The Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic is the first United States based Congregation of women religious founded in the early 20th Century for foreign mission work.
Headquartered in Ossining, New York, the Congregation began in January 1912 and Mary Josephine “Mollie” Rogers (known as Mother Mary Joseph) was chosen as their leader and became their foundress. Mother Mary Joseph was a graduate of Smith College from Jamaica Plains, MA, she 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 worked as an assistant in the Zoology Department, 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 with Father James Anthony Walsh, led to a lasting partnership that would result in the founding of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers in 1911 and the Maryknoll Sisters a year later. Today, Mother Mary Joseph Rogers is seen as one of the Co-Founders of Maryknoll, along with Father James Anthony Walsh and Father Thomas Frederick Price.
The first women to work at Maryknoll included Mother Mary Joseph and six others; who were 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 the Maryknoll Magazine, as a way of awakening American Catholics to world mission.
Mother Mary Joseph was known for her strong leadership skills, which guided this group of women in the process of becoming a Congregation of women religious, known as the Maryknoll Sisters. In 1912, the small group first occupied rented housing in Hawthorne, then moved to Maryknoll’s permanent grounds, on a former hilltop farm in Ossining, NY. Today, this is still the main residence for both the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers and the Maryknoll Sisters.
In 1916, the group chose to be Dominicans and eventually they were formed by the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. When canonically approved as a diocesan religious community in 1920, the group became know as the Foreign Mission Sisters of St. Dominic. This name was officially changed to the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic in December of 1954; when they received approval from Rome to become a pontifical religious Congregation.
In 1920, the Maryknoll Sisters numbers increased and they began mission work in Los Angeles, California, then Seattle, Washington, 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. The multicultural dimension of the Congregation was established, over the years, with women entering from Austria, Canada, China, England, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea and Trinidad.
By the end of the 1920’s, the Maryknoll Sisters were serving in Hong Kong, South China, Manchuria, Philippines and the Hawaiian Islands.
In 1932, the Maryknoll Sisters Contemplative Community was established as an integral part of the Congregation. The Sisters in this community devote themselves exclusively to prayer and penance for the missions.
In 1949, the Maryknoll Sisters mission work in Asia was disrupted by World War II and the Communist victory in China. During this time, some Sisters were imprisoned; put under house arrest and deported. Two Sisters lost their lives; Sister Hyacinth Kunkel, dissapeared and was never found alive, while traveling with refugees in the Philippines. In North Korea, Sister Agneta Chang was also abducted and later presumed dead.
In the United States, when Americans of Japanese ancestry were confined to relocation camps, the Maryknoll Sisters voluntarily accompanied them.
At the close of World War II, the Maryknoll Sisters began rebuilding missions that were closed and destroyed by the war. However, postwar developments in China, North Korea and Manchuria led to harassment, arrests, trials, and deportation. As a result, the Maryknoll Sisters mission presence expanded to Latin America, Africa, and the Marshall and Caroline Islands in the Pacific. In South Korea, the Sisters opened a clinic, which later became a hospital for thousands of refugees who arrived in the southern city of Pusan.
In the United States, mission work among minority groups also expanded, as the Maryknoll Sisters continued to serve the Chinese and Japanese immigrants.
As the Congregation grew, several novitiates were opened in Valley Park, Missouri (1947), in Topsfield, Massachusetts (1953) and a novitiate was also opened in Manila, Philippines (1961). Today, the Maryknoll Sisters Formation House is in Chicago, Illinois.
During the decade of the 1950’s, the Maryknoll Sisters served the Chinese people in New York, Boston, and Chicago as well as African Americans in the Bronx, New York. In 1955, in Kansas City, Missouri, the Maryknoll Sisters opened Queen of the World Hospital, the country’s first fully integrated health center. That same year, On October 9th, 1955 Mother Mary Joseph was called home to God, but the Sisters were determined to keep her mission spirit alive for centuries to come.
Following the directives of the Vatican Council II, the Maryknoll Sisters held a special General Assembly in 1968 and entered into a period of renewal and adaptation with changes in lifestyle and ministries. As a Congregation, the Maryknoll Sisters decided to make the poor, the oppressed, and those living on the margin of society a priority.
In the 1970’s, the Sisters began ministry in Indonesia, Southern Sudan and Bangladesh. During this decade, the Maryknoll Sisters also began the Sister Associate Program, which gave temporary associate status with the Maryknoll Sisters to members of other Congregations who felt a call to world mission.
By the beginning of the 1980’s, justice had surfaced as a world issue, the Maryknoll Sisters were focusing their efforts on the cause of the poor. During this time, 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. The Maryknoll Sisters later responded to the needs of refugees in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mozambique, Somalia, Sudan, Thailand, and the Vietnamese in Hong Kong.
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.
A few years later, the Maryknoll Sisters returned to mainland China to teach English in universities and began ministry in Nepal.
From 1986-1987, the Maryknoll Sisters Contemplative Community established their presence in Guatemala, the South Sudan, and a few years later in Thailand.
In 1991, five Maryknoll Sisters began working with the Nobel Peace Laureate Bishop Carlos Belo in East Timor. In 1992, because of wartime conditions in the South Sudan, the Maryknoll Sisters were forced to leave that country, but returned in the late 1990’s until 2010.
By 1994, new ministries began in American Samoa, Cambodia, Namibia and Papua New Guinea. That same year, the Maryknoll Sisters Mission Institute celebrated 25 years of providing continuing education and renewal programs for missioners and others engaged in cross-cultural ministries.
In 2005, the Maryknoll Sisters began a new mission serving the people in Myanmar.
In January 2012, the Maryknoll Sisters celebrated their 100th anniversary as a Congregation, marked by Masses and receptions of various kinds at the Maryknoll Sisters Center in Ossining, New York and in many other countries where the Sisters served.
On October 12, 2013, Mother Mary Joseph was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame; an honor which recognized her extraordinary vision and drive for founding the Maryknoll Sisters, the first United States based Catholic Congregation of religious women dedicated to global mission.
Today, the Maryknoll Sisters work in 24 different countries around the world and continue to make God’s love visible worldwide by responding to the world needs such as: immigration, trafficking of persons, the care of Creation, the effects of HIV on communities, trauma healing, etc.)