Setting Out Anew

Dominicans in the Americas


by Colleen Settles, OP

Sister Colleen Settles
Sister Colleen Settles

This year, we celebrate 200 years since the foundation of the first Dominican Sisters Congregation in the Americas. The Dominican Friars had been serving in the Americas since 1510. Passing on these stories was an important part of this year’s new joint board of directors orientation session for our Sinsinawa Sponsored Schools. The following excerpts come from a presentation shared by Executive Director of Sponsorship Rita Cutarelli, EdD.

The first Dominicans in the Americas arrived in 1510 on a Bahamian island occupied by the Taino people. Called Hispaniola by the Europeans who overtook the island, we know it today as Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

500 year logo.It didn’t take long for the Dominican Friars to realize that the Gospel, their baptism, and the example of Dominic and other saints compelled them to act when they saw injustice. On the first Sunday of Advent in 1511 after the community of Friars spent days in study and prayer, they agreed they could not cooperate with the enslavement of the native peoples. They drafted a homily delivered from the pulpit by Friar Antonio Montesinos who cried out, “By what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people? Why do you keep them so oppressed? They die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold.”

In this way, the first Dominican teaching of truth and God’s love and justice for all people (Veritas et Caritas) was heard in the Americas 520 years ago. It was 275 years later when Dominicans began a ministry on the continental United States serving the government of Spain. Irish Friar John O’Connell, OP, served as chaplain for the Spanish delegates in New York.

Twenty years later, the Friars started an educational ministry in earnest. Friar Edward Dominic Fenwick was hoping to open a school in Boston but was sent instead by Archbishop John Carroll to open a mission west of the Alleghenies in what would soon become the Diocese of Bardstown, KY. There, in 1806, the first Dominican educational institution in the United States was established. It was named the College of St. Thomas Aquinas and was opened in a Kentucky farmhouse.

Recognizing the need for education of youth in this pioneer territory, in 1822, the Dominican pastor of St. Rose Parish near Springfield, KY, Father Samuel Wilson, OP, announced from the altar that he needed women to join the Dominican Order, not as cloistered nuns but women in simple vows living an active life to provide education for frontier families. He put forth a simple invitation to women of the parish, and nine women responded. The first U.S. born congregation of Dominican Sisters was established when four women professed their vows in early 1823. The first convent was a one-room log cabin and the first school, St. Magdalene Academy, was opened in an abandoned still house. The school was later renamed St. Catherine of Siena Academy.

Five years later in 1828, 22-year-old Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, OP, left his studies in Rome, his family, and his homeland to answer a call to mission on the American frontier. Very much in the spirit of St. Dominic, he moved among the peoples of the land, always listening, learning, teaching, and empowering.

Fr. Samuel first met the people of the native nations on Mackinac Island. He affirmed the people and their cultures in a way that was extraordinary for his time. The schools he opened were distinctive for ensuring that students were taught in their native language by members of the native nations and were not sent away or separated from their families as was the practice at that time. Over the years, Fr. Samuel recognized and valued the gifts of the people from the native nations as well as other cultures.

Recognizing that this mission work was both great and difficult, Fr. Samuel gathered a group of women and founded the Sinsinawa Dominican Congregation of the Most Holy Rosary in 1847. Four women, known as the Four Cornerstones, were made trustees of the newly incorporated community and were made so by the first legislator of the newly formed state of Wisconsin. Many were reluctant to give women power to direct a corporation and hold property independently. Yet, this was Fr. Samuel’s vision.

The Sisters broadened their educational ministries, purchased properties, received donations from dioceses, and received gifts and bequests—as is the case with former Governor Washburn’s villa named Edgewood. In 1880, he gifted Edgewood to the Sisters for the sole purpose of education.

At its largest, around the time of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, the Congregation numbered nearly 2,000 Sisters who were leading and teaching in their sponsored educational ministries as well as other schools throughout the country and Bolivia.

These Dominican pioneers, the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, along with other Dominican congregations of Sisters and Friars, created the future of Dominican educational ministry. We—faculty, staff, administration and board members—stand on their shoulders. We are here today because of their vision and passion, and we are here to sustain their legacy and assure the future of Dominican education for generations to come.

Click for Spectrum January 2022 Index

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