Our History

It began at a small crossroads in southern France in response to the needs of that day. In the 13th century, Dominic de Guzman, a holy man, recognized the necessity for sanctuary for women who rejected heresy and so were in danger. Dominic found a safe home for them in Prouile, at that small crossroads near Fanjeaux. Eventually, more women joined the group. Today, we Dominican Sisters continue to respond to the needs of the times and places where we live: teaching, healing, listening, serving – bolstered by constant prayer, deep study, and supportive community. And we strive to do so in the spirit of our founder, St. Dominic, who was known for his humble and joyful heart.

It was in response to a need to teach children of immigrant families that four Dominican Sisters from a convent in Regensburg, (a.k.a. Ratisbon) Germany came to New York City in 1853.

Twenty-four years later, October 1877, five of those Dominican Sisters from the New York Convent arrived in Traverse City. Again, it was an answer to a call to extend their teaching mission westward to this northwest corner of Michigan – a place with few modern amenities and many children in need of education and guidance in their faith life. From this humble beginning, the mission work expanded.

The map highlights the many cities and rural villages where we taught in parish schools, cared for orphans, served in nursing care and social work. Wherever we live we strive to build a sense of community, to strengthen faith and witness God’s love and mercy joyfully.

We hope you enjoy some highlights from the history of our Congregation below. If you want to delve deeper or find a favorite teacher or relative among our Sisters, we invite you to explore Our Archives.

Early History

1889 St. John's Home for Orphans – a practical response to a great need

Sisters were invited by the bishop of Grand Rapids, Henry J. Richter, to assume the administration of a home for orphans and children in need. This call to help nurture and educate the children of a growing population of immigrants in Grand Rapids was a dire need as impoverished families depended on St. John’s Home. The youngest twins in this photo of four sets of twins arrived when their mother died during their birth. The Sisters cared for them until their father remarried and his new wife brought them home.

1900s Called to Teach – response to needs in Michigan

During the early 1900s, Sisters responded to the request to staff parish schools throughout Michigan. Some were small rural schools in outposts like Beaver Island and the Leelanau Peninsula. Others were in an urban setting, e.g., Grand Rapids Catholic Central. Two Academies were owned and operated by the Dominican Sisters. In 1896, Holy Rosary Academy for girls opened in Essexville; and Sacred Heart Academy for girls opened in 1900 in Grand Rapids.

1921-1925 – response to a need for a Motherhouse

In 1921, the cornerstone was laid for the Marywood Motherhouse at the intersection of Fulton Street and Lakeside Drive in Grand Rapids. Over the years, more than 1000 Sisters at a time have called this place home. Sacred Heart Academy moved to the Marywood campus in 1922 and was renamed Marywood Academy in 1925.

1931 Aquinas College – response to a need close to home

In 1931, Catholic Junior College opened as one of the first institutions of Catholic higher education in the country to be both coeducational and run by a congregation of women religious. Today, as Aquinas College, its mission is to be an inclusive educational community rooted in the Catholic and Dominican tradition. Aquinas College seeks to provide a liberal arts education with a global perspective, emphasizing career preparation focusing on leadership and service to others, and fostering a commitment to lifelong learning dedicated to the pursuit of truth and the common good.

1960s Beyond Borders – response to a dire need far away

1962 — Called to New Mexico in 1925, to Canada in 1928, it wasn’t until October 29, 1962, that the sisters responded to the pressing need for teachers, nurses, and social workers to serve in Central and South America. Sisters Marie Dominica Viesnoraitis and Herman Marie Maez departed Grand Rapids airport to begin the mission in Chimbote, Peru. They were the first of many Sisters to serve in Chimbote, a mission which continues to the present day.

1962-1965 Vatican II Changes the Church & Women Religious – responding to a call to “widen the tent”

Pope John XXIII called for Vatican Council II which introduced themes of openness and reconciliation as well as principles of collegiality and subsidiarity. Catholics could pray with other Christian denominations; friendships were encouraged with people of non-Christian faiths. Mass and prayers changed form and language from Latin to the vernacular. Sisters stood up and raised their voices for justice in more ways than ever. Even the dress of women religious changed; habits were no longer required. Do you know who is the Sister teacher and who are the students in this science class photo?

1970s, 80s, 90s response to needs at home and abroad

While Sisters were working diligently with Aquinas College and neighbors in Eastown to save and revive the neighborhood, other Sisters were expanding their work across the world. In addition to the established mission in Chimbote, Peru; Sisters worked in collaboration with other Dominicans in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where poverty, injustice and the growing HIV/AIDs epidemic were destroying families and communities. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Sisters traveled to Hungary, Lithuania, and Russia to assist seminaries and dioceses working with people who had been forced to practice their religion in secrecy and isolation for decades.

1993 Dominican Center Opens – response to a new need for adult spirituality

When Dominican Center opened its doors in 1993, the Sisters invited people of all faith traditions and walks of life to explore and grow in faith and spirituality alongside the Sisters, a tradition that still stands today. In 2021, we relocated our spirituality center. An evolving calendar of programs in formation, spirituality, and justice can be found at Dominican Center Marywood at Aquinas College.

2021 - 2022 Centennial and Sale – response to a new day

In June of 2021, the Sisters celebrated the centennial of their Motherhouse.  In procession, they walked along the circle drive and blessed the building with prayer and song and bells.  The previous summer, the Sisters announced the sale of the building to 3CPK developers after many years of renovations and finding partners to share the space.  In the months following the announcement, the Sisters moved out of the building, some to the former Marywood Health Center on campus (subsequently named the new Marywood).

Transforming Ministries

Transformation is a theme Dominicans know well. Symbols of transformation surround us. Our beautiful Marywood campus changes with the seasons, nature’s transformation reminding us that baptism and rebirth is ours through Christ. Sisters, friends and family members die and are reborn. We honor life and legacies through all of of our ministries. We are eternally grateful that God is the constant, walking with us, always.