SPRINGFIELD, Ky. — One Sunday in February of 1822, Dominican Father Samuel Wilson, pastor of St. Rose Church in Springfield, Ky., asked the women of his congregation to consider becoming Dominican Sisters to provide education to the children of the frontier.
Nine women came forward and ultimately seven were chosen to receive the Dominican habit and begin formation in the Order of Preachers. They were the first Dominican Sisters in the United States and made their home at the St. Catharine Motherhouse near Springfield.
This year, the sisters and the communities they serve are celebrating two centuries of ministry in the U.S.
On May 1, the St. Catharine Motherhouse hosted a prayer service in celebration of their bicentennial and the City of Springfield offered a tribute to them.
“Today we celebrate the beginning of the Dominican Sisters in the United States which started right here in Washington County when Father Samuel Wilson stood up in the pulpit and asked for women to join religious life to teach the children of the frontier and we continue that mission today,” Sister Patricia Twohill, prioress of the Dominican Sisters of Peace, said.
Father Wilson’s 54th successor, Dominican Father Kevin McGrath, said during the tribute that as a pastor he can attest, “It’s remarkable that they had nine people to volunteer for anything on the first ask.”
To get nine women from a single parish to commit their lives to Jesus Christ “through vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and out of love for him, to give themselves to the work of education,” he said, “that borders on miraculous.”
Before St. Dominic founded the friars of the Order of Preachers in 1216, he founded a monastery of sisters, Father McGrath said. “St. Dominic knew instinctively that the work of his own brethren would be immeasurably strengthened by the work of the sisters,” a thought that perhaps spurred Father Wilson’s call to the women of his congregation to join religious life.
A year after Father Wilson’s call, the new community “converted a still house into a school and opened its doors to 15 students, the beginning of St. Catharine Academy,” said Sister Barbara Sullivan, mission coordinator of St. Catharine Motherhouse. “Within 10 years, the small community had grown and began sending out sisters to new missions in Ohio and later Tennessee. In time, joined by many other Dominican communities, the Dominican preaching mission spread across the United States.”
Before long, the Dominican sisters in the United States would outpace the Dominican friars in location and mission. Their mission expanded from education to include health care, ecology and housing. The Kentucky Dominican Sisters spread geographically to Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois, Massachusetts, Iowa, Nebraska, West Virginia, Indiana, New York, Puerto Rico and beyond.
On Easter Sunday in 2009, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine, Ky., formally joined with six other Dominican communities — Dominican Sisters of Akron, Ohio; Dominican Sisters of St. Mary of the Springs, Columbus, Ohio; Dominican Sisters of Great Bend, Kan.; Dominican Sisters of Oxford, Miss.; and the Dominican Sisters of St. Mary’s and the Eucharistic Missionaries of St. Dominic, both of New Orleans, La. — to found a new congregation, the Dominican Sisters of Peace. Today there are 42 congregations of Dominican Women religious, made up of nearly 3,300 nuns and sisters, across the United States.
“There’s hardly a person here, I dare say, whose life has not been touched in some way by the Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine,” Father McGrath said. “We owe a great debt of gratitude to them.”
Three people who have been on the receiving end of the sisters’ ministry and offered tributes during the ceremony were Springfield Mayor Debbie Wakefield, Order of Preachers Associate, Magistrate John Graves and St. Catharine College alumna Angela French Coles.
Coles expounded on the impact different sisters have had on her life from her time as a student educated by the Dominicans. During her tribute speech, she mentioned multiple sisters by name, eliciting a collective “awww” from attendees each time.
“Educational research says that a sense of belonging is critical to the success of students,” French Coles, a 1977 graduate of St. Catharine College, said.
“My sisters and I felt that sense of belonging from the first day that we stepped into Holy Rosary Academy. What resonates most with my soul is the word love.”
French Coles, a Black woman, grew up in Louisville and was 17 in 1975 when the city had responded to a court order to integrate its public schools by busing students out of their racially segregated communities. She said during the recent social unrest and injustice in our society, she’s reminded of her time at Holy Rosary Academy.
“During this time of social injustice, social unrest and inequities, it causes me to reflect on five Black girls in a school of 400 students but never feeling apart, never feeling different, never being picked on, and that was because of the Dominican Sisters. That’s love,” French Coles said.
The Archdiocese of Louisville’s Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre offered a greeting during the opening of the celebration. He thanked the Dominican Sisters for their faith and tireless service and said that while the ceremony celebrated the broader group, it’s important to remember that the group is made up of individuals, each of whom “dedicated herself to Jesus Christ and dedicated herself to in some way being the presence of the church to some of you.”
“And in that way, the Dominican Sisters were very much like Jesus Christ,” Archbishop Fabre said. “We have a wonderful perspective on the ministry of Jesus, but if you get very granular in Scripture, you will see that Jesus’ most profound encounters were one on one. He pulled people aside and shared with them the promises of the kingdom. Or challenged them to be who God called and meant them to be. And I think the Dominican Sisters have been like that, … bringing many, many gifts to the church as Jesus did it, one person at a time.”
Mistress of Ceremonies Angela Crenshaw, Order of Preachers Associate, echoed the archbishop’s reflection, noting, “Most of us have heard the expression, ‘If you’ve met one Dominican, you’ve met one Dominican.’ ”
Father McGrath said, “If Father Wilson could see what all these women have built over 200 years he would be amazed but not surprised. And we should be too. Amazed but not surprised. Not surprised at all what God had done with and through these Dominican Sisters.”
The nearly two-hour-long service also included a prerecorded message from Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, a dramatization of the sisters’ founding by the Central Kentucky Community Theatre and a special Dominican blessing that dates to the 13th century.
Music was provided by a string quartet and the St. Dominic Hand Bell Choir. The Dominican Sisters of Peace Schola presented the 200th-anniversary theme song, “Garden of Peace,” written and arranged by local composer Teresa Tedder.
Visit https://usdomsisters200.oppeace.org/ for more information about the Dominican Sisters 200th anniversary celebrations.