Dominicans of St. Catharine, Kentucky - History
St. Catharine, Kentucky
Founded in 1822
When revolution and religious oppression were decimating religious orders in Europe, Edward Dominic Fenwick, OP, dreamed of saving the English Province of Dominicans by starting a branch of it in the United States. It was a good dream but his friend Luke Concanon, OP (first bishop of New York), suggested a broadening of the vision, asking the Master General Joseph Gaddi, OP, to form a separate American Province in tune with the new country. So the dream came alive, but in a different way.
Fr. Fenwick proceeded to offer his new dream to Bishop John Carroll, indicating that he wanted to set up a college and seminary in Maryland. Bishop Carroll told the eager young Dominican to establish the first foundation in Kentucky where the settlers were crying for priests.
Again, Fr. Fenwick adapted to the change in his dream and began the first Dominican Province in the United States at St. Rose, Springfield, Kentucky. Part of the dream was to have Dominican Sisters to educate the children in the settlement. With the help of Samuel T. Wilson, OP, he obtained the necessary permissions and began preparations. The first foundation of Dominican Sisters in the United States began in Kentucky in 1822, when nine young women answered the impassioned plea of Samuel Thomas Wilson, OP, to teach the children of the pioneers. On April 7, 1822, four of the women received the habit of Saint Dominic: Mariah Sansbury, Mary Carrico, Severly Tarleton and Judith McMan. Their first convent was a one-room log cabin loaned to them by the Dominican friars. Their first school, St. Magdalene Academy, was an abandoned still house on the property brought as dowry by the Sansbury sisters.
Mariah Sansbury, now Sr. Angela Sansbury, was elected the first prioress. Mother Angela, the first woman received into the Kentucky foundation, is considered the foundress of the Dominican sisterhood in the United States. Six of the original nine were closely related. Most of their families had migrated from Prince George County in Maryland to Cartwright Creek, Kentucky. One exception was Mrs. Judith McMan from Ireland. She and her husband agreed to separate in order for both to enter religious life. He was ordained in St. Louis, and she eventually returned to Ireland to minister among the poor in the Archdiocese of Dublin.
Enrollment in St. Magdalene Academy increased rapidly, necessitating expansion within a short time. The years that followed held many challenges and a name change. The community took the name "Catharine," after St. Catharine of Siena. A beautiful structure was built in the valley only to be consumed by fire in 1904. The Sisters thanked God that no life was taken during the horrendous fire that destroyed St. Catharine's. Their hearts were broken but their spirits and determination were not crushed. They resolved to rebuild. This time, however, not in the valley but on the Heights. The dream would not die but live.
Although education of youth was their initial purpose, over the years the Sisters expanded their ministry to include many other works throughout the country and the world. The pursuit of the dream required risk-taking, courageous endurance of poverty, and perseverance in the face of opposition. The community's unwavering trust was tested by epidemics, droughts, and war. It called for resolution when faced with threats of disbandenment and was strengthened by the Sisters adaptability to changing times.
On April 14, 2007, after a few years of study and prayerful discernment, the Dominicans of St. Catharine, Kentucky, voted to unite with several other congregations of Dominican Sisters to form a new congregation, which would come to be known as the Dominican Sisters of Peace.
An early account of the history of the Dominicans of St. Catharine, Kentucky, was written by Ann C. Minogue; Pages From a Hundred Years of Dominican History was published in 1922. A more updated history, Signadou: History of the Kentucky Dominican Sisters by Paschala Noonan, OP, was published in 1997.