Mission Stories: Mother Mary Ann, our foundress, was a young Irish immigrant. After joining the Dominicans in lower Manhattan, she began taking in orphaned immigrant girls from the streets. This led to the foundation of St. Dominic’s Home, originally founded as an orphanage, and the Sisters of St. Dominic of Blauvelt. Now, our Constitutions state that, “As women of Hope our mission is to proclaim the Name of the Lord in service to the people of God whether this service be the preaching and teaching of Dominic, the care of children or other works of mercy.” We are currently serving in New York, Rhode Island, Florida, California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Oregon.
Some of our sisters are involved in ministries that serve the international Church. We are involved in education at all levels, religious education, parish work, chaplaincy, social services, health care, medicine and social justice. We were blessed to be the first Congregation of women to pioneer the opening of many schools in this diocese and other dioceses. We also served in other institutions such as Calvary Hospital and Lavelle School for the Blind. These founding energies continue today in our many works with migrant children, homeless, HIV/AIDS patients, mentally challenged, chemically addicted, imprisoned, and victims of violence… carrying out our Mission.
An hour north of New York City, Sister Jean Graffweg and Sister Caritas Wong, like Mother Mary Ann, care for young immigrant children. House on the Hill opened in 1972 to offer care for the children of Hispanic migrant workers who harvested onions for long hours at nearby farms. As Executive Director, Sister Jean today oversees the care of seventy-seven children, ranging in age from six months to five years old. Many of the children are picked up from migrant work camps early in the morning and bussed to House on the Hill. There, they receive three meals a day, pre-school education, medical and dental care, clothing and other social services. Sister Caritas cares for the youngest infants, feeding, rocking and playing with the babies until they are able to be in the toddler program. Many of the staff members at House on the Hill were at one time migrant workers. Sister Jean encouraged them to get a G.E.D. and go on for certificates or degrees in Education. Having staff members that are bilingual and understand the life of migrant workers is invaluable and helps to provide stability to staff members’ lives.
In 1987, the Congregation Chapter Directives called for a commitment to work with the homeless, especially women and children. Sister Mary Doris heard that call and was determined to fulfill the commitment. From this determination came Siena House, a Shelter for homeless women who are pregnant or who have young children under the age of three. Located in a poor area of New York City, Siena House, a former convent, is home to twenty-seven women and their babies. The Chapel has been converted to a nursery, and on any day one can see the strollers lined up in the hallway that has been affectionately nicknamed “The Parking Lot”. To Sister Mary, the underlying concept of Siena House is simple, “Women who choose to keep their babies need a place to live.” Sister Cecelia (Cely) Byrnes works along side Sister Mary Doris at Siena House. Sister Cely is the Assistant Director. Sister Lauria Fitzgerald lives at the Shelter with Sister Mary Doris and does Aftercare Follow-up with those women who have recently moved to permanent housing. Together, these three Blauvelt Dominican Sisters work to change the lives of homeless young mothers. The average stay at Siena House is nine to twelve months. While in the program, women receive temporary housing, social services, housing assistance, pre-natal classes, childcare, counseling and a variety of educational programs. Since its inception in 1990, Siena House has served more than 2000 mothers and babies. The staff of Siena House work to fulfill the mission of the program and move young mothers from “a situation of homelessness and poverty to independence and self-worth.” Former residents include nurses, social workers, and any number of women who have been able to complete their education and become independent working members of the community.
Sister Margaret (Maggie) McDermott is the founder and Executive Director of Tolentine-Zeiser Community Life Center which started as a Senior Center in the basement of St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish in the Bronx. Today, Tolentine-Zeiser is a multi-service agency that serves more than 2000 people daily. Sister Maggie’s own roots are deep in the St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish. “I grew up just up the block,” she reminisces, “I went to elementary and high school right here at Tolentine.” One of six children, Sister Maggie always loved the Blauvelt Dominican Sisters. “They were always so kind and did so much for people,” she says, “I just wanted to be like them.” After entering the convent in 1964, Sister Maggie taught school for eleven years, before pursuing other interests. It was a desire to “help people help themselves” that brought Sister Maggie back to her home parish in 1979. The Tolentine-Zeiser Senior Center opened in 1980 and now serves seventy seniors daily. The Day Care Center was the next program to open. The Center cares for children between the ages of three and five and includes a Universal Pre-K as part of the program. Other Tolentine-Zeiser Programs include Paradise Housing, a residential program for people living with AIDS, a Youth Center, a Summer Day Camp, and a Food Pantry. Sister Maggie is quick to credit her staff for the success of the Tolentine-Zeiser programs. “We have very low turnover here, despite the fact that salaries are low. Most of our staff live in the neighborhood and really want to help the community.” One staff member has both her daughter and granddaughter working at the Center. “Imagine that,” says Sister Maggie, “three generations of employees!” Despite the very real threat of budget cuts, Sister Maggie still has great plans for the future. She recognizes the critical need for Day Care in the community and dreams of the day she can expand the Day Care Center. Next to Tolentine-Zeiser is St. Nicholas of Tolentine Elementary School, where Sister Bernadette Marie Doherty has been teaching first grade for the past forty-two years. She has seen the neighborhood transition from Irish and Italian to Dominican and Puerto Rican. She loves teaching and the children. One student told her, “Sister, today was the best!” What more could you want than that? Sister Rose Patricia Reilly, who lives with Sister Maggie and Sister Bernadette in St. Nicholas of Tolentine Convent, provides retreats and education for people in addiction recovery. Along with Sister Maurice Doody, a Dominican of Sparkill, NY, she travels across the country helping both addicts and their families in the recovery process. “It is very rewarding work and we have had many satisfying experiences. You really get to know the struggle that a person is having with recovery,” notes Sister Rose. Sister Maggie, Sister Bernadette and Sister Rose continue to follow in Mother Mary Ann’s footsteps by providing education and services for the poor and marginalized.
Mother Mary Ann began her ministry by caring for immigrant children at a time when there was much prejudice against immigrants. Today, Blauvelt Dominicans continue to care for immigrants through their many ministries, both in the United States and abroad. An eight year partnership with the Dominican Sisters of Montebello has proven to be fruitful for both congregations. Several sisters have come from Montebello to Dominican College in Blauvelt to study. Upon completing their degrees, they return to South Africa more prepared to minister to the poor in their own country. Several Blauvelt Dominicans have also traveled to South Africa to offer workshops and training in spirituality, English, health care and social work. Their lives are enriched by the welcome they receive and the exchange of cultures. In addition to South Africa, several other Blauvelt Dominicans have been part of the international mission. Sister Ceil Lavan traveled to the Gaza strip and has since been fastidious in her efforts to assist the Palestinians in obtaining safety and protection in their land. Sister Arlene Flaherty has been working with Iraqi Dominicans as they tell the story of the persecution of Christians in their homeland. Sister Kathleen McManus recently made a presentation to the Dominican Justice and Peace Promoters of the Asia-Pacific region on the theology of suffering and continues to develop that theology through her work with women’s groups. Others advocate for immigrant rights in the United States and protect basic human rights in other countries. They too continue the preaching of Mother Mary Ann, who had deep compassion for the poor, immigrants and children. ´
Sisters of St. Dominic
496 Western Highway
Blauvelt, NY 10913
(845) 359-5600 x134