In 1873, six Dominican sisters were sent from the Convent of St. Catherine of Sienna, near Springfield, Kentucky, to Jacksonville, Illinois, to assume responsibility for teaching a large population of Irish immigrant children whose fathers were building the railroad.
A Rough Start
When they arrived in Jacksonville after an arduous two-day journey, the sisters discovered the tiny cottage that was to be their home and a two-story, four-room school house meant to serve 400 Irish children whose learning levels had yet to be established.
The best they could do in those early days was divide the children by size. Into the four classrooms they subdivided the students: big girls and little girls, big boys and little boys.
Conditions in the cottage endangered the sisters' health; anti-Catholic sentiments in Jacksonville challenged their mission; and a lack of clarity about their relationship with their community in Kentucky overshadowed their future. What kept them going was their commitment to the Dominican mission and the promise that after two years in Jacksonville they'd return home to Kentucky for a summer vacation with their families and their religious community.
At the Crossroads
That was, until it didn't happen. The very day they were packing for the trip home, the parish priest revealed that the plan all along was for them to establish a completely new congregation separate from the sisters in Kentucky.
Now at a crossroads, the sisters faced an uncertain future. They were being asked to sign a legally binding contract they were only just made aware of. This contract would officially end their relationship with the sisters in Kentucky. They would be on their own. How to move forward?
Heart, Zeal, Vision
“This was a decision that could not be made as a collective group,” wrote Sister Thomas Aquinas Winterbauer in a 1973 history of the Springfield Dominicans, Lest We Forget. “It was a matter in which eight people [there had been a change in the number of sisters on the mission] had to act as individuals. Each one had to search her own heart, weigh her own zeal, and measure her own vision.”
This was the heart of the matter. To do this, the sisters gave themselves over to a day of silent prayer.
The consequence of their deep prayer? “...fear had been lost in the magnitude of the commitment to which they were being called," wrote Sister Thomas Aquinas. "Like the Apostles, they felt drawn to witness Christ as He was asking them to do. One by one, each affixed her name to the document that sealed their acceptance of the trust of founding the congregation.”
Just the Beginning
That's a short version of our founding story. Who we are today, where we go tomorrow, and however the Holy Spirit guides us to our future rests on the shoulders of our founding sisters' vision, courage, heart and zeal. It also rests on our shoulders, and those of the women God is calling to join us as sisters and the women and men who feel called to join us as associates. Could you be among them?
Ready to learn more?
Click the button to view an interactive storymap, The Journey to Springfield: The Origins of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, IL, 1873-1893
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