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Dominican Sisters of San Rafael intertwined with history of archdiocese

January 16, 2015
Katherine Martin

Catholic San Francisco is featuring one religious congregation from the archdiocese in each installment of this periodic column “Wake Up the World!” marking the Vatican’s Year of Consecrated Life. This is the challenge Pope Francis has given to consecrated persons: to wake up the world by living, praying and ministering in a way that reflects how Jesus lived on this earth, with compassion, mercy, gentleness, forgiveness, justice and concern for those who are poor or marginalized in any way.

God’s call is endlessly creative. Imagine it is 1850. A Belgian woman in a Dominican convent in Paris is on the verge of making her vows. The new bishop of the Western Territory of the New World, Joseph Sadoc Alemany, OP, is visiting, seeking volunteers to accompany him and revive the Dominican presence in California. Sister Mary Goemaere simply says “yes” to the unknown, embarking on an arduous journey of three sea voyages, an overland mule-back crossing of the Isthmus of Panama, and arrival in San Francisco in early December on the steamer “Crescent City.” Little did she imagine how her life in the Order of Preachers, and the life of the community of Dominican sisters she founded, would forever be intertwined with the histories of California and the San Francisco archdiocese.

The first foundation was in Monterey. Mother Mary, who spoke only French, opened a convent and a school with postulants and students who spoke only Spanish or English. Surely God was with them as they prayed, worked and lived together.

In 1853 Archbishop Alemany asked Mother Mary to relocate to Benicia; there St. Catherine Academy bloomed for over a century. But once the fortunes of Benicia as capital of California waned, Mother Louis O’Donnell had the foresight to build a motherhouse in San Rafael in 1889. This archdiocese is the congregation’s home where we will celebrate our 165th anniversary in the Year of Consecrated Life.

God has blessed us with women called to vowed Dominican life and with ministerial opportunities in California and Nevada. In this archdiocese alone we, preachers of God’s word for others, founded four schools, taught in eight more, co-sponsor a health care system and operate a retreat center. We are particularly grateful for our long, ongoing relationship with St. Dominic and St. Raphael parishes; for our affordable housing ministry, Rose Court, in the Western Addition; and for our ministries of education at Mission Dolores Academy and at San Domenico School in San Anselmo. We are blessed to be part of Dignity Health, headquartered in San Francisco, a system of caregivers and staff who are committed to excellent care, delivered with compassion, for all in need. 

As 21st-century life unfolds, we continue to focus on our mission to bring the Gospel to bear with depth and compassion on the critical issues of our times. Mother Mary, who sent beautifully handwritten letters to Paris, would be astounded by our use of videoconferencing and our Facebook page and our cellphones. She would be amazed at the rate of speed we can travel after the journey she experienced. But she would surely recognize the spirit of “yes” to God’s call that our sisters embody. And we like to think that she would be as grateful as we are for our many friends who have given of their time, energy, talent and treasure to support our vision as we work for the transformation of attitudes and systems that deprive any person of dignity.

Note from the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael: The Year of Consecrated Life coincides with the 165th anniversary of our founding in California. We are celebrating by hosting a variety of events in San Rafael throughout the year. Watch the Calendar section of Catholic San Francisco for our invitations to Gather@Grand! Or you may visit our website www.sanrafaelop.org for upcoming events. All are welcome!

Katherine Martin is director of development for the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael.

Sisters of St. Dominic, Congregation of the Most Holy Name — Dominican Sisters of San Rafael

Arrived in San Francisco: Dec. 6, 1850

Original ministry: Education

Current ministries: Education: preschool through university, teaching and counseling; health care: Dignity Health co-sponsor, chaplaincy, hospice care, physical therapy; university campus ministry; parish ministry; spiritual direction and retreats, art, affordable housing; social justice advocacy, social services, respite for homeless; Tijuana: clinic, housing, religious education, literacy, social services

Number of sisters in the Archdiocese: 64

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