The Congregation of the Sisters of St. Dominic will end a yearlong celebration that began last May 12, commemorating its first 150 years in Racine. Instituted in May 1862, by Bavarian immigrants, Mother Benedicta Bauer and Mother Thomasina Ginker, the sisters opened their special year with a Mass at the Siena Center, celebrated by Bishop Richard J. Sklba.

Bishop Sklba recalled the sisters prepared him for first Communion and confirmation.

“I spent two years at St. Catherine High School before entering the minor seminary in Milwaukee,” he said. “It was a great education and very far-reaching in vision. The administration believed strongly – and that was in the early ‘50s, that if they weren’t teaching both Russian and Chinese languages, they were not adequately preparing their students for the world in which they would live as adults!”

According to Bishop Sklba, the Racine Dominicans were well-educated, capable teachers and administrators who appeared to function well with the four diocesan priests assigned to St. Catherine at the time.

“I had a science teacher, Sr. Richard, who was a gem. I was privileged to preside at her funeral years later, and we all laughed at the memory of her conviction that God would have lots of questions to answer when she showed up at the golden gates of heaven,” he said. “I am still privileged to consider many of those fine women, friends and colleagues in the work of the Gospel. I recently read their history, and marveled at the frequency with which familiar names showed up again and again as leaders in their community over the decades.”

Celebrating the past, looking ahead

The Dominicans spent the year reflecting on the accomplishments of the sisters who came before them, and contemplating what the future might have in store for the next generation.

“I have been a professed Dominican Sister for 55 years,” said historian, Sr. Suzanne Noffke. “As with any life, a lot of it is enjoyable and there are the humps, peaks and valleys. This has been a good life for me and one I have not regretted.”

Sisters arrive to help German immigrants

Mother Benedicta and Mother Thomasina traveled to the United States 150 years ago to establish a motherhouse and school to teach the children of German immigrants.

After four years, the sisters of Regensburg, Bavaria had gathered 10 companions and with the purchase of property in Racine, they began the foundation of the Dominican community.

According to Sr. Suzanne, in all the advertising for her schools, Mother Benedicata emphasized English and German would be used. She recruited immigrant students, especially children of the working class.

“This is how we began, with a strong concentration in parochial schools and from early on we did a bit of work with elderly women,” she said. “We built a new academy (Holy Rosary) in Sturtevant, then called Corliss, and there also acquired a home for elderly ladies.”

By 1952, the Dominicans closed St. Anne’s Home for Elderly Ladies in Corliss and relocated the women to their new facility, Villa St. Ann in Oconomowoc.

“That ministry began as something of a side ministry as we had a minority of our sisters who were in nursing,” said Sr. Suzanne.

Approach to ministry changed dramatically

With the changes that preceded Vatican II, the Dominicans overhauled their entire structure and approach to ministry. Like other orders, their foundation grew from a cloistered community to sisters living with simple, rather than solemn vows outside of a monastic enclosure. Rather than serving solely as teachers or nurses, the sisters discerned where God was leading them to minister and pursue ministry in dialogue with those in leadership.

“We still had the community approach, but I was in office in community when that was beginning,” said Sr. Suzanne. “It was a wonderful experience and I saw sisters blossom in whole new ways. They found themselves in ministries suited best to their gifts and called forth to give the best gift they had.”

Community saw rapid growth

The Racine Dominican congregation grew rapidly during its first hundred years, reaching its numerical peak in 1962, with 607 professed members working in more than 50 schools and other institutions.

In 1960, the sisters opened a new Dominican College on the shores of Lake Michigan, north of Racine and by 1963, the groundbreaking for the new motherhouse began. Located on Erie Street, the Siena Retreat Center opened in 1963, with St. Catherine infirmary to open three years later on the same campus.

Today, the congregation numbers approximately 150 professed members, as well as an active associate group.

Members live and work primarily in Wisconsin and Michigan, but in several other states as well. They govern themselves through an assembly of the total community and a constitution of their own authorship.

In Racine County, the Dominicans sponsor Bethany Apartments, the Eco-Justice Center, Hopes Center, the Senior Companion Program, Siena Retreat Center and St. Catherine High School.

“Individual sisters serve in parishes, schools, hospital and prison chaplaincies, social justice and other ministries directed within their mission focus,” said Sr. Suzanne. “In fact, the Hopes Center grew out of the youngest sisters’ initiatives and is now flourishing on Sixth Street.”

Newest ministry promotes fair trade

As the director of HOPES Center in Racine, Dominican Sr. Maryann McMahon oversees the newest sponsored ministry of the Racine Dominicans.

