Sisters on the Move

The Dominican Sisters of Peace
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Women religious from seven Dominican communities formalize their merger as the Dominican Sisters of Peace, April 14, 2009 (CNS photo/Jerry Naunheim Jr.).

 

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.

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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.

That’s what it means for us to be co-creators of God’s just future.

Community is an essential part of that vocation. During my first year in the congregation, I lived in Columbus, Ohio, with sisters from Kansas, Michigan, Louisiana, New York, Massachusetts, China, Cuba, Ireland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Many were in their seventies and eighties; socialized in such different regional and ethnic cultures, and hailing from different founding congregations, they had learned to navigate sensitive differences and dwell peaceably under one roof. Sharing meals and celebrating Eucharist together fosters their mutual care and respect. For me, their multicultural community remains a sign of hope in a time of division.

Pope Francis has called us to be “a poor Church, for the poor,” and I see the strategic planning that our sisters are carrying out today as a model for the wider Church, both in the United States and worldwide. In light of changing demographics, our leaders are right-sizing. Relinquished properties in Louisiana and Massachusetts have been converted into land conservancies; a former motherhouse in Michigan now belongs to the local school district. Our predominantly white sisters are also educating themselves about racism and white supremacy to build a more inclusive community for the future. Committed to nonviolence and peace-building, our congregation has advocated for an end to gun violence, human trafficking, and the death penalty. That’s what it means for us to be co-creators of God’s just future.

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What a rich inheritance, passed on to me by the Dominican sisters who have gone before, itinerant preachers all. Trusting in the Spirit’s guidance, they have spent their lives constantly on the move, changing place and custom to meet the emerging needs of the people of God. As I join them on this journey into mystery and ponder the future, I’m encouraged by the thought that our God once chose Israel, “the smallest of peoples,” to bring forth a blessing to the nations.

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Published in the November 2021 issue: 

Ann Killian is a novice with the Dominican Sisters of Peace. She holds a PhD in English Language and Literature from Yale University.

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