Founded in 1877 in King Williams Town, South Africa, The Dominican Missionary Sisters have grown and moved around the globe — often with struggle; always with hope.
In 1206, St Dominic de Guzman founded a Convent of contemplative nuns at Prouihle, France. Independently of this, a group of pious women called Beguines, emerged in 1245. Some founded a spiritual community in Augsburg, Germany in 1335, and in 1394, the community of St Ursula was affiliated to the Dominican Order and became a contemplative, enclosed Dominican community.
Five centuries later, the new Dominican Missionary Sisters foundation was started, and a year later the new community became juridically independent of St Ursula. St Ursula continued supporting the new foundation by sending out young missionaries. South African and Irish women, too, ask to be received in King William’s Town. Mother Mauritia Tiefenböck, a woman of amazing drive and prudence, was the Superior of the rapidly growing religious congregation.
The invitation to a new missionary venture reaches Mother Mauritia in December, through the Jesuit Superior, Fr Alphonse Daignault. Pope Leo XIII had asked the Jesuit Order to start a mission in the African interior, the vast area beyond the Limpopo, extending north and south of the Zambezi. First attempts, some years earlier, had failed due to a variety of reasons. The proposed expedition of the Pioneer Column of Cecil Rhodes seems to offer a new opportunity.
Fr A. Daignault asks Mother Mauritia for Sisters to join the expedition in support of the new missionary enterprise: initially, by nursing the sick and the wounded, and eventually, by engaging in teaching and other missionary tasks in the mission field. Mother Mauritia, after consulting with Bishop Ricards, discerns God’s call to a new mission; hence she faces the risks involved and allows Sisters who volunteer to go.
In February, five Dominican Sisters are ready to depart:
- Sister Amica Kilduff, age 35, of Irish stock, born and grown up in South Africa
- Sister Francis Condon, 35, born in Ireland, grown up in South Africa
- Sister Ignatius Haslinger, nearly 25, German
- Sister Constantia Frommknecht, 24, German
Both German Sisters had come to King William’s Town from St Ursula in Augsburg.
- Sister Patrick Cosgrave, 26, from Co Wexford, Ireland, is appointed Superior of the group.
(Mary Ann Cosgrave had followed God’s call to missionary life at the early age of 17. She had come to South Africa in 1880 in the company of Bishop Ricards, when the latter returned from Europe after a campaign for missionary vocations, which had included his hometown Wexford. In 1881 Mary Ann had been received as Sister Patrick into the Dominican community of King William’s Town; she had made her religious profession there in 1882.
Nursing was still in its infancy, and women commonly undertook nursing duties without special nursing qualifications. Moreover, the Dominicans of King William’s Town, like those of their founding convent St. Ursula, were a teaching congregation. Hence the five volunteers, too, were teachers by profession. On their way north to Mashonaland they received in-service training from the doctors in charge of the particular camps they were at; and they became good nurses indeed, much appreciated by doctors and patients alike.)
In April the convoy of ox-wagons with the pioneer corps starts moving from Mafeking at the southern Limpopo; it reaches the station of Macloutsie after almost a month.
While the Sisters are nursing an ever-growing number of patients, and their departure from Macloutsie towards the north is delayed month after month, a second group of Sisters arrives – at Mother Patrick’s request – in March, from King William’s Town. These four German Sisters are:
- Sister Berchmans Dreier, 26
- Sr Bonaventura Kaltenstadler, 20
- Sister Caroline Berchtold, 29
- Sister Jacoba Zirn, 34
The two groups of Sisters are rearranged: Sisters Jacoba, Caroline, Francis and Ignatius continue nursing in Macloutsie, while Sisters Patrick, Amica, Berchmans, Bonaventura and Constantia travel northward by ox-wagon and arrive at Fort Salisbury (Harare), on July 27, 1891, having covered more than 1200 km since their departure from South Africa.
On August 1, the Sisters take up duty in the primitive local hospital, thus starting their missionary apostolate in Rhodesia.
The Sisters open the first school in Salisbury.
The Sisters take up nursing at Fort Victoria Hospital (until April 1898).
The Sisters take up nursing at Bulawayo Hospital.
The Sisters open a school in Bulawayo.
Since 1892 several small groups of Sisters have come from King William’s Town to reinforce the pioneers in Rhodesia, so that by the end of 1897 their total number has risen to about 30.
However, as the Dominicans of King William’s Town are a teaching congregation, it is becoming more and more difficult for them to satisfy the continuous demand for nursing sisters. Moreover, the Bulawayo Hospital Board insists that only fully qualified – i.e. certificated – nurses be admitted on the hospital staff.
