Once, not so very long ago, but before cell phones and GPS, I set out with a friend to circumnavigate the Gaspé Peninsula – a land mass jutting into the Gulf of St. Lawrence at the eastern edge of Quebec, Canada. It was supposed to be a lovely spring vacation; but the Gaspé weather had not heeded the season. Rain, wind and bone chilling cold met us as we encountered one closed campground after another. Discouraged, cold and wet, we turned down a lonely road where we saw two old women. We stopped to ask the strangers if they knew of a field where we might camp that night, but before we could open our mouths, the women smiled, and said: “We have been waiting for you.”
Soon we were snug on cozy cots in a honey house, having sipped hot tea and eaten great chunks of honey cake. We fell asleep that night to the peaceful, yet majestic sound of whales exhaling through their blowholes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. And in the morning the old women showed us where the eagles nested; we ate breakfast with eagles wheeling to and fro overhead.
From that moment on, we determined that it was not our fate to take a trip, but rather to allow the trip to take us.
Such has been the journey too of the Dominican Sisters ~ Grand Rapids. From our first adventure across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City in 1853, then on to the little frontier town of Traverse City, Michigan in 1877, the path of the Sisters took unexpected turns. One of those turns led to the creation of what is now our Motherhouse in Grand Rapids when we were called here to staff St. John’s Home and St. Alphonsus School in 1889. The Sisters planned and prepared, yet we were open to where the Spirit of God led us.
“When you are open to what the needs are, the opportunities come. And the discernment comes,” says Jarrett DeWyse, OP, Director of Housing Development, Dwelling Place. “Sometimes it is hard to know what you need to do next. But, if you are listening to the Spirit and listening to others about what you can do and offer, it becomes clear.”
Unexpected Journeys Then and Now
Cloistered nuns became apostolic Sisters with a simpler prayer regime and clothing adapted to the needs of the times and places in which they lived and worked.
Teachers and homemakers became administrators, child advocates, nutritionists, and surrogate mothers at St. John’s Home. School teachers became college professors. Housekeepers became Food Service Directors. The shy and the reticent became outspoken advocates for justice and peace. A Normal School to prepare Sisters to become teachers became the first Catholic Co-educational College, founded by an order of Sisters, in the United States.
In fact, the Dominican Sisters’ journey as teachers led to the formation of Dominican Center at Marywood in 1993. Its creation was centered in the available resources and the needs that were expressed to the Sisters. “Discernment, listening to the Spirit, is at the core of finding our way according to God’s plan. We were looking at ways that we could help people in their own spiritual lives,” says Diane Zerfas, OP, Director of Programs at Dominican Center at Marywood. “We were looking at what would be supportive of their spiritual lives in their own parishes.”
In another twist, China, a possible mission outreach in the 1920s, was deferred to answer the call to come to New Mexico with consequent blessings of enormous abundance. A tuberculosis sanitarium in Albuquerque became a psychiatric hospital when vaccination eradicated TB. And when in turn, psychotropic medicines mitigated the need for inpatient mental health care, the site was sold to the city for a lovely park, enjoyed by thousands of families when they host the famous Spirit of the Winds International Balloon Fiesta every fall.
A catechetical mission to Chimbote, Peru soon included nurses and midwives and eventually a Maternity Hospital, an outpatient clinic, a medical laboratory, pre-natal care, and an orphanage serving the people in Chimbote for over fifty years. In May 1970, an earthquake struck the area, killing 70,000 people and destroying 75% of the city. “When are you leaving?” the people asked. “Why stay? Everything is gone.” When the people found out that the Sisters were staying, many said, “Su presencia nos da experanza.” (“Your presence is a sign of hope for us.”)
What started out to be a health care center for the Sisters as they aged evolved into a partnership with Porter Hills that includes programs of Rehabilitation, Nursing Care, Home Health Care, and Spiritual Companioning for and with Sisters and adults in greater Grand Rapids. Marywood Health Center makes available healing spaces and skilled care, whether a patient has a faith background or not.
When the Grand Rapids Fire Department condemned our fourth floor infirmary in 1964, no one could have guessed that the new building known as Aquinata Hall would one day become a beautiful and caring environment for Sisters and others in need of assistance in their daily living. Here, Sisters who are residents, or on staff, continue the mission of Christ to be a healing presence to all they meet.
Just as I learned to let the trip take us while traveling in Gaspé, so have the Dominican Sisters come to let the mission of Christ take us. “We do not have a mission; the mission has us,” is a frequently heard mantra.
Planning? Yes! Of course, we plan and strategize with all our wisdom – as we’ve been doing recently regarding the living legacy of our Marywood campus. Then we let go to the workings of the Spirit of God to be a part of Christ’s mission of peace and justice wherever we are, with whoever wishes to be with us, for as long as we are needed. Meanwhile, we listen for the sound of the breath of whales, look for the soaring of eagles, savor the taste of honey cakes – you never know what is in store for those who seek the will of God in their daily lives.