Editors’ Note: We’ve devoted a set of articles to examining Catholic religious communities today. Despite the impressive variety of these communities, some common themes emerge: the importance of a shared prayer life; the difficulty of adapting to new circumstances; the relationship of community to place. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The Varieties of Religious Community Today.
When Sr. Mary Daniel, OP, entered the Dominican Sisters of St Mary’s, New Orleans, in 1958, she thought she knew what the rest of her life would be like: life in a large motherhouse with her sisters and a steady job as a teacher, nurse, or catechist. After the Second Vatican Council, though, everything changed. Religious life underwent sweeping renewal, and Dominican sisters reclaimed their order’s charism of itinerant preaching. Sr. Daniel, then middle-aged, traveled to Berkeley to study theology, later becoming pastoral associate of several parishes in Mississippi, where she regularly preached at Eucharist. “What I admire about women entering religious life today,” she told me, “is that you know everything will change. And you’re entering anyway.”
As a second-year novice with the Dominican Sisters of Peace, I’m inspired by Sr. Daniel’s willingness not simply to embrace change, but to undergo total transformation. It’s no secret that congregations of women religious are dwindling in the United States; in just a few decades, my fellow Catholic sisters and I will number in the hundreds rather than the thousands. We will no longer own extensive properties, nor will we sponsor large institutions like schools or hospitals. In fact, our leaders are currently divesting of such assets, establishing canonical structures to pass governance on to others. Whatever else the future brings, it will doubtless require extensive discernment.
Fortunately, our sisters have a wealth of experience in that department, having ventured into emerging ministries decades before the institutional Church would recognize the need for them. Anticipating the environmental crisis as early as the 1970s, Dominicans opened farms and ecology centers to preach the goodness of creation. Jane Belanger, OP, studied sustainable agriculture and began working in eco-justice ministry, first in Ohio and later in Kansas. Other sisters got involved with populations at the margins of the American economy. Witnessing the poverty and neglect suffered by migrant farmworkers, Janice Thome, OP, and Roserita Weber, OP, learned Spanish so they could accompany the growing Latinx population near the Tyson beef plant in Dodge City, Kansas. These ministries have borne fruit, but now the sisters must face the prospect that there will not be other sisters to succeed them. Letting go and trusting that their work has not been in vain will require deep faith in Christ’s promise of resurrection.
Our sisters have acted on the same faith before. In 2009, following a decade of discernment, they chose to let go of their lifelong religious identities and came together to form a new congregation, the Dominican Sisters of Peace. The story that I’ve heard most often since entering the order, and the one I love the most, is about how we received the name “peace.” The sisters voted over two weekends, with half gathered in one place and half in another. Of fifty possible names, including a whole string of Dominican saints, “peace” hardly made the list. However, at the first gathering, an elderly sister addressed the assembly. “What the world needs now more than anything,” she said, “is Christ’s gift of peace.” Her words made a powerful impression. The results of the first vote were kept secret; nevertheless, a similar leaning swept the second gathering. “Peace” was the nearly unanimous selection. After such a powerful movement of the Spirit, the sisters say that God named us “peace.” It’s an invitation for every sister to ask herself how God is calling her to build and preach peace.