Joyful Dominicans attracted more sisters — and still do

| January 15, 2016 | 2 Comments

larger Trio of nuns in habits

Sinsinawa Dominicans of former days, above, and new and prospective members of the congregation, below. Courtesy the Sinsinawa Dominicans

Sinsinawa Dominicans of former days, above, and new and prospective members of the congregation, below. Courtesy the Sinsinawa Dominicans


Growing up in southwest Minneapolis and attending grade school at St. Thomas the Apostle, Carol Bongaarts wasn’t sure the lifestyle of a religious sister was for her.

“I entered later,” Sister Carol explained. “The call was there, but I couldn’t imagine being in a convent and so limited.”

After high school she had a good job as a receptionist and office assistant. “My friends and I would travel when we got up enough money,” she said. “But I knew I wanted to look for something more.”

Sister Carol Bongaart, O.P.

Sister Carol Bongaarts, O.P.

It was the mid-1960s when she attended some Twilight Seminars and got involved with the Saturday Nighters at the Catholic Youth Center in Minneapolis.

“It was a wonderful group of young people,” she said. “We had a lot of fun, and there were a number of the Sinsinawa Dominicans who taught at Regina High School who joined in. They were so happy, joyful and so open to people. They were able to serve the Church among the people, and that’s what I wanted to do, serve God’s people.”

Attraction to Sinsinawa Dominicans’ joy is a common denominator among both seasoned and newer members of the congregation.

Different ages, similar joy

Sister Christin Tomy

Sister Christin Tomy

Sister Christin Tomy, 27, began the novitiate just 17 months ago. “I was totally drawn in by the deep joy of the sisters, as well as their commitment to justice and lifelong learning, their prayerful way of living community, and their diversity,” explained the native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Sister Christin, who is on the staff of the Eco-Justice Center in Racine, Wisconsin, said, “I love the saying ‘If you’ve met one Sinsinawa Dominican, you’ve met one Sinsinawa Dominican.’ How true!”

She added, “I’ve been embraced just as I am, and yet I’m called to grow with the sisters to become something more — to become my fullest self. What a gift!”

Sister Mary Catherine St. Martin, O.P.

Sister Mary Catherine St. Martin, O.P.

At 80, Sister Mary Catherine St. Martin describes herself as “a Sinsinawa Dominican for 62 happy years,” and still exudes the joy that she saw in the sisters who taught her in grade school at Incarnation in Minneapolis and influenced her decision to enter religious life in the early 1950s.

“One of my fondest memories is of Sister Aemeliana, who taught me piano lessons,” Sister Mary Catherine said. “She gave me a wonderful sense of music appreciation. I also remember Sister Lucian, who taught me in third grade and ran the yearly paper sales. We would do anything for her.”

Convent life recalled

Life as a sister in the 1950s and ’60s was “very structured,” Sister Margaret McGuirk said.

Sister Doris Rauenhorst, O.P.

Sister Doris Rauenhorst, O.P.

With her German last name, Doris Rauenhorst was renamed Sister Friedrich when she entered the congregation in 1956. She wasn’t especially pleased with the new name, she admitted.

She recalled her early years in the convent, when, as one of the younger sisters, she was assigned tasks such as running off tests on the mimeograph machine for the other teachers and got the purple fingers that came with the job.

Sister Carol, who taught and served as principal at several schools and retired after many years as principal of St. Bartholomew School in Wayzata, said that after she professed vows she was sent to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to teach fifth grade and junior high students.

“In that day you went where you were sent,” she recalled, but that was OK with her.

“I appreciated the opportunity,” Sister Carol said. “I loved being able to work with children and to see them become successful, and not just academically but successful in life.” Because teachers were needed, she earned a bachelor’s degree in education and then a master’s degree. Along the way she taught at every grade level, again referring to each role as “an opportunity.”

“I loved the freedom to dedicate my time to helping children learn about Jesus and about God and the Church,” Sister Carol said. “I wasn’t bogged down [worrying about earning money] because our essential needs were taken care of.”

As a self-described people-person, Sister Carol said she enjoyed living in community with other women religious. When convents were typically on parish grounds, she liked being able to walk to school and walk home to the convent after teaching.

“We could serve more of the neighborhood, if only as a witness,” she said. “That’s why we were there.”

Sister Margaret echoed those sentiments. “I’ve always lived in a group of sisters, and I still live in community with 12 others,” she said. “I’ve found community life to be a blessing. I appreciate the gift to live with other people who are committed to various ministries yet all working for the reign of God.”

Endless gift of friendship

Sister Margaret McGuirk, O.P.

Sister Margaret McGuirk, O.P.

Margaret McGuirk grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, and entered the Sinsinawa community in 1965 at age 18, right out of high school.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the sisters’ then Dominican College (now University) in River Forest, Illinois, then went to Fordham University in New York for her master’s in education before earning a second master’s in divinity. She taught elementary school and was a director of religious education.

“I was fortunate to be assigned to mainly Latino parishes in large urban areas,” the Spanish-speaking sister said. “Later, Archbishop Harry Flynn assigned me to two priestless parishes [in St. Paul], St. Francis de Sales and St. James, where I served as parish life administrator for two years.”

She then followed Sister Martha Wiegand as executive director of Centro Guadalupano at Holy Rosary in Minneapolis.

“I’ve felt that you always receive more than you give,” Sister Margaret offered. “My life as a Dominican has been an endless gift of friendship and a wide variety of experiences.”

Sister Doris feels the same.

After teaching German at the college level she was sent to Fribourg, Switzerland, to earn a doctorate in German.

“The opportunities I’ve been given in my life are irreplaceable,” Sister Doris said. “I loved being who I am and all I’ve been called to do. . . . My eyes have been opened and so many parts of me used that otherwise never would have been.”

Joy still a magnet

Sister Jeri Cashman, O.P.

Sister Jeri Cashman, O.P.

Dominican Sister Jeri Cashman, who ministers as a family therapist in Hennepin County, recently concluded a term on her community’s vocations team. She said the experience gave her a unique opportunity to observe what drives new and younger members to join the order.

“The joy and affection they experience among our sisters, the passion for mission, the diversity of ministry possibilities” are what continue to attract people to the Sinsinawa congregation, she said.

“Many of the new and younger members are bilingual,” Sister Jeri noted, “and they bring their experience of mission and service, their education, a commitment to the environment and evolving consciousness.”

They are adept at planning and fearless, and are talented artistically and musically, she pointed out. “They have an openness to our evolving future, and they are realistic about the congregation and changes in religious life,” Sister Jeri added.

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