A Call to Mercy

Articles by Marilyn Rhodes, OPA

Long before the formal training and regulation of nursing, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine provided care for those who were in need. The Sisters tended to the sick and dying through several cholera and yellow fever epidemics in Kentucky and Tennessee. They even gave up their own beds to nurse injured soldiers, both Union and Confederate, during the Civil War.

Springfield suffered mightily during the 1833 and 1854 cholera epidemics. This dreadful illness is characterized by violent gastrointestinal issues, muscle cramps, excessive thirst, and usually death within twelve hours. During the first cholera outbreak, there were only ten or eleven sisters, so they recruited lay women to work with them in the ministry of caring for the ill. Both sisters and lay women knew the dangers of this ministry. For over three weeks, day and night, these women worked with the sick and dying, and none contracted cholera. The 1854 cholera outbreak required weeks of caring by the Dominican sisters and their associates.

In addition to the sisters, an enslaved African American man named Louis Sansbury, remained in Springfield while most residents left to avoid the illness. He worked tirelessly to care for the sick and buried the dead and was recognized as a local hero. Upon returning the Springfield after the outbreak, the town’s residents were so grateful to Mr. Sansbury that they purchased his freedom after his owner died of cholera and helped him establish a blacksmith shop to support his family.

During the second outbreak, Mr. Sansbury again provided care and the dignity of burial to any person who needed him. An historical maker is dedicated to him in Springfield, and the city dedicated the celebration of the first annual African American Heritage Week in his honor.

In Memphis, the Dominican sisters opened an orphanage in 1853 to provide homes for children whose parents were lost to cholera, yellow fever, and smallpox. Due to the segregation of that era, the children were divided into groups of white boys, Black boys, Black girls, and white girls.

Yellow fever took over the city regularly for 4 decades, with painful symptoms and death within hours. The Memphis sisters cared not only for students, but for many who came to the school looking for assistance as well as members of the community.

At least five friars and ten sisters perished in the last outbreaks of yellow fever, but the Dominicans did not take time to mourn. After the yellow fever ended, the sisters returned to their work in Memphis, opening more schools for white and Black students, and orphanages for both. In gratitude for their service, for many years after the war, no sister in Memphis had to pay for public transportation.

Sadly, epidemics were not the only crisis calling out to our sisters during this time. The Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine did not take a side in the Civil War, but rather, cared for Union and Confederate casualties both in Memphis and in Sienna Vale. The wounded were sent to Memphis by boat and train, where the sisters from St. Agnes and LaSalette school and orphanage cared for them. Sixteen sisters dedicated themselves to this difficult and draining ministry; one of them, Sister Alberta Rumpff, found and cared for her own brother among the war wounded. General William Tecumseh Sherman, whose wife attended St. Mary of the Springs, was instrumental in obtaining the supplies that the sisters needed to nurse the ill and wounded.

One of the most ferocious battles of the Civil War occurred in Perryville, Kentucky, less than thirty miles from the St. Catharine Motherhouse. Although Kentucky remained neutral, both armies traveled through the state, sometimes taking clothing, food, and other resources from its residents. Legend has it that Confederate General John Hunt Morgan raided the Motherhouse of her horses, but his neighbors, who were students at St. Catharine, shamed him into returning them.

All twenty-four sisters at St. Catharine were involved in providing care to the wounded and comforting the dying after the battle, regardless of their military affiliation or religion. The sisters nursed the injured in Perryville and brought many home to the Motherhouse, converting it to a military hospital.

Many years later, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine were recognized for their works of mercy during the Civil War. The Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians erected a monument in Washington, DC in 1918. In 1961, the Catholic Hospital Association awarded plaques to fourteen religious communities for their work on the battlefields and in hospitals during the war. The plaque awarded to the Sisters of Catharine of Siena, now the Dominican Sisters of Peace, hangs in the Sansbury Care Center, where many retired Sisters live. The inscription reads:

For outstanding service during the Civil War. Presented to your Order by the Catholic Hospital Association, June 14, 1961. They comforted the dying, nursed the wounded, carried hope to the imprisoned, gave in His name a drink of water to the thirsty




Posted in Celebrating 200 Years, News

Dominican Sisters of Peace Share 200 Years of History in “Building Peace” Podcast

Sr. Ana Gonzalez, OP, records an episode of “Building Peace: 200 Years of Catholic Dominican Nuns in the United States.”

