All in the (Mostly) Dominican Family

How one domestic church of sisters and parents loves St. Dominic (and St. Francis)

(photo: Register Files)

Growing up in Texas, Jodi (Cox) Grant and her younger sister, now-Dominican Sister Mary Juliana Cox journeyed in faith together as teens, attending prayer groups.

At the same time, their parents, Bill and Marilyn Cox, experienced their own spiritual awakening.  More than 20 years later, they are all still growing in faith — and their family devotion looks mostly Dominican, accented with a bit of Franciscan.

The story of how three of the family members became Dominicans, with the help of the other Franciscan-inspired member, passes through several states and another country on the way to the motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation of Nashville, Tenn. (Nashville Dominicans).

At this motherhouse, Sister Mary Juliana and her parents, lay Dominicans, will celebrate the feast day of the order’s founder, St. Dominic, on Aug. 6 (the actual feast day for Dominic is Aug. 8) during the 800th anniversary year of the Dominican order.

“We are humbled to share in the charisms of the Dominican Order,” said Marilyn, of Goodlettsville, Tenn., speaking of her work as a lay Dominican. “Father Dominic established his order for preaching and the salvation of souls. It’s a very great honor to be able to serve God and neighbor in our various ministries, such as visiting the sick, sidewalk advocacy in front of abortion centers, serving as catechists in parishes, working with youth groups and many other service projects.” 

It’s unclear whether St. Dominic and St. Francis ever met, though they were contemporaries who founded their respective orders in the 13th century.  Dominic de Guzman was born in 1170 in Caleruega, Spain. In response to the Albigensian heresy in France, Dominic was inspired to found the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) in 1216 in France. The order’s foundation consists of four pillars: prayer, study, community and apostolate.

St. Francis was born in 1181 or 1182 in Assisi, Italy. In 1209, he founded the Franciscan Friars Minor, and later the second and third orders. While Dominic focused more on study and preaching, Francis’ preaching was simpler, and he emphasized a simple life of repentance and compassion for outcasts.

Each member of the Cox family, whether more devoted to Dominic or Francis, takes up the call in their distinct states in life and brings the fruit of both traditions to their family life.

Grant, who now lives in Cornwall, Prince Edward Island, Canada, developed her love for the Franciscan order while discerning religious life with a Franciscan congregation, and then during two years at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. Along with the Franciscan love for the poor and nature, Grant said, “I was really attracted by the poverty and simplicity of the Franciscan lifestyle.”

While at Steubenville, she noticed the Nashville Dominican sisters and thought of her sister, who also was considering religious life. Grant convinced Sister Mary Juliana to come from Texas, where she was studying, to meet the sisters. Later, Grant sent a care package when her sister attended a “Come and See” retreat in 1997 at the order’s Nashville motherhouse.

The following June, Grant married and moved to Canada, where she and her husband are now raising their seven children inspired by Franciscan spirituality. The same August, Sister Mary Juliana entered the Nashville Dominicans.

Suddenly, Bill and Marilyn found themselves empty nesters. But, eventually, the couple decided to settle in Nashville to better unite the family. Marilyn taught at a school led by Nashville Dominicans, and the couple prayed often with the sisters in their motherhouse.

Inspired by the sisters’ joy and the beauty of their prayer, in 2005, the Coxes responded to a personal call to join a small group of lay Dominicans who met at the motherhouse. “We heard a call from God, a call just like Sister got,” Marilyn said. 

“Everyone is called.”

The lay group seeks holiness by following the Dominican rule and doing apostolic work, Marilyn said.

When her parents became part of the Dominican family — consisting of friars, brothers, nuns and sisters and laity — Sister Mary Juliana said, “I was kind of surprised. I was just starting to understand this vocation of my parents as a married couple. Maybe there’s something deeper in them that we’d been sharing together that I hadn’t realized before.”

All Dominicans share in the order’s charism, Marilyn said. “St. Dominic desires that we have charity, preserve humility and possess voluntary poverty,” she said. “We pray each day to follow his desire ... all the way to heaven.”

In 2011, Sister Mary Juliana was assigned to teach at St. Croix Catholic School in Stillwater, Minn., where she is currently the school’s principal. Living in Nashville, the Coxes spent more time with Sister Mary Juliana when she returns from Minnesota for a home visit. At times, Grant and her family visit from Canada. During these visits, the Dominicans in the family talk a little about their community, but the focus is on relaxation.  

Said Grant, "As Francis and Dominic would have enjoyed each other’s company, Sister and my mom and dad and I certainly enjoy each other’s company as well.”      

Both saints were called to reform the Church with the charisms God had given them, she said. “They lived at the same time, but there was so much work to be done … so both of these holy men, and the women that followed them, of course, were raised up to fill the need that God had in the Church at the time. They both did great things.”

Sister Mary Juliana said she appreciates how Grant communicates her love of Franciscan values to her children. And Grant said she respects her sister’s call and recognizes how the family’s involvement with the Nashville Dominicans has blessed them. “We know that we share in the benefit of those prayers daily and graces that are coming to us all the time,” Grant said. “I know that we would be ‘limping’ a lot more than we are without all of those prayers being said for us.”

Two traditions also present the opportunity for fun. “I remember when Pope Francis was elected and said what his name was,” Grant said. “I immediately had to rib Sister Mary Juliana — not Pope Dominic, Pope Francis.”

But Bill countered that Pope Francis and popes since the 16th-century Dominican Pope St. Pius V have worn the Dominican habit. He also recounted the legend that Francis and Dominic switched belts, referring to the reason Dominicans now wear a black belt and the Franciscans a rope cincture.

Dominican white and Franciscan brown remain distinct, but in the Cox family, Dominicans and Franciscans are all in the family.

“We’re like the cousins that just tease each other,” Sister Mary Juliana said. “We see that connection.”

This article originally appeared Aug. 8, 2016, in the Register.