnik, Sisters Catherine Bostick, Margaret (Zoe) Grouchy, and Mother M. Beda Schmid.  Picture Libby, Lorena, Joel — even Ginger — and all those who’ve walked ahead of us, hoping for this day.

Now, see the patrons who have guided you this far:  Dominic, Mary Magdalene, Rose of Lima, Catherine of Siena, Zedislava, and Mary, the Mother of God.

Imagine all their hands raised extending a blessing on you.  Imagine all of us who are your Associates, Co-Ministers, members of the Dominican Family and other friends here today holding a blessing in our hearts for you.

Deep in this fertile ground now cleared for new growth we find the sturdy roots of great trees:  the Tulip Poplar of Kentucky; the Buckeye of Ohio; the Cottonwood of Kansas; the Cypress of Louisiana; the White Pine of Michigan.  Deeper still, we find nutrient spirits from Germany, Ireland, the former Czechoslovakia, and the American frontier and bayous.   This absorbent soil is ready to welcome new seeds unlocked by the renewing fire of these years of preparation for this day.

We are celebrating the jubilee years of our Dominican Order these days: a celebration that will culminate in 2016 when we mark 800 years since Dominic received formal approval for his Order of Preachers.  However, this inauguration of the Dominicans of Peace in 2009 weaves together 870 years of your former congregations’ histories.  Collectively, you are older than the Order!

The theme for this multi-year jubilee celebration for the Order of Preachers is from 1 Corinthians 9: “woe to us if we do not preach the gospel.”  Today, you celebrate and deepen your vocation as Gospel-preachers.  Like Mary Magdalen, you are charged to go and tell.  Go into the days of chapter and the coming days ahead committed to preach with a new fire.

Let us conclude with the words from the first Letter of Peter:

“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary,  you have been distressed by various trials,  so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold , which is perishable, even though tested by fire,  may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him,  and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory . . .”  (1 Peter 1)

[1] Catherine of Siena, Dialogue #92

[2] UN-FOA, various reports

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