St. Dominic, Mother Catherine
The Dominican Order began at the intersection of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with the birth of Saint Dominic in Caleruega, Spain. This global, democratic Order, committed to liberating all peoples from economic and spiritual poverty, translates the joyful message of the Gospel into a life of shared prayer and shared resources. The international Dominican Family – the “Order of Preachers” – proclaims the love of Jesus to ever-widening “frontiers of human experience.” We speak Truth for the healing and reconciliation of all relationships on our home planet.
The unique document which launched the Dominican Order embraces Dominic’s futuristic vision of men and women, religious and laity united in equal partnership. Boldly, but without fanfare or class distinction, the document names three groups who are to share the title “preachers”: the friars, the cloistered nuns, and a band of lay women and men. Today’s Dominican Family includes the vowed, apostolic sisters.
A man of remarkable energy, Dominic was once nicknamed “Athlete of the Lord.” He traveled on foot all over Europe establishing communities in nine different countries. His sons and daughters were among the first to travel to the Western Hemisphere and on the island of Santo Domingo where they landed, Dominican missionaries are still remembered for their courageous stand in defense of the human rights of the indigenous peoples.
In our Mission and Vision Statements that guide the daily life and ministry of our community, the 800-year-old Dominican tradition of living and proclaiming the Gospel through contemplative prayer, social justice advocacy and care of all life forms on our planet remains strong.
Saint Catherine Of Siena
Although she lived more than 100 years after St. Dominic, Catherine of Siena is considered by many to be the spiritual mother of the Dominican Order. At an early age she felt called to the Dominican life as it was being lived at the time by lay women who spent their days in service to the poor and the sick of their city. Finally overcoming the objections of her family, Catherine joined this group, known as the Mantellata. Despite her desire for the contemplative life, much of Catherine’s time was spent in the streets, ministering to neighbors who had been stricken with the Black Plague (rampant in the 14th century). She also cared passionately about the Church and wrote many letters to Pope Gregory, begging him to return to Rome “where he belonged.” Finally, she made the arduous journey to Avignon, where the Pope, under the influence of the powerful French cardinals, had taken up residence. Despite the busy apostolic life in which she was engaged, Catherine lived a profoundly contemplative life of union with her God, often having mystical experiences and other manifestations of holiness. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Catherine wrote a profound work entitled The Dialogues, which remains to this day an intimate portrayal of the spiritual life. Canonized in 1461, Catherine was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970 by Pope Paul VI.
Our Foundress: Mother Catharine Muth
Her Dream Lives On
On May 26, 1884 a nun from Jersey City traveled all the way out to Caldwell by horse and buggy taking a huge step in making her dream come true!
Mother Catharine Muth, the nun in question, was a Dominican who had led a group of her sisters from their monastery in Brooklyn to Jersey City to establish a community to help educate the children of the German immigrants.
As she witnessed the poverty and poor health of the children and her sisters living in 19th-century city squalor, she courageously moved her frail sisters and eventually the novices to Caldwell, “the Denver of the East.” She dreamed of Caldwell becoming a place to care for the orphans and a place where Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament could be a part of the nuns’ community prayer life. Soon the nuns had a school in Caldwell while continuing their work in Jersey City. In time, Mother Catharine led a congregation with 15 missions, 150 sisters, and 23 postulants (women desiring to be sisters).
Soon a new Motherhouse, designed to resemble the original monastery in Regensburg, Germany, began to take shape as the sisters hauled stones and bricks up the hill from the railroad station below. The original building had porches on the first and second floors so that infirm sisters could enjoy the fresh air. The Chapel, on the second floor, offered the sisters prayer space in a cloistered setting. Their austere life of prayer included familiar monastic practices: rising to chant the Office in the middle of the night, abstaining from meat several days a week, and observing the months-long “Dominican Lent.” Their new response to Mission added new apostolic responsibilities:
- Farming the land and feeding themselves and their students with the harvest fruits of their labor,
- Teaching children from elementary through high school, and
- Giving students lessons in painting, sewing, and music before and after school.
When it became apparent that their rigorous lifestyle in America – a combination of both cloistered and apostolic ministries and responsibilities – was detrimental to their spiritual and physical well-being, the sisters became “Third Order Dominicans,” that is, not cloistered nuns, but apostolic sisters. The needs of the Mission (bringing Good News or the Holy Preaching to others) demanded that some of the cloister rules and practices be sacrificed so that the sisters could teach and care for the people to whom they were sent. Mother Catharine would not have chosen to do this if it had not been demanded by the evolving congregational life and mission. However, she wisely counseled her sisters to “build a cell within your heart where you can converse continually with the Beloved of your soul.”
Life’s demands, the needs of God’s people, and the health of the sisters were paramount to Mother Catharine. After the pattern of Jesus who lived the Paschal Mystery perfectly, she died to her own desires and lived in ways new to her.
This courageous woman, our foundress, had a vision for her congregation: to be contemplative women in the service of God’s People, especially recent immigrants.