After Mass on Sunday, Fr. Mike gave the usual announcements. It consisted of the following, “X committee will meet here, the school event will be over there at X pm.” To be perfectly honest, I tend to doze off during the announcements. Then Father said something that made me really sad and, in light of my recent discovery at that library, showed me what fragile times we live in.
In 1928, a group of Dominican sisters were brought to Montana. These sisters led by Mother Bonaventura belonged to the Poor School Sisters of St. Dominic in Speyer, Germany. This is significant because some of these sisters were taught by St. Edith Stein, who held a teaching position at the Dominican high school in Speyer during the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The sisters’ first assignment was helping with the domestic affairs at Mt. St. Charles College (today known as Carroll College). In 1930, the Dominicans were assigned to help maintain a school in Kettle Falls, Washington, in the Diocese of Spokane. This school had been established by Fr. de Rouge, a Jesuit priest, in order to educate the local Native American population. After his untimely death, the school had been taken over by various other Orders including the Christian Brothers.
St. Katherine Drexel supported the school financially and sent some of her sisters there. During the Great Depression, however, St. Katherine realized that her sisters would be much better off working in the southern parts of the United States. She pleaded with the bishop of Spokane to bring in some qualified school teachers to staff the school. That was how the Dominican sisters came to the diocese.
Over time, the ministries of the Dominican sisters extended all over the northeastern corner of Washington. Everywhere they went, they established schools, convents, and hospitals. Tirelessly working among those who needed them, the Dominicans were a strong force for good in the diocese. Their constant activity was a living symbol of the Dominican charism to preach God’s Word constantly in whatever way possible even if that meant cleaning dirty laundry or inserting IVs. The sisters did it all.
In my own local area, the Dominican sisters staffed the school of the parish which I attend. Fifty years ago, a group of sisters came to the northwest side of Spokane and helped to build the fledgling school of Assumption Parish. Of course, there aren’t any sisters at the school anymore. With the passage of time, their ministries changed and the school was staffed with laypeople.
Before Vatican II, there were approximately 120 Dominicans in the Diocese of Spokane. Today, there are only 13 or 14. Most of them are over the age of 80.
As with many other religious orders over the years since the Council, the Dominicans’ watched as their small numbers began to shrink. It was decided at that time to cut the umbilical cord with Germany. In 1985, the Dominicans of Speyer became the Dominicans of Spokane. Only nine years later, they joined forces with the Sinsinawa Dominicans.
Although I knew of the Dominicans in the diocese, I had never met any of them. Most of the sisters I knew in the years before I converted to Catholicism belonged to the Sisters of the Holy Names, another teaching Order founded by Blessed Marie-Rose Durocher specifically to educate young girls. However, I did see the sign to their motherhouse as I drove to the community college and I kept thinking, “Who are these Dominicans and what on earth do they do?”
Our next door neighbor at the time worked as a chef in the motherhouse. He had the Dominicans over once for a picnic. They were kind ladies with short coifed hair. Most of them wore business suits. I heard that the convent would eventuall be sold and that our neighbor could lose his job. It was something that was talked about from time to time, but it was never a reality.
However, I knew that things were not going well for the sisters. The Jesuit university I attend has a vast library. However, the librarians have a tendency to discard countless valuable books because they don’t have a place to store them. It was on the discard cart that I found my Vatican II Weekday Missal and the second volume of Fr. Scheeben’s Mariology. Both of them had been donated by the Dominicans. I believe they sent their entire library there. If they haven’t yet, then they probably will at some point in the future.
At any rate, the decline of the Dominican Sisters was something that was inevitable. When Father announced that most of the Sisters were being sent to Wisconsin and that there would be a farewell party, I thought that I heard my heart sink. After so many years of devotion to our people and the local area, the Dominicans were leaving.
Of course, it does not surprise me that things have come to a head this way. I’m certain that having a couple of sisters living in a vast motherhouse was probably not the best of living arrangements. I can also understand what kind of financial strain it would be to maintain a building that can no longer support those who live there. In the end, I guess, the move is probably for the best.
Yet the other thing that makes this story so sad is that the breviary I found in the seminary library was Dominican. Just as the sisters are packing up their convent and leaving, God had put something of their spirituality in my hands. I wonder why. What sort of message was He trying to send me?
Perhaps, He was trying to show me that religious life in our country is not what it once was. After all, Vatican II did a number for those considering vocations to the religious life. The number of female religious has halved over the last forty years and most of those who are still alive are above the age of 70. It’s no surprise, then, that so many people believe that female religious are endangered species. Why wouldn’t they?
But these stark statistics don’t even begin to tell the real story. Yes, convent life before the Council was in many cases medieval. Yes, there were such things as abusive superiors and others who probably mishandled their power. But there were also other things about religious fifty years ago that were good: the habit, for example, which clearly showed the outside world that the sister was someone consecreated to God; the presence of the sisters in the schools and hospitals; the charity and joy that could be read on their faces. For all of the problems religious life had back then, it was also beautiful. If you don’t believe me, watch “The Nun’s Story” with Audrey Hepburn and see if you are not moved by the kind of life she lived.
Indeed, the Council brought about a great number of sweeping changes. The habits went and so did the old charisms. As the convents began shrinking, the sisters looked inward. Instead of really examining where they were going and what they were doing, some Orders acquiesced and decided that they would close up shop. After all, why keep a dying organism alive if it’s already dead?
Of course, the Council and the way in which its decrees were applied also played a number on the religious themselves. Since the 1960s was the era of the women’s movement in this country, many sisters embraced feminism. Suddenly, it was no longer okay to be under the thumbs of men. It was time to overhaul and experiment, to save the environment and fight for human rights. All that had been sacred about religious life was erased only to be replaced by a new reality, a new way of living, seeing, and breathing.
One of the first books I read about the Catholic Church was called For the Love of God. Within this rather slim volume, Lucy Kaylin told the stories of countless religious from all kinds of Orders (Little Sisters of the Poor, Dominicans, and others). One former sister told how half of her convent was shell shocked when the changes came. In fact, she was so resistant that Reverend Mother put her on extremely strong anti-depressants. It was assumed that Sister was having a nervous breakdown. She wasn’t. She was merely reacting to what she saw.
Of course, stories like the one above can be multiplied countless times. Many women left the convent because it wasn’t what they had been looking for. Few joined because the Orders themselves had changed so drastically. Those conservative nuns who did stay, however, found themselves in a world where they themselves were an endangered species: those that simply would not leave because they believed that the clock would be turned back.
The departure of the Dominicans from Spokane is a great loss. While I’m sure that some will remain here, it clearly shows how much the Church has changed in the last fifty years. Yet I do hope and pray that we will have Dominicans here once again preaching God’s Word by their example and love for their fellow men and helping us to preach that Word among those who need.
Aufwiedersehen, dear Sisters, you will be greatly missed!
Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us!
St. Dominic, pray for us!