Fr Richard Sykes, since 1896 Prefect Apostolic of the Zambesi Mission, regards the Sisters’ dedicated and efficient nursing commitment in the hospitals a most beneficent and even indispensable part of the missionary endeavour in Rhodesia.
Fr Sykes consults Fr. A. Daignault. Greatly concerned that the Church’s presence and influence may be at stake, they come to the conclusion, that the Dominicans in Rhodesia should become independent of their Motherhouse in King Williams’ Town. This would enable them to adapt themselves better to local conditions. They could look for and train their own recruits, and in this way ensure and promote the growth and development of the Church in Rhodesia. The two Jesuits put their proposal before Bishop Dr. Hugh Mac Sherry of Grahamstown, and the Prioress, Mother Euphemia Koffler at King William’s Town; unfortunately, they do not discuss it with the Sisters in Rhodesia.
Jan. Mother Euphemia Koffler and her Council agree to the proposal, assuming that Mother Patrick and her Sisters want the separation. When, at last, Mother Patrick and the Sisters in the north are informed of the decision, they are utterly dismayed and deeply afflicted. Their request for its cancellation is in vain.
April – May Each Sister has to decide on: either abandoning the mission and returning to King William’s Town, or declaring in writing that she wants to belong to the new congregation, and that she surrenders the right ever to return to the Motherhouse. The following nineteen Sisters “desiring only God’s greater glory” decide to remain in Rhodesia; they form the nucleus of the new congregation:
- Sister Agatha Mayer
- Sister Aloysia Weh
- Sister Amica Kilduff
- Sister Berchmans Dreier
- Sister Canisia Fink
- Sister Caroline Berchtold
- Sister Christine Alabar
- Sister Constantia Frommknech
- Sister Dorothea Schmid
- Sister Francis Condon
- Sister Frederika Kalkschmid
- Sister Ignatius Haslinger
- Sister Marcella Deisenhofer
- Sister Mechtild Wegmann
- Sister Octavia Waters
- Sister Patrick Cosgrave
- Sister Sebastian Hill
- Sister Thecla Rolle
- Sister Vincent Schneider
June – Oct. Mother Patrick and Mother Jacoba travel to Europe, in order to do the studies required to obtain a nursing certificate. They are also to look for would-be postulants for the new congregation.
After a two months’ intensive training course in Dublin, the Sisters pass the examination and receive their certificates. However, while still in England, they are informed that the Bulawayo hospital board refuses to accept Mother Jacob’s certificate, because – as they put it – it was obtained in too short a time. Hence Mother Jacoba decides not to return to Bulawayo. As one of the founder members of King William’s Town she is welcome at the Motherhouse there.
The two Sisters make a brief visit at St. Ursula, Augsburg, which strengthens the bonds between the original motherhouse and the new community and secures to the latter the vital future support with missionary vocations from Germany.
November Mother Patrick returns to Salisbury with six Irish postulants. The hospital authorities in Salisbury accept Mother Patrick’s certificate. In agreement with Father Sykes, the decision is reached to withdraw the Dominican nursing sisters from Bulawayo by the end of 1898.
December A group of Sisters begins missionary work at Chishawasha, a station 25 km northeast of Salisbury, which was started by the Jesuits six years previously. The Sisters start a school for young black girls; they also visit the sick in the neighbouring villages and supply the necessary medicines. Over the following decades the Sisters move into further mission stations in Rhodesia.
On January 6, the Sisters unanimously elect Mother Patrick Prioress of all Dominican houses in Rhodesia. At the same time the Sisters become increasingly worried about Mother Patrick’s health as she is suffering from Tuberculosis.
Mother Patrick’s condition deteriorates rapidly. Her physical energies are spent. She dies peacefully, resigned to God’s Holy Will, on July, 31, aged 37 years, deeply mourned by her Sisters and the citizens of Salisbury and beyond.
On January 24, Mother Ignatius Haslinger is elected Prioress of the Dominican Houses in Rhodesia. She continues the work begun, with commitment, prudence and profound confidence in God. The number of Sisters increases, and so does the number of people entrusted to them, in schools, homes, and mission-stations. Time and again brave pioneering sisters open up a new station, in spite of extreme poverty and enormous difficulties.
During a journey to Europe, Mother Ignatius visits Rev. Fr. Hyacinth Cormier, the Master of the Dominican Order, in Rome. On this occasion the Congregation is granted the affiliation to the Dominican Order.
