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Simple Gifts in Kentucky

Bright and early one August morning, I found myself sitting in an all-terrain vehicle, sprinkled with seeds and bugs because it had no windshield, with a (closed mouth!) smile spread across my face. Who couldn’t smile, watching soft sunlight sift through the morning mist, imagining travelers one hundred years ago who looked over these same rolling hills and saw, on the horizon, the St. Catharine Motherhouse?

Danny Ray Spalding, the farm manager of St. Catharine Farm, had driven us over a creek and through miles of pasture after moving the cows—they paused as they passed the vehicle, eyeing the newcomers before hustling on to fresh grazing. Over 200 years ago, the first Dominican sisters in America farmed this land to sustain themselves as they taught in a school improvised out of an old stillhouse donated to the cause. I imagine the land looks much the same as it did back then, and because the farm is under a conservation easement that preserves the wooded pastureland for agricultural purposes only, it will continue to inspire admiration and educate future generations on sustainable farming.

Of course, not all has stayed the same in this corner of Kentucky—in one of the heritage rooms of the Motherhouse, I studied the blackened edges of a book that a sister salvaged from the ashes of the previous Motherhouse, which burned down before this one was built. I mention this book being in one of the heritage rooms, because there is another room devoted to the history and artifacts of the Eucharistic Missionaries of St. Dominic, many of whom moved into the Motherhouse after they, the Kentucky Dominicans, and several other congregations united to form the Dominican Sisters of Peace. The photos in this heritage room show quite a different landscape: sisters in canoes being paddled towards a home on a Louisiana bayou or preaching beside the Model T they used to navigate muddy, unpaved roads.*

The call to love God, to love our neighbor, and to care for creation requires us to be flexible: in some things, we stay the same, in some things, we change. Sometimes we stay where we are, and sometimes we go somewhere new. A song from my college humanities course comes to mind reflecting on the trip, Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” specifically the part sampling the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.” The sweeping orchestral music captures the landscape, but the lyrics from the original hymn also seem fitting, giving thanks for the opportunity to find home in trust and love and to find hope in turning down new paths.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free ’tis the gift to come down where you ought to be And when we find ourselves in the place just right ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed To turn, turn will be our delight ‘Till by turning, turning we come round right.
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free ’tis the gift to come down where you ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

*(Little did I know when I visited the Motherhouse that first time, the Kentucky Dominicans has also had missions in Louisiana -- reading Signadou: History of the Kentucky Dominicans, I learned that sisters sent there wore shoes with cleats to trek down slippery paths to settlements!)

3 thoughts on “Simple Gifts in Kentucky

  1. Claire Cane, I enjoyed reading your post. What a joy to read about your experiences traveling though the land and into the history books.

  2. Claire – beautiful how you capture the essence and grace of the place, the people, and the charism –

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