A Catholic Schools Week Register feature interview.
Religious life in the United States has undergone a remarkable decline in the United States in the past 50 years, with once-dominant communities experiencing a dearth in new vocations and an average age well into the twilight years.
A handful of traditional communities are bucking the trend, however, and among the most notable is the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.
Cardinal John O’Connor of New York canonically established the community with four sisters on Feb. 9, 1997; today, there are 120 sisters whose average age is 29. Their apostolate is Catholic teaching; they operate the Spiritus Sanctus Academies in Michigan and teach in Catholic schools in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Texas. The sisters have been twice featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show and once on The American Bible Challenge.
The Register recently spoke with Dominican Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, one of the original founding sisters and vocation director for the community.
How did you become a religious, and how did your community begin?
I’m from Tennessee. I was blessed with saintly parents and taught by sisters, so I had the best of both worlds. I entered religious life after high school, becoming a Dominican.
Four of us in the community believed God was calling us to found a new community. Mother Assumpta [who was previously the superior of the Nashville Dominicans] was good friends with Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, and he agreed to canonically establish us.
Tom Monaghan, the great Catholic philanthropist, heard about our new community. We’re a teaching community, and Tom wanted to build Catholic schools. He invited us to Ann Arbor, Mich. [Monaghan is from Ann Arbor], and after much prayer and consultation between our bishop in New York and the bishop of Lansing, we moved.
As a vocation director, I thought the move would prove itself a good idea if vocations came. Sure enough, the day after we arrived in Ann Arbor, a young woman came to our door asking about joining us.
It just shows that you have to pray, put yourself in the hands of the Lord and trust him.
Do you receive many requests from bishops to teach in their schools?
We’re constantly getting requests. Mother Assumpta has 350 on her desk right now.
We choose where to go based on the sisters we have available and the ability of our sisters to live our consecrated life in the diocese. We send out our sisters in groups of at least four. They teach grades K-12 in different schools but live in one convent.
We’re always praying and asking the Holy Spirit how to best use us.
What fruits have you seen in your teaching apostolate?
We like to think every single child we teach is a fruit and that each has been positively impacted in his relationship with God. Ours is a holistic approach, touching mind, body and soul. We seek to put a Catholic culture in our schools.
Where do your vocations come from?
They come from every kind of family from all over the U.S. and Canada. The call comes from God, and the woman has to realize it or at least be open to it.
We have three vocation retreats a year, which last 24 hours each. We tell our young women to bring a sleeping bag, a rosary and a wide open heart for Jesus and Mary to fill.
Each retreat, we have to turn women away because we can only accommodate 180 at a time. Sometimes groups come from colleges; we had a recent group of 25 women from one college.
While on retreat, many women realize that their vocation is marriage. For others, it’s the single life or a missionary vocation. If they believe they have a religious vocation, we try to direct them to the right community, whether it is ours or another one.
What “growing pains” have you experienced with such rapid growth?
We cannot build fast enough to accommodate all our vocations! We’ve filled our motherhouse, and we’re looking for more space to build. The people have been generous, but we need more financial resources so we can continue to build as well as provide for the other needs of our sisters. God is sending us incredible women, but we have to feed, clothe and educate them.
What has made your religious community successful in attracting vocations?
I could point to many reasons. God blesses authenticity. We live out our religious life according to what our understanding is of what the Church asks from us. We strive to be faithful to the charism of our founders. We know it, and we live it as a community.
We have a close community life. We genuinely love our sisters. A woman’s heart is made to be a part of a family, and the community has to be the sister’s family.
We have a future; a woman doesn’t want to join a community if it won’t be around long.
We are faithful to the Church, and we live an authentic prayer life.
We’re a youthful community, which is appealing to young women, and a joyful community. Ask our new sisters who come to live with us what they first notice about our community, and I think they’ll say, “Abundant joy.”
We also have an identifiable habit. I travel frequently, and I don’t seem to have a moment to myself. People are always coming up to me, asking to pray for their intentions or saying how nice it is to see a sister in habit. Children want to touch my rosary beads. The world is frantic for God. Helping them find him is part of our spiritual motherhood.
We’re devoted to prayer. As Dominicans, first we pray, then we go out and teach. In addition to daily Mass and all of our devotions, we added a daily Eucharistic Holy Hour. The Eucharist defines who we are. It’s true for all of our sisters, wherever they are.
Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.