The physical energy and nervous strength of Mother Ignatius are exhausted after she has been re-elected several times as Prioress of the Dominican Houses in Rhodesia. She has to follow her doctor’s urgent advice and take a six months’ leave in Europe. Sister Francis Condon is appointed acting Prioress for the time of Mother Ignatius’ absence.
World War I prevents Mother Ignatius’ return to the British colony of Rhodesia, causing her great concern and distress.
Stranded in Germany, Mother Ignatius, together with her companion, Sister Alacoque Moosmann, uses the time to found a house of formation for young Sisters. Under extreme hardships the two women start a novitiate house in the ruins of the castle of Strahlfeld, in the Diocese of Regensburg, Bavaria.
In Rhodesia, the Sisters elect Mother Brigid Duffy Prioress of the Dominican Houses.
The Convent of “St. Dominikus Strahlfeld” is canonically established as Novitiate house in Germany. Mother Ignatius shoulders the office of Prioress, while Mother Alacoque Moosmann is the directress of Novices.
The Apostolic Delegate, Msgr. B. Jordan Gijlswijk OP, appoints Mother Canisia Fink Prioress of the Dominican Houses in Rhodesia, with the title “Mother Provincial”.
Through indult granted by Pope Pius XI on November 16, the Congregation becomes a congregation of pontifical right. It is placed under the jurisdiction of the Sacred Congregation of the Propagation of Faith, now called Sacred Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
The first six Dominican Missionary Sisters from Strahlfeld are sent to Rhodesia. Close to 500 will follow in the course of the coming five decades.
In circumstances of extreme poverty, the Dominican Sisters start St John’s School on the outskirts of Salisbury. It provides education for Coloureds, children of mixed race, who are marginalised by society, and for whom there are only minimal chances for education.
In Northern Rhodesia a first community of Dominican Sisters is founded at Kasisi Mission. Other foundations follow.
In February, Pope Pius XI promulgates the encyclical letter “Rerum ecclesiae”, in which he urges the promotion of indigenous vocations to the priesthood and to religious life in the so called mission territories.
In June, the first General Chapter of the Congregation is held at Salisbury under the presidency of the Apostolic Delegate, Msgr. B. J. Gijlswijk OP. Mother Ignatius Haslinger is elected Prioress General and recalled from Strahlfeld to Salisbury.
The name of the Congregation is: “Congregation of St Catherine of Siena of the Sisters of the Third Order of St Dominic”.
On the feast of St. Dominic, and in compliance with a decision of the General Chapter, five girls, four African and one Coloured, are received as Candidates for religious life at Chishawasha Mission with a view to becoming the first indigenous Dominican Sisters in Rhodesia.
The revised Constitutions of the Congregation are approved for a period of seven years by the Holy See.
The second General Chapter confirms Mother Ignatius Haslinger as Prioress General of the Congregation.
Under her prudent guidance and thanks to the large numbers of young vocations, the Congregation can engage in more and more missionary tasks. The Sisters dedicate themselves above all to the education and formation of children, girls and young women, and to nursing among the African population in the poor rural areas.
In response to the Pope’s Encyclical “Rerum Ecclesiae” (27), the first Catholic Bishop of Rhodesia, Rev. Aston Chichester SJ, decides to found a new religious congregation for indigenous women rather than to allow their admission to any of the older missionary congregations working in the country. As a consequence, the candidates who had already been admitted by the Dominican Sisters are asked to join the new congregation, which is called “Little Children of our Blessed Lady” (LCBL). The Bishop entrusts their formation and direction to the Dominican Sisters.
The third General Chapter postulates a third term of office for Mother Ignatius. The request is supported by Bishop Chichester and granted by the Holy See.
During World War II (1939-1945), communication links between Rhodesia and Germany are cut and no German Sisters can be sent to the mission countries.
Auxiliary Bishop Dr Johannes Neuhäusler arranges for the Convent of Strahlfeld to be raised to the status of an independent province of the Order. By this measure the close connection with the motherhouse in the English colony of Rhodesia should appear less obvious.
The Convent of Strahlfeld founds several branch-communities in Germany in order to respond to requests of religious Orders of men. As many of their members have been enlisted, they plead that Sisters take charge of their house keeping.
Mother Ignatius dies on May 7, after a long, severe and most painful illness, which she endured with outstanding patience and surrender to God’s Holy Will.
The fourth General Chapter takes place in September and elects Mother Auxilia Lechner as Prioress General.
Communication with the Holy See, having been severely impeded during World War II, begins to function again. The Constitutions of the Congregation, sent to Rome in 1940, are now approved for further seven years.
