Melding cultures has been a lifelong undertaking for our Congregation, especially when delving into the relationship between the Sisters from New Mexico and those from the Midwest and elsewhere.
Finding Common Ground
From New Mexico, young women did not arrive in Michigan as tourists, but to enter a way of life as Dominicans. They temporarily left behind their families, as well as a culture that encompassed them, in order to take on the life of vowed women religious.
Another group of Sisters, those who were born and bred in Michigan or at least formed in the cultures of our Midwest Congregation, were sent to teach and nurse in New Mexico. And so, a wonderful exchange of cultures emerged within the Dominican community. A deep reverence for diverse ways of praying, celebrating, and caring for one another evolved into a unique integration of cultures among the Dominican Sisters from such disparate locations.
So many brave young women who crossed the country to study and become Dominican in the Midwest, as well as those sent to New Mexico on mission, encountered cultural climates that were dramatically different from what they knew. These women faced the fear and uncertainty inherent in such a monumental life change with courage and dignity. The culture of the Sisters from the Midwest was influenced by immigrant families from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Canada; while the culture of the Sisters from New Mexico was influenced by Spanish, Mexican, and Indigenous heritage. Considering that a person’s culture influences how she/he perceives the world and responds to it, these women indeed faced new challenges.
And yet, there were affinities between the cultural backgrounds of the Sisters. “The concept of extended family and the close family relationships is a value we shared with our Dominican Sisters from across the country,” says Dolorita Martinez, OP, a native of New Mexico. “We grew up practicing many of the same Roman Catholic traditions and attending Mass on Sundays, celebrating and following similar rituals. Family prayer played a very important role among all of us, shaping us and guiding our views and way of living.”
New Mexico’s stark natural elements and the beauty of the land are embedded in the hearts of the people who call it home. “I come from the open spaces of Northern New Mexico – both the desert and the mountain areas,” says Sister Dolorita. “I believe that the rich silence and quiet of these open spaces gave me sensitivity to nature and helped me see and touch life in a contemplative way, all strengthening my prayer life.”
“I like going to the mountains, but in Michigan I loved going to Lake Michigan,” says Ann Thielen, OP, originally from Michigan, now living in New Mexico. Sister Ann first came to New Mexico in the 1960s on mission assignment as a nurse and wondered about where she could find the green landscape she grew up with in Michigan. Today she sees the beauty in both her adopted home of New Mexico and her native state of Michigan equally. “I like the open spaces,” says Sister Ann. “I think it is an individual thing based on where you are at the moment.”
While all Dominican Sisters share a deep love for natural resources and gifts of nature, the Great Lakes and farm lands of Michigan are vastly different from the desert and mountains of New Mexico. In much the same way that the views from their windows were greatly different for the Sisters, so were many cultural aspects. Foods were unfamiliar as were the ways the Sisters prayed and celebrated. Each difference challenged the Sisters who found themselves enveloped in a culture and community that was unfamiliar.
Sisters from New Mexico came mostly from rural or small towns, not unlike the majority of Sisters from the Midwest. Although quite distinct, there was a natural weaving and connection of this common background. One truly illustrative moment, although there were likely many that took place over the years, is described in a manuscript about the history of the Sisters.
It happened…during the Dominican Gathering Days in Grand Rapids. It was a real fiesta with music and dancing and food. Something palpable happened that day; two language groups became acutely aware of the gift of the other. Nuevo Mejico met in the land of the Great Lakes and it was joy, esteem, appreciation all around. It was a new moment in the Congregation for all of the Sisters. The notion of family grew and together the Sisters could say: “!Vive la fiesta!”
There is a continuous transformation taking place with two rich cultures blending into one – the culture of being Dominican. Our Sisters are tied together with a common understanding of expressing our Dominican selves in all we are and embracing one another and our unique cultural backgrounds.