As the Dominican Sisters of Peace celebrate the 200th Anniversary of Dominican Women Religious in the United States, the Congregation will release a new podcast: “Building Peace: 200 Years of Catholic Dominican Nuns in the United States,” on Saturday, June 25.

The podcast shares the 200-year history of the founding congregations of the Dominican Sisters of Peace, beginning with the Kentucky Dominicans, the first congregation of Dominican Sisters, founded in Springfield, Kentucky in 1822. Subsequent episodes will examine the histories of the other Congregations that constitute the present-day Dominican Sisters of Peace, including the Dominican Sisters of St. Mary of the Springs; the Congregation of St. Mary; Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de’ Ricci; the Dominican Sisters of Great Bend, Kansas; the Eucharistic Missionaries of St. Dominic; the Sisters of St. Dominic of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the Congregation of St. Rose of Lima.

Each Congregation will be featured in a single episode. Other episodes will look at the Congregation’s work in education, social justice, missionary work, and more. The podcast has been written and recorded by members of the congregation and offers a unique look into religious life and the women who have dedicated their lives to service to the Church and her people.

“The story of Dominican Women Religious in the US is literally the story of America,” said Sr. Barbara Kane, OP, who has spearheaded the effort to create this podcast series. “From our earliest days of teaching children on the frontier to our work today in education, medicine, ecology, and social justice, our Congregation has helped build this country, and we believe that we will also be a positive force in our nation’s future.”

The first episode of “Building Peace: 200 Years of Catholic Dominican Nuns in the United States,” will be available Saturday, June 25. It can be found at the website celebrating the 200th anniversary of Dominican Women Religious, usdomsisters200.oppeace.org, and other podcast services.

Posted in Celebrating 200 Years, News

The Dominican Sisters in the 19th Century

Articles by Marilyn Rhodes, OPA

This article is the third of twelve, one per month, celebrating the Bicentennial of Dominican Women in the United States.  This series celebrates highlights of Dominican Sisters, whose history hails from Washington County, Kentucky.

From the founding of the Congregation in 1822 until the end of the nineteenth century, the mission of St. Catharine of Sienna grew by leaps and bounds, founding additional convents and schools. In 1830, Bishop Fenwick, founder of Dominicans in the United States, requested sisters to travel to Somerset, OH, to teach in his diocese.

Four sisters, including Benvin Sansbury, left to create the first daughter foundation, St. Mary of the Springs. Under the auspices of the Dominican Provincial, another new mission was developed in Memphis, TN in 1851. Three sisters from each St. Catharine and St. Mary of the Springs traveled to Memphis to begin St. Agnes Academy, the first Catholic girls’ academy in the state of Tennessee. In 1888, St. Agnes became permanently affiliated with St. Catharine to share mission and resources. By the end of the century, sisters from St. Catharine of Sienna near Springfield, KY had established Dominican Mother Houses in Nashville, TN, St. Cecilia Academy, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Springfield, IL, and St. Catharine of Sienna in Fall River, MA.

St. Mary of the Springs convent in Somerset, OH, was established and a school for girls opened. As in Kentucky, the number of Dominican novices grew as did the number of students taught by them. In Memphis, St. Agnes Academy doubled in size by the end of the first academic year. In addition, the St. Agnes sisters later opened orphanages in Memphis and helped to maintain another in Nashville during the yellow fever epidemics. In Nashville, St. Cecilia Academy grew along with the new Motherhouse.

The Dominican sisters earned a reputation for excellence in teaching early in their history. They were the first to teach both boys and girls and demand for their mission grew.

