Back to School: Dominican Sisters Return to Washington State

Women religious from the Dominican order first arrived at Our Lady, Star of the Sea School in 1926.

From l to r: Sister Mariana, Sister Daniela and Sister Maria Caeli pose in front of the school sign.
From l to r: Sister Mariana, Sister Daniela and Sister Maria Caeli pose in front of the school sign. (photo: Courtesy of the sisters)

In 1926, on the cusp of its inaugural year, three Dominican Sisters of Edmonds arrived by boat to teach at Our Lady, Star of the Sea School in Bremerton, Washington, located along the island-dotted waters of Puget Sound.

Disembarking, they were greeted by the parish pastor, Father Joseph Camerman, whose persistent pleas to the mother general to provide a mission for the school had finally born fruit.

Over the course of the next several decades, the dedicated daughters of St. Dominic would continue their ministry until their numbers dwindled and the last sister retired in 1994.

Now, as if a rebirth, since the fall term of 2017, Dominican sisters have again become a part of the faculty at Our Lady, Star of the Sea and are offering their distinct charism and gifts to the parish and students. Hailing from the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tennessee, the missionary threesome is comprised of Sister Mariana, Sister Daniela and Sister Maria Caeli.

Current pastor Father Derek Lappe described the process of their arrival, which began six years ago during a parish pilgrimage to the “Catholic South” and culminated at the “Ignite Your Torch Conference” in Kentucky. En route, the group of parents and teens visited the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, the Fathers of Mercy, and the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville. “After meeting the sisters and seeing them at work with the youth at the conference,” Father Lappe said, “my evangelization director suggested that we invite them to be a part of our community and school.”

Initially, Father Lappe imagined a negative reply to their invitation from the much-in-demand Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia. Still, soon after returning home to Our Lady, Star of the Sea, he contacted Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who greatly encouraged the idea and then assisted him in obtaining the approval for a mission from the community’s prioress general, Mother Ann Marie.

“When we first got here,” explained Sister Maria Caeli, seated alongside her sisters during a recent interview at the convent, “the way the students described us was the ‘Tall One,’ the ‘Middle One’ and the ‘Short One.’” Reminded of the children’s blunt designation, the sisters all laugh. “The children ask a lot of questions,” Sister Maria Caeli continued, “like: ‘What do you do for free time?’ When I tell them I like to hike, they often find that kind of shocking and ask what I wear. When I tell them I wear the habit, they ask why, and I tell them because we always want to be a witness.”

Thrilled to have the witness of women religious at the school again, Tina Powell, who is the academic interventionist and physical education teacher, as well as the mother of four students at the school, described the impact the Dominicans have made on her children. “These sisters are very down-to-earth and approachable to my children: singing, dancing as a means of instruction, smiling frequently, telling jokes, showing compassion and being firm when needed.”

Another enthusiastic supporter of the sisters, Emily Shurtz, who has two daughters enrolled in the school, described how the sisters have inspired a love for the Catholic faith and a thirst for learning in them. She said, “My oldest, Molly, is convinced that she wants to be a Dominican sister of St. Cecilia. My girls often play ‘school’ at home, and they celebrate their version of Mass and religion class in addition to math and writing. It’s clear they look up to the sisters and admire their peace and vocation.”

Admiration for the vocation of the sisters carries over into the general population of Bremerton as well, many of whose citizens remember the Dominicans from earlier decades and are delighted by their return.

As Father Lappe explained, “The main thing I often hear from people in the community is of ‘sister sightings.’ Catholics, non-Catholics and lapsed Catholics love to interact with them and love to see them at the grocery store, or out hiking, or getting the oil changed in the car. It reminds a lot of people of the sisters in the school when they were growing up.”

“It’s really surprising,” Sister Daniela said, sharing frequent reactions of people they meet while out running errands. “Many people share with us how sisters, such as the Dominicans, used to work with them in their health care fields and hospitals. Many people recognize us as Dominicans.”

Although the familiar white habit immediately identifies the sisters as consecrated religious within the Dominican order, officially known as the Order of Preachers, the sisters also understand that their education ministry and interaction with people must communicate the interior reality of their mission.

As Sister Daniela explained, “We have a preaching mission. But preaching is a combination of teaching and healing. We’re not just preaching to people, but we’re trying to bring them to Jesus through everything that we’re teaching. The goal is salvation of souls.”

Oriented toward the same end, Father Lappe reflected on the Dominican sisters and their transcendent role in the future of Our Lady, Star of the Sea and said, “Our school is dedicated to providing a Christ-centered education to our kids and families, and by their lives, the sisters give an example of that Christ-centered life. Our hope is that more and more of our kids are inspired to put Jesus at the center of their lives.”  

Jennifer Sokol writes from ShorelineWashington.