The Congregation receives the name: “Dominican Sisters of Salisbury, Rhodesia”.
A community is founded in Lorenço Marques, Moçambique.
In Great Britain a first community of Sisters is founded in Chirk, Wales.
Rev. Alois Haene, Bishop of the Diocese of Gwelo, (Gweru) Rhodesia, entrusts the Dominican Sisters with the direction and formation of the indigenous congregation of women founded by him, the “Sisters of the Infant Jesus” (SJI).
The fifth General Chapter re-elects Mother Auxilia Lechner Prioress General of the Congregation. Communication links between Rhodesia and Germany having been re-established, young Sisters are sent out on mission again year by year, from Strahlfeld to Africa.
The novitiate house in Rhodesia is transferred from the Motherhouse to Our Lady’s Convent, Avondale, Salisbury.
The Sacred Heart Convent, Greenwich, London, is founded to become a second Novitiate house for vocations from Europe.
The first Constitutions of the Congregation receive definite approval by the Holy See. The Congregation receives the name: “Dominican Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Salisbury, Rhodesia”.
Sixth General Chapter: The postulation to have Mother Auxilia re-elected a third time is approved by Rome. During her term of office the number of Sisters rises to almost 600. Thus it becomes possible to start several new foundations.
At the request of Rev. Bishop Adam Kozlowiecki SJ of Lusaka, the Dominican Sisters accept responsibility for the direction and formation of a third indigenous congregation: the “Handmaids of the Blessed Virgin Mary” (HBVM).
Seventh General Chapter: Mother Conradine Schütz is elected Prioress General of the Congregation. During her term of office significant developments in Church and society occur. In Rome the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) calls on all religious men and women to renew the life of their Order in the spirit of the Gospel and of the Order’s founder.
The British colony of Northern Rhodesia becomes an independent nation with a black government and is called Zambia. In Southern Rhodesia, however, the white government does not allow the mere thought of such a development, and the shadow of impending racial war looms on the horizon.
At a time when black youth in Rhodesia, especially young girls and women, are badly discriminated against, the Congregation opens two secondary schools for black girls and supplies Sisters to teach at secondary school level at other mission-stations.
It remains, however, “a thorn in the flesh”, and a moral conflict for many Sisters, that no measures can be taken against the unjust racial laws that forbid classes in common for black and white students. They risk, however, enrolling some African students in the existing schools. Only at St. Martin’s, a station on the outskirts of the capital, a pilot project for primary pupils of all races is launched, under great difficulties.
The Prioress General, Mother Conradine Schütz, and her Council decide to accept indigenous young women into the Congregation.
The LCBL Congregation celebrates the first General Chapter and elects a Prioress General from among their Sisters. The SJI and HBVM Congregations take similar steps in due course.
Eighth General Chapter: Mother Conradine Schütz is re-elected Prioress General.
The Congregation celebrates an extraordinary General Chapter in order to initiate the appropriate renewal requested by Vatican Council II. The Interim Constitutions are elaborated.
A Novitiate house is opened at Ndola, Zambia, and the first Zambian vocations are received.
Germany experiences an increasing shortage of vocations to religious life. For the last time a young Sister is sent out from Strahlfeld to Africa.
Tenth General Chapter: Sister Mary de Pace Pauler is elected Prioress General of the Congregation.
In accordance with a decision of the General Chapter, a team of three Sisters is sent from Rhodesia to found a community at Bogotá, Colombia, in the subcontinent of South America. The focal point of their apostolate is meant to be pastoral and social engagement among the poor in the most marginalised barrios of the city.
In two stages, a nursing home for ailing Sisters of the Congregation is set up in Strahlfeld.
The racial laws implemented by the white Government of Rhodesia cause increasing problems to the missionary activities of the Congregation.
The war of independence brings blood and tears to the whole country, kills tens of thousands of people, and destroys much of what has been built up under great labour.
At Musami Mission, in the evening of February 6, the following seven missionaries, three Jesuits and four Dominican Sisters, are shot dead in cold blood:
- Fr. Martin Thomas, aged 45
- Fr. Christopher Shepherd-Smith, 34
- Br. John Conway, 57
- Sr. Epiphany Schneider, 73
- Sr. Ceslaus Stiegler, 60
- Sr. Joseph Wilkinson, 59
- Sr. Magdala Lewandowski, 43
Eleventh General Chapter: Sister Hildegard Zahnbrecher is elected Prioress General. The General Chapter takes the first steps at restructuring and decentralising the government of the Congregation by establishing the “Regions” of Germany and Zambia while, for the time being, Zimbabwe remains under the jurisdiction of the Prioress General and her Council.
