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Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose

March 6, 2015
Margaret McCarthy
Development Director, Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose

Serving ‘the young, the poor and the vulnerable’ since 1876

Catholic San Francisco is featuring one religious congregation from the archdiocese in each installment of this periodic column marking the Vatican’s Year of Consecrated Life.

Sister Maria Pia Backes was an unlikely foundress, yet her pioneering spirit as a 24-year-old New York Dominican in 1876 led her to San Francisco where she later established an international congregation – the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose.

Named for the Queen of the Holy Rosary, the sisters’ motherhouse moved to Fremont after the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. Today 188 sisters remain dedicated to “serving the young, the poor and the vulnerable” as teachers, mentors or administrators in 29 Catholic schools in California and Mexico. The sisters also minister in parish, campus ministry, hospital and prison settings – and their Vision of Hope program provides tuition assistance and support for eight inner city Catholic schools in Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco, including St. James and St. Anthony-Immaculate Conception elementary schools in the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

Sister Pia accepted her mission, responding to Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany’s urgent plea for sisters to teach the German-speaking immigrant children in his San Francisco diocese. Accompanied by two youthful companions, Sister Amanda Bednartz, 17, and Sister Salesia Fichtner, 19, these women exceeded all expectations, launching 66 schools and orphanages in California, Oregon, Texas, Mexico and Germany. The trio’s wholehearted response seems extraordinary today, yet the impact of their ministries can be traced to deep faith, missionary zeal and a fearless reliance on “God Alone.” As “itinerant preachers” of the Word, the sisters honor St. Dominic and St. Catherine of Siena and follow Mother Pia’s ministry path, responding to the needs of the times and reaching out to spread the light as joyful believers.

Elected in 2005, Congregational Prioress Sister Gloria Marie Jones, OP, and her four-member leadership council have facilitated a spiritual and strategic review of the sisters’ ministries and facilities. The Sisters named this movement their “Bold Awakening!” With fresh eyes, they reached out to civic, nonprofit and regional agencies to identify unmet human and spiritual needs, addressing them together through collaboration. Guided by their founding charism, cooperative partnerships are at the heart of their effort to make room on their Motherhouse campus for programs that promote health, spirituality and the arts. They are building a residence and a community and wellness facility and preparing to open Fremont’s first daytime memory care program in March operated by ASEB (Alzheimer’s Services of the East Bay). Their commitment to accessible, outstanding Catholic education remains a central commitment as the Sisters review their affiliate schools network, studying innovative blended learning, technology and urban education models.

Collaboration with lay colleagues, non-profit organizations and regional agencies has shaped the Sisters’ “Bold Awakening” and taken the congregation in new directions. They continue to faithfully express their founding charism and carry their educational mission into the future as “preachers of the Word.” Their motherhouse is open for business, welcoming women interested in religious life, hosting retreats and spiritual programs and teaching youth and adult students to play piano, guitar, flute and violin in their School of Music.

Information about the congregation’s ministries, mission and motherhouse can be found online at www.msjdominicans.org.


Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose

When/where founded: San Francisco, 1876

Date arrived in San Francisco: Nov.11, 1876

Original ministry: Education of San Francisco’s German-speaking immigrant children

Current ministries: Catholic and inner-city elementary and secondary education (Northern and Southern California); School of Music; pastoral, parish and social ministries; motherhouse programs including retreats and spirituality, the arts, daytime memory care (ASEB – Alzheimer’s Services of the East Bay)

Number of sisters: 188; 16 Sisters ministering in the archdiocese

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