May 6th marks an important day for the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill– a group of Catholic Sisters who call Rockland County, NY their Congregation’s home. On this day, the Sisters celebrate their Foundation Day, when in 1876, Alice Mary Thorpe, an English immigrant devoted to serving New York City’s poorest, professed her first vows as a Religious Sister. She became the community’s first Mother Superior and, along with two other newly-professed Sisters, formally began the Dominican Congregation of Our Lady of the Rosary.
From its earliest days, the Congregation has focused on responding to the needs of those living on the margins of society. Initially, the focus was on destitute women and children living in New York City. Soon after, their focus shifted primarily to the city’s hundreds of orphaned children in desperate need of a home and education. The Sisters raised these children at Holy Rosary Convent in Manhattan until 1884 when they moved to Rockland County to provide them with a safer and healthier environment. The Congregation established St. Agnes Home and School for Children in Sparkill, which operated from 1884 to 1977, and thus began the Sisters’ ministerial focus on education.
By the 1950s, hundreds of Dominican Sisters of Sparkill were engaged in teaching in schools and parishes throughout the country, with a concentration in the New York and St. Louis, MO metro areas. Their influence on countless students has become an important part of the fabric of these communities. The Congregation founded St. Thomas Aquinas College (STAC) in Sparkill to train the Sisters as teachers. From humble beginnings, STAC has grown to serve tens of thousands of students and provides affordable, quality higher education in and beyond Rockland County. Responding to needs around the country and around the globe, the Sisters have taken on a variety of mission work in places such as Native American reservations in Montana, poor villages in Peru, and among Christian communities in Pakistan.
Today, the tradition of service to those in need established by their founding Sisters still resonates deeply within the Congregation, stirring over 300 Sisters and Associates to action in their work as educators, parish ministers, social workers, nurses, chaplains, childcare workers, artists, spiritual directors, housing managers and more. At a time when the world so needs unity, peace and justice for all people and for the planet, the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill lead by example as they live out their mission to be “joyful women of prayer and compassion who proclaim the reign of God through a ministry for justice and reverence for all creation.”
Amidst the backdrop of the 800th Anniversary of the Dominican Order and the Church’s Jubilee Year of Mercy (both being celebrated this year), the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill’s 140th Anniversary offers the perfect opportunity to look at the extraordinary impact these Catholic Sisters have had on the communities they serve. Since their founding, the Sisters have identified unmet needs and responded with action, focus and determination—often in the face of significant challenges. The results are many stand-out accomplishments that have greatly enhanced the communities around them:
In the New York area, the Sisters founded 6 schools (elementary through college levels,) established and/or ran several orphanages and childcare facilities, and, for some 30 years, were instrumental in running NYC’s Catholic Home Bureau which placed thousands of children in permanent homes. They created a shelter and low-income housing for women and children in the Bronx, as well as a senior center serving thousands of poor, homebound, and homeless elderly in Manhattan each week. In Rockland County, the Sisters were key in the founding of a family shelter and responded to the lack of affordable senior housing by building two senior living communities on their own property in Sparkill. They also created an English language studies program to serve the needs of the county’s immigrant population.
In the greater St. Louis, MO area, where the Sisters have been since 1900, the Congregation has had an enduring presence in both schools and parishes. For example, in one school, Sisters from Sparkill have led the administration for 115 consecutive years. While embracing education as one critical starting point for improving people’s futures, the Sisters have expanded into new ministries that foster healthy, dignified living, like the creation of a family center which builds houses for low-income individuals and offers supportive services.
In Pakistan, the Sisters have founded schools that serve Christian and Muslim students which have contributed greatly to the growth of literacy among Christian children who were previously unable, financially or otherwise, to attend school. The Congregation also provides students with room and board in their hostels, giving children from remote villages a safe place to stay while being educated, nourishing them with healthy foods (the Sisters have built chicken coops to enhance their food sources), and allowing the children to focus on their academics. The Sisters filled needed roles as midwives, established medical dispensaries to provide services and health education for the poor and those in need, and have also been involved in bringing water sources to desert villages struggling with drought, thus improving the health of the local population. The Sisters are very involved in the people’s experience of church, which is important in this region where Christians make up only 3% of the population.
Much of this work continues today with the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill still actively engaged in these and various other ministries. It is true, though, that in many communities Catholic Sisters are less visible than they once were. Many are now retired who previously taught in schools or worked in parishes. But the retirement of Sisters from the workforce does not mean that their “work” is over. (In religious life, one never truly “retires” but rather shifts to a less active ministry.) In all phases of their lives and work, the Sisters strive to maintain connections to their Congregation’s focus…serving those in need. In the words of Sister Mary Murray, President of the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill, “I think that the best way to know who we are today, as we celebrate our 140th Anniversary, is to know what we care about. Like our earliest members, we focus on serving and advocating for people in need who, like the women and children our pioneer Sisters served, often live on the margins of society. We commit ourselves to actions that allow us to speak up where justice is needed, and we invite others to join us in creating a more just and peaceful world. I believe that our Sisters and Associates are truly making a difference in our communities, reflecting God’s love and mercy to a world in need of healing.”