During the most critical years of the liberation war in Rhodesia, 62 Sisters return to Germany. Hence, as “a home for Sisters who may have had to leave the mission countries”, Convent Strahlfeld fulfils increasingly the second objective which the “Founding Mothers” had in mind, when they took on the property in 1917, during the critical times of World War I.
A few months before the end of the war, Sister Rita Neff, the matron of the mission hospital at Driefontein, is killed on November 2.
On other mission stations, too, life is very dangerous and risky. Curfews, landmines, kidnapping of staff, unwelcome visits at night of government troops or guerrillas, constant harassment and threats, have become part of everyday living.
On April 18, the political independence of Rhodesia, henceforth called Zimbabwe, is celebrated with great joy and relief, and in profound gratitude to God. The new government asks the catholic missionaries to continue giving their valuable help towards the development of the country.
In schools and hospitals, ever more qualified indigenous staff are working side by side with the missionaries, and are entrusted with the responsibility for running establishments.
In the formation houses in Zambia and Zimbabwe, the number of young women that want to become Dominican Missionary Sisters is increasing steadily. The Congregation gives first priority to their religious and professional formation.
A Novitiate house is established in Bogotá, for Colombian vocations to our Congregation.
A first community is founded at the Pastoral Centre in Thika, 40km north of Nairobi, Kenya.
Twelfth General Chapter: Sister Hildegard Zahnbrecher is re-elected Prioress General.
The Revision of the Constitutions, a process that commenced in 1969, is completed. Subsequently, the text is presented to the Holy See for definite approval.
The name of the Congregation is slightly changed to: “Dominican Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus”.
The process of restructuring and decentralising the government of the Congregation, initiated at the previous General Chapter, is completed. The Congregation now comprises the Regions of Germany, Zambia and Zimbabwe as well as the Delegations of Colombia and England.
The Revised Constitutions are approved by the Holy See. In Biesfeld, 30 km east of Cologne, Germany, a novitiate house is established for German vocations to the Congregation.
Thirteenth General Chapter: Sister Astrid Hermes is elected Prioress General of the Congregation.
The Congregation celebrates its first centenary. After a hundred years of missionary life and commitment, the Dominican Missionary Sisters face challenges that are different from, though no less taxing, than those of Mother Patrick‘s times.
The General Chapter of 1990 expresses their hope for the future in these words: “We give joyful witness to God’s compassionate love and proclaim a message of hope, wherever we are sent, and make it a priority to respond to new and urgent needs of the Church and the people. Our Dominican apostolate comprises any service which helps to make Christ better known and loved, promotes the growth of the whole person in Christ, and helps the spread of the Kingdom of God … As women of faith we meet the challenges of the time …”
Fourteenth General Chapter: Sister Astrid Hermes is re-elected Prioress General.
Once again the General Chapter reviews the situation of the Congregation in the respective countries and societies, and gives orientation for the years ahead.
The HIV/AIDS pandemic, with its extreme suffering in Africa, calls for compassion. The Sisters in all Regions and Delegations are actively involved in providing education, care and support. The increase of orphans and poor children leads to engagement in various projects responding to their needs.
A group of young Sisters from Zambia and Zimbabwe is sent on mission to Kenya and founds a new community at St Mulumba, Thika.
The Extended Council Meeting (ECM) decides that – faithful to our call as Missionary Sisters – with effect from the year 2000, all Sisters under temporary vows are sent on Mission to another country for at least one year.
The first group of temporarily professed Sisters, two Zambian and two Zimbabwean women, spend one year in Strahlfeld, during which they come in contact with the various communities in Germany. The experience proves to be a source of hope and valuable support, particularly for the aging community of Strahlfeld, and a spiritual and cultural enrichment for the young Sisters.
An international Novitiate for young women from English-speaking Africa is established in Lusaka, and the Novitiates in Harare and Ndola are discontinued.
Fifteenth General Chapter: Sister Reingard Berger is elected Prioress General of the Congregation.
The General Chapter officially declares that the community in Kenya has the status of a Delegation.
In order to promote the internationality of the Congregation and to facilitate communication between Regions and Delegations on the different continents, the General Chapter decides that the Generalate be moved from Zimbabwe to England.
In February, the Generalate begins to function from Gossops Green, Crawley, West Sussex, England.
The sixteenth General Chapter is celebrated in Strahlfeld.