“Our mission is to look at the causes and consequences of poverty both locally and globally,” she said. “We address poverty globally by educating about fair trade practices and selling fair trade products in our two retail ventures, Cup of Hope – a coffee shop and just trade – a retail specialty store with a variety of fair trade certified products. So whether you purchase a cup of fair trade coffee or tea, or buy a basket from Ghana, you have helped to change a life somewhere within our globe, one purchase at a time.”

Fair trade practices demand the product producers are paid a living wage, work in safe conditions, produce their products in environmentally friendly ways and prohibit child labor.

The Hopes Center works within the Racine community to assist the homeless and mentally ill with counseling, case management and healing arts services, free of charge.

“Healing arts professionals, such as massage, acupuncture, chiropractics, energy work, art therapy and spiritual guides offer their services as volunteers so that our care for the participants can be more holistic,” said Sr. Maryann. “Local, state and federal monies and volunteer service providers allow us to offer these services so that each person has the best chance of becoming a self-sustainable citizen.”

God had different plans for Sr. Maryann

Professed for 33 years, Sr. Maryann entered the community while she was in her early 20s, a result of a relationship cultivated with the sisters in grade and high schools. While she expected to one day marry and have a large family, God had other plans.

“I was invited to a Come and See Retreat weekend at Siena Center and went more on a lark, not because I felt called,” she admitted. “As I listened and prayed over the weekend and looked at what made me happiest in life, I began to think that I might be called to this lifestyle. My faith was important to me and I always worked at things 120 percent. Raising a big family and wanting to serve others and give every activity 120 percent of my effort didn’t seem like a very healthy way to live life.”

Sr. Maryann realized God called her to the Racine Dominicans and she has experienced great joy through her call.

“I am always ‘becoming in life’ never a finished product,” she said. “My membership within the community has helped me recognize that truth about life and to make the best of continually ‘becoming.’ I have grown in ways I would never have imagined for myself, thanks to the Racine Dominicans. I believe I can become all that God intended me to become with these faith-filled women.”

Through her work at Hopes Center, Sr. Maryann said she no longer takes life and what she has for granted.

“I am so grateful for my loving family, community and friends,” she said. “There, but for the grace of God I go. I receive so much from those we serve and from all the volunteers who share their time and talent in support of our mission. To be at Hopes Center is a blessing. There is a spirit about the place that speaks of welcome and acceptance.”

Ministries impact lives of needy

As the board president of the Siena Retreat Center, Dominican Sr. Carol Wester sees how the Dominican-sponsored ministries impact the lives of the needy.

“I think (we) have often been reluctant to blow our own horn, but I know that many of the agencies with which I work in my current ministry as development director at Hopes Center and in the area, rely on our leadership and in our sustaining support,” she explained. “The Women’s Resource Center and Bethany Apartments, the Healthcare Network, HALO, Racine Neighborhood Watch, Racine Vocational Ministry are just a few of the programs and projects that have benefited from our presence and support.”

Sr. Carol finds life as a Dominican sister fulfilling. She entered the order at age 18 and made her first profession in 1961. Living a life in service to others has challenged her to live the Gospel call seriously and to make her life decisions based on the way the Racine Dominican community has articulated the Gospel.

“Ministerily, I have been guided by our mission of ‘Committed to truth and compelled to justice.’ Community living has always been a very important part of my existence as well,’ she said, adding, “Sometimes I think I take the blessing of community for granted, but at times of crisis or trauma, it is evident how precious it is. When I have had a number of physical challenges requiring surgery and rehab, I was very aware of the power of prayer and of the care that was available to me. At the sudden death of my brother (in 2011), I felt a loving, caring support that is almost indescribable.”

Partnership with Lincoln Lutheran is next chapter

In this 150th anniversary year, the Racine Dominicans are rebuilding their Racine motherhouse campus in partnership with Lincoln Lutheran of Racine to establish Siena on the Lake, a faith-based ecumenical community to include the headquarters and residence of the Racine Dominicans, the central offices of Lincoln Lutheran, a complex of ministries and a full spectrum of senior living choices.

“We are excited about this and so are the sisters, but of course, some of this transition is gut wrenching as deconstruction occurs to recreate this campus,” said Sr. Suzanne. “Yet where there are tears, an excitement of what will grow in its place does occur. We hold special prayer rituals to pray around each piece so when the administration moved from their wing to temporary quarters; we celebrated in a ritual of prayer. When we had to have trees lost or transplanted, we celebrated each change with prayer. This is significant and is a sign that both partners, Lincoln Lutheran and ourselves are devoted to the environment and take great care and honor to preserve it.”