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In Her Own Words ...

Reflections on the Adrian Dominican
Congregation from Three Novices


Sister Sara Bingham

Adrian Dominican Sisters:
Alternative Musicians


Sister Elise

Adrian Dominican Sisters:
A Spiral of Wild Symmetry


Sister Thanh Nguyen

Adrian Dominican Sisters:
Flexible Clay


The Adrian Dominican Congregation as Alternative Musicians
-by Sister Sara Bingham

Sister Sara

The Adrian Dominican Sisters are alternative rock musicians. Alternative rock music (also called alternative music or simply alternative) is defined by the Wikipedia online encyclopedia as a genre of rock music that emerged in the 1980s and became widely popular in the 1990s. The name “alternative” was coined in the 1980s to describe bands on independent record labels that didn’t fit the mainstream genres of the time. As a specific genre of music, alternative rock consists of various subgenres that have emerged from the indie (independent) music scene – these include: grunge, indie rock, Britpop, gothic rock, and indie pop.

These genres are unified by their collective debt to the style of punk, which laid the groundwork for alternative music in the 1970s. Though the genre is considered to be rock, some of its subgenres are influenced by folk music, reggae, electronic music and jazz among other genres.

Alternative rock musicians are rock musicians, and as rock musicians, they remain true to their roots yet continually reach past the roots and past the norm to something newer, edgier, and less stable. Similarly, the Adrian Dominican Congregation is rooted in the 800-year tradition of the Dominican Order and the centuries-old traditions of the Catholic Church – yet the community has and continues to walk on the edge, reaching beyond the traditions, looking outside the mainstream for the needs of our world, searching to reach out and spread the Gospel in newer, edgier and riskier ways. The Adrian Dominican Sisters have never been afraid to think independently, to move to places and into situations where others fear to tread.

The character of alternative musicians and the Adrian Dominican Congregation is largely based on their independent nature, their view from outside the mainstream and their ability to look outside the proverbial box. This independent and risky thinking can be traced back to the beginning of alternative music and to Mother Camilla Madden, the first Mother General of the Adrian Dominican Community.

Mother Camilla dreamed of starting an academy for young women — especially those from rural communities who had little access to education. Many seemingly insurmountable obstacles stood in the way of opening the school. However, Mother Camilla saw a need; despite risk and a lack of precedence for this type of school in rural Michigan, she pursued the project. She was convinced the school would contribute to the greater societal good. Within a short time, the academy became a successful reality. The triumph of St. Joseph Academy wasn’t enough for Mother Camilla, a true “alternative musician;” she continued to look toward new projects. In 1919, she saw her educational vision expand with the opening of St. Joseph College, now Siena Heights University. The college was built to offer further education to girls who graduated from the Academy.

Mother Camilla’s legacy of commitment to taking risks for the greater good continued to shape the community even after her death. In the 1930s when the Bishop of Detroit refused to allow Adrian Dominicans to teach in many of the Detroit schools, the community’s leadership looked to establish ministry sites in other areas of the country. Alternative rock musicians refuse to compromise their art to fit into a box — hence the reason they look to independent recording labels to produce their music. Similarly, our sisters looked to others who would accept them for who they were. This led the Adrian Dominican presence to spread from rural Michigan to areas throughout the U.S. and abroad.

The tradition of constantly seeking innovative ways to be present to the needs of the world continues to mark the Adrian Congregation. Our sisters are known for reaching beyond themselves and beyond the norms to be of service in traditional and non-traditional/alternative ministries. After Vatican II many of our sisters quickly moved into cutting-edge social justice ministries; we established an Associate program early on (in the 1970s) and the community was among the first to develop and cultivate an alternative investment project. In 1990, the Congregation completed a process that led to the formation of the first inter-congregational health system. The Adrian Dominican Congregation remains committed to walking on the risky edge. Members are committed to non-violent peacemaking, to supporting efforts against racism, to focusing on women’s issues, poverty, issues of equality within the Church, and environmental concerns.

As alternative musicians, the members of the Adrian Dominican Community do not fit into one specific box. The community and the music are made up of “subgenres.” Each subgenre is a member of the larger category but has its own unique characteristics. Similarly, each Adrian Dominican Sister is a member of the community but the community is made up of women from varying backgrounds with a variety of ideas on all topics including, but not limited to: theology, the future of religious life, the importance of the Congregation’s place within the formal Church structure, the types of ministries that we should be involved in, etc. When you’ve met one Adrian Dominican, you’ve truly met just ONE Adrian Dominican. Like alternative musicians, it is difficult to make generalizations about the community because the subgenres are vast.

Overall, it is this independent, non-mainstream, edgy and risky character of the community that attracts me! Mother Camilla, the original “alternative rocker,” has left an amazing legacy for her community. I’m certain that she could never have dreamed the path that the community would walk, but I’m convinced she is proud that her commitment to working in “alternative” ways continues. Back to Top

Adrian Dominican Sisters: A Spiral of Wild Symmetry
- by Sister Elise D. García

Sister Elise
“The beginning was casual.” So reads the first line of the 1967 history of the Adrian Dominican Sisters, Amid the Alien Corn, by Mary Philip Ryan, OP.

The six nuns who gathered at the door of the elm house in the cornfield were not aware that they were laying the foundation of what was to be the Motherhouse of the Adrian Dominican Sisters. The bleak little dwelling gave neither promise nor sign.

It was a warm spring day in late May 1884 when the nuns gathered to dedicate the house as a hospital for railroad accident cases — and, as it turned out, to give birth to a new way of living Dominican life six and a half centuries after it emerged in southern France. Over the course of the next century, the community grew out of that casual beginning, unfolding like a spiral — expanding out in wild symmetry from its new shoots in the Great Lakes basin of North America.

