Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic, Inc. is the first U.S.-based congregation of women religious dedicated to foreign mission.
Headquartered in Ossining, NY, the congregation was founded in January 1912 by Mary Josephine “Mollie” Rogers, a graduate of Smith College from Jamaica Plains, MA, who felt a call to world mission while yet a student at Smith. Stirred by Protestant women who she saw committing themselves to missionary work overseas, she wondered what might be done to involve Catholic women in a similar way. Following graduation from Smith, she was invited by the college, where she now worked as an assistant in the biology lab, to form a campus group for Catholic students. Choosing mission as her theme, she turned to Father James Anthony Walsh of the Archdiocese of Boston’s Propagation of the Faith Office for help in providing materials that her new group could use.
That meeting proved providential, not only in supplying materials about Catholic world mission efforts to the students but beginning a relationship that would, in a few short years, lead to the founding of the Foreign Mission Society of America, now known as Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers, by Father Walsh and Father Thomas Frederick Price, in 1911, and Maryknoll Sisters one year later.
The first women to work at Maryknoll included Mollie and six others, all lay people at the time and known simply as “the secretaries” and, later, “The Teresians”. The women assisted the fledgling missionary organization of priests and brothers by working on their magazine, “The Field Afar,” and now known as Maryknoll, as well as providing secretarial work, cooking and cleaning.
Father Walsh had almost immediately seen in Mollie the gifts of leadership that would be needed for developing a congregation of women religious. With the support of her fellow workers, most of whom would stay on to become the first Maryknoll Sisters, along with seed money from Mother Alphonsa, founder of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, Hawthorne, NY, and classes in formation, provided by the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, WI, Mollie , how known as Mother Mary Joseph, began the congregation’s formation. The small group first occupied rented housing in Hawthorne, then moved to Maryknoll’s permanent grounds, on a former hilltop farm in Ossining, NY.
The Sisters’ number increased and they receive approval from Rome to become a religious congregation on February 14, 1920. That same year, convents opened in Los Angeles, CA, then Seattle, WA, to serve Japanese immigrants. The congregation was incorporated in the State of New York on November 7, 1921 as Sisters set out for Hong Kong and China. Missions were also opened in Korea and Philippines, and the multicultural dimension of the congregation was established, with women entering from Austria, Canada, China, England, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea and Trinidad.
The Maryknoll Sisters Cloister was established as an integral part of the congregation. These Sisters devote themselves exclusively to prayer and penance for the missions. By the end of this decade, Maryknoll Sisters were also serving in Japan, Manchuria and Hawaii.
Work in Asia was disrupted by World War II. Some Sisters were interned for the duration; others were deported. In the Philippines, Sister Hyacinth Kunkel, lost while traveling with refugees, was later presumed dead. In the United States, when Americans of Japanese ancestry were confined to relocation camps, Maryknoll Sisters voluntarily accompanied them. New works were accepted in Latin America, Africa and the Marshall and Caroline Islands in the Pacific. Work among minority groups in the United States expanded. At the close of World War II, Sisters began rebuilding missions closed and destroyed by the war, but postwar developments in China, North Korea and Manchuria led to harassment, arrest, trials and deportation. In North Korea, Sister Agneta Chang was abducted and later presumed dead. Maryknoll Sisters opened a clinic which later became a hospital, as thousands of refugees arrived in the southern city of Pusan. A second novitiate was opened in Valley Park, MO.
A third novitiate was opened in Topsfield, MA, in the early 1950’s. During this decade, Sisters served the Chinese people in New York, Boston and Chicago, and African Americans in the Bronx, NY, St. Louis and Kansas City, MO. In Kansas City, MO, Maryknoll Sisters opened the country’s first fully integrated hospital in 1955. The name of the Congregation was officially changed to Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic, Inc., in February 1955. Mother Mary Joseph Rogers died on October 9, 1955.
A novitiate was opened in Manila, Philippines, in the 1960’s which served the community for ten years. Following the directives of Vatican Council II, Maryknoll Sisters held a special General Assembly in 1968 and entered into a period of renewal and adaptation with changes in lifestyle and ministries. Queen of the World Hospital, Kansas City, MO, closed in 1965, followed by Topsfield Novitiate in 1969.
Then, in the 1970’s, the Sisters began ministry in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Sudan. Novitiates in Valley Park and St. Louis, MO, were closed by 1976. The next year, the first Sister from another congregation was given associate status with Maryknoll Sisters on a temporary basis and an overseas assignment to mission with Maryknoll Sisters.
By the beginning of the 1980’s, justice had surfaced as a world issue. Maryknoll Sisters were focusing their efforts on the cause of the poor. During this same decade, Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clark and Ita Ford were two of four churchwomen killed by the military in El Salvador because of their ministry to the poor. Sisters responded to the needs of refugees in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mozambique, Somalia, Sudan, Thailand, and the Vietnamese in Hong Kong (and earlier in Saigon). Maryknoll Sisters returned to mainland China to teach English in universities, and began ministry in Nepal. Maryknoll Cloisters were established in Guatemala in 1986 and Sudan in 1987.
The Vatican Congregation for Religious approved the updated Constitution of the Maryknoll sisters in 1990. Another Maryknoll cloister was also opened in Thailand. In 1991, five Sisters began working with Nobel Peace Laureate Bishop Carlos Belo in East Timor. In 1992, because of wartime conditions in Sudan, Maryknoll Sisters were forced to leave that country.
In 1993, four Sisters were able to return however, and resumed their medical and educational ministries to the people. By 1994, new ministries began in American Samoa, Cambodia, Namibia and Papua New Guinea. That same year, the Sisters’ Mission Institute celebrated 25 years of providing continuing education and renewal programs for missioners and others engaged in cross-cultural ministries. Forced by war conditions to leave the Sudan and East Timor for several months in 1998, the Sisters returned to continue their work in both locations in 1999.
In 2005, Maryknoll Sisters opened a mission presence in Myanmar. Several Sisters also published books during this decade: Ostriches, Dung Beetles and Other Spiritual Masters by Sister Janice McLaughlin, president of Maryknoll Sisters, and On the Threshold of the Future: The Life and Spirituality of Mother Mary Joseph Rogers, Founder of the Maryknoll Sisters by Sister Claudette LaVerdiere. Then, in January 2012, the congregation celebrated its 100th anniversary, marked by Masses and receptions of various kinds in many different parts of the world, including China, the Philippines, Tanzania, and many other countries where the Sisters worked, as well as at the Maryknoll Sisters Center in the United States. The following year, on October 12, 2013, Mother Mary Joseph was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, an honor well deserved and mindful of the work that all the Sisters of the congregation had done for the last 100-plus years.
Today, Maryknoll Sisters work in 24 different nations of the world, ministering with the poor in a wide variety of ways, including serving as educators on elementary, high school and university levels, as well as in job training; in social work; at hospitals and clinics, where they meet the needs of critically ill people, including those with HIV and their families; with immigration concerns; among the homeless and victims of human trafficking;, as well as with ecological concerns. They are also involved with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, which is a collaborative effort of the Maryknoll Sisters, Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers and the Maryknoll Lay Missionaries.