St. Patrick School, Watertown, MA

The sisters in Springfield, IL, opened Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Academy in 1873. In 1888, St. Catharine of Sienna in Fall River, MA opened St. Patrick School in Watertown to 400 students. The following year they opened St. Michael in Lowell, added boys to the student body in 1890, welcoming 475 students. Other schools opened in Massachusetts include St. Francis DeSales and St. Catharine of Sienna.

Holy Rosary Academy in Springfield

In Kentucky, St. Catharine Academy grew, and a new building was erected in Sienna Vale. The Dominican sisters of St. Catharine opened Holy Rosary, a school for black children in the Rosary Heights area of Springfield in 1877. In 1880, the sisters began teaching in Kentucky’s Washington County public schools, St. Agnes, Cecilville and Smith, which later merged and became St. Rose. They established St. Dominic School in Springfield in 1882; St. Bridget in Louisville and Holy Trinity in Fredericktown in 1886; and St. Louis Bertrand and Holy Rosary Academy in Louisville in 1866 and 1867.

Early in the twentieth century, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine instituted elementary and secondary schools in many states including Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, West Virginia, Arkansas and New York. Their first college was located in Memphis, opening before St. Catharine College in  Kentucky. In the 1950s, the sisters expanded their educational efforts into Louisiana, New Jersey and Puerto Rico.



Posted in Celebrating 200 Years, News

Laudare, Benedicere, Praedicare (To Praise, to Bless, to Preach): Early Work of the Dominican Sisters

Articles by Marilyn Rhodes, OPA
The opening pages of the Dominican Constitutions, adapted from Latin by Father Samuel Wilson. Father Richard Miles instructed them in Dominican spirituality.

This article is the second of twelve, one per month, celebrating the Bicentennial of Dominican Women in the United States.  This series celebrates highlights of the history of the Dominican Sisters of Peace, whose history hails from Washington County, Kentucky.

The courageous women who first wore the Dominican habit encountered many challenges in their early years. Their schedule alone was quite demanding, waking at midnight to pray, then up at five each morning for prayer, meditation, Mass, more prayer and study, and the work of the day. The daily work of the Sisters included gathering firewood, tilling the land, making clothing from flax and wool, and doing the construction and repairs needed to convert the property’s old stillhouse into their first school – and then they took classes from the Dominican Friars to prepare to become educators themselves! Gratefully, the Sisters received special permission to change their hours for prayer to prevent sheer physical exhaustion from fulfilling their goals.

The Dominican Sisters lived in the one-room convent at Bethany for about a year. At the death of their parents, the Sansbury sisters, Angela and Benvin, inherited 106 acres with three buildings, which of course became property of the Congregation. Their new home boasted three rooms: the chapel, a kitchen with dining area, and a room for work and study, with a loft for sleeping. This land along Cartwright Creek, called Sienna Vale, is known as the cradle of Dominican Sisters in the U. S.

In August 1823, the Dominican Sisters opened St. Mary Magdalen Academy to fifteen young women. The students brought provisions intended to last for the entire school year, however, the Sisters needed to farm the land to continue to feed the students and themselves.

The founding Sisters worked in the fields, taught school, wove their own cloth for their habits, made soap, and preserved fruits and vegetables.

The academy was successful and grew. The Sisters also began teaching young boys before those twelve and older “graduated” to the St. Rose school run by the friars. But as the number of students grew, the Sisters realized that they would need to build a new school building. This caused the Congregation to incur a substantial debt, which was disturbing to the Friars. The Friars considered dissolving the Congregation and selling its land assets to pay the debt, but Prioress Angela Sansbury would not hear of it. With the support of the community and much prayer and hard work, including making and selling soap, candles, and cloth, the Congregation was able to pay their debt.

In 1839, the Sisters were incorporated as the Literary Society of St. Mary Magdalen. As the number of Dominican Sisters grew, they expanded their mission of education. The Dominican Sisters eventually opened more than 100 schools across the United States, Puerto Rico, and Vietnam.

Please click here to see this article as published in the Springfield Sun, Springfield, KY.

Posted in Celebrating 200 Years, News