Like the brief period of “inflation” at the creation of the universe that resulted in its massive expansion within a matter of seconds, the community that would become the Congregation of the Most Holy Rosary experienced rapid growth in its early years. Within less than 40 years, the community in Adrian had grown from 14 to 440 members who staffed 52 schools in seven states, including Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Arizona, New Mexico and Florida.

The expansion continued until the Congregation reached a peak in 1968 of 2,400 members, whose median age was 33 and who were engaged in 208 elementary schools, 56 high schools, three Congregation-owned colleges, one Latin American university, two hospitals, two Newman Centers, and centers of Christian information.

At this point, with the post-Vatican II Renewal Chapter of 1968, the Congregation’s expansion took a new twist — it was internal rather than external. In what by all outward appearances might have seemed a break from the past, the radical changes that ensued were actually a great swing of expansion issuing from and giving new expression to the Congregation’s essence. That expansive movement continues today, although at a more modulated pace.

The spiral image evokes in my mind a double movement of inner impulse (that which initially impelled and continues to impel the congregation and its individual members to existence) and the gravitational pull of the world’s needs (the signs of the times that demand a response from the Congregation and its individual members). The spiral also images a core essence, an inspirited “singularity,” from which its life emerges and to which it is ever-more tethered (i.e., must remain true) regardless of the distance the outer arms have journeyed from the core. The double movement of inner impulse and gravitational pull creates a “wild symmetry.” Again, no matter how wild the swing, the Congregation/spiral is held and ultimately shaped by the internal and external forces of the whole, which also will not permit it to be contained, as with a circle, triangle, square, or ellipse. The spiral is dynamic, ever-expanding, outward-reaching — as are the Adrian Dominicans.

Sisters say they never could have predicted in 1962 what their life would look like in 1972, so radical was that particular spiral swing. Yet there is near universal agreement that their life today is as true as it was prior to renewal.

When I ask, “If somehow you had a lens to look into the future and in 1962 could have seen what life would look like in 1972 (and beyond), would you have liked what you saw and thought it ‘true’?” The usual answer I get is, “No, probably not!”

So as I look to the future of the Adrian Dominican Sisters (and religious life, in general), I know that I am and will be part of that next great spiral movement where we will experience new ways of being true, impelled by the Spirit and drawn by the signs of the times. History tells me that if I could look into the future — even 10 years hence — I may not like what I see or think it “true” to the life. But history — and the sacred geometry of the spiral — speaks otherwise, promising a future (Adrian or not) Dominican life I can trust to be deeply true to itself. Back to Top

Adrian Dominican Sisters: Flexible Clay
- by Sister Cecily Thanh Nguyen

Sister Thanh

The metaphor that I would propose for my congregation is “flexible clay.” The clay is shaped or reshaped by the potter until he or she is able to make it form an attractive and satisfactory vessel. Therefore, Adrian Dominican Sisters are reshaped or transformed by God in order to become a useful vessel for others at different times in history.

In light of the Adrian Congregation history, we can see how God worked like a potter with his clay. For instance, in responding to the educational needs of the children of German immigrants, four nuns from Holy Cross Convent left their home in Regensburg to go to New York. As the clay needs to be flexible in the potter’s hands, so also were these nuns flexible in changing their cloistered style of living to become apostolic sisters as teachers, nurses, and health care providers for the orphans.

The Adrian Congregation descended from the second Regensburg foundation, the Convent of the Most Holy Rosary in New York. The need for teachers brought the first nuns from this convent to Michigan. The Adrian Sisters responded to the needs at that time to move to an unknown place, covered with corn fields, to provide services to the poor. The trust in God’s providence and love made the Adrian Congregation become flexible clay in the hands of the potter, God. In 1884, six nuns were sent to open St. Joseph Hospital and Home for the Aged in Adrian.

With God’s guidance, Mother Camilla Madden, the first Mother General of the Adrian Dominicans, opened a new academy for young women in 1896. Her educational vision expanded with the opening of St. Joseph College in 1919, now Siena Heights University. After that, the Adrian Congregation received many young women who wanted to join the congregation. With the growth, the Adrian Sisters went farther to open new schools or provide ministries at different places, particularly in Illinois, Florida, Arizona and New Mexico. Later, the Congregation expanded to California, Nevada and the Dominican Republic.

With the breath of the Holy Spirit and under God’s assistance, the Adrian Congregation continued to be transformed in order to do God’s will. Vatican II led the Congregation into tremendous changes. The Adrian Sisters started to achieve higher education, discerned their calls in ministry, and voiced their ideas and needs. Different kinds of ministries were encouraged in order to adapt to contemporary needs. Many Adrian Sisters today work as teachers, nurses, social workers, lawyers, spiritual directors, pastoral care providers, and in social justice.

Today, the Adrian Congregation continues to be flexible clay in the hands of God. We need to discern God’s plan by listening to the voice of God that whispers in the quiet moments of our contemplation. Also, we need to let God be God, who controls our lives by acting according to God’s direction. In addition, a desire to be flexible clay in the hands of God requires me to discern God’s intention in my daily life. How am I able to know God’s will for me? I need to listen to the voice of God through prayers, discussions with others, events in my life, and feelings of my heart. With God’s love and grace, I can be flexible clay that God uses to bring salvation to others. I take responsibility in using my freedom to glorify God, for the benefit of myself and others. Trusting in God’s sovereignty and mercy also helps me to live my life in peace and hope. Back to Top