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800 Years of Grace


by Katie Scott

The Order of Preachers celebrates its 800th jubilee, a milestone marked by vibrant communities and flourishing vocations

Beloved Dominican Saints, painting by Bernadette Carstensen

Beloved Dominican Saints, a painting by Bernadette Carstensen, commissioned by the St. Joseph Province for the 800th jubilee of the Order of Preachers, portrays 24 Dominican saints and blesseds. St. Dominic, the founder, appears kneeling in the center left. Image courtesy of the artist, Bernadette Carstensen, © Dominican Province of St. Joseph, 2015

In early 1995, a graduate student of environmental engineering and chemistry at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore stepped into the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.

Inside, rosaries dangled from the friars’ ankle-length white tunics, chants filled the chapel, and texts of theology and philosophy lined the library shelves.

But amid the sounds and symbols of an order characterized by traditional Catholicism and rigorous study, he also encountered frequent laughter and discussions ranging from bluegrass to baseball.

The friars “were eminently human,” while “it was clear they had a strong sense of purpose,” said the now-Dominican priest, Father John Paul Walker.

That purpose – to preach the truth of Jesus Christ with intellectual reasoning and compassion – has stretched across nearly a millennium and existed under 90 popes. Founded in 1216, the order marks its 800th jubilee this year.

It is a time to celebrate not only its founding but also the increasing number of vocations around the world, including in the United States and, in particular, the St. Joseph Province, which covers the Eastern U.S. The number of active friars in the province is expected to increase by 50 percent in the next 10 years, according to figures presented at a June provincial assembly.

Part of the order’s appeal is that it combines “a very traditional sense of the faith with a strong evangelical outreach,” said Father Walker, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., and a member of Father Michael J. McGivney Council 10705.

“We see the beauty in the deeper tradition of the Church, but don’t see that tradition as a shell to retreat into,” he said. “Rather, we see that tradition as something that is beautiful and compelling and can be used to bring others into the faith or into a deeper experience of the faith.”


Founded under Pope Honorius III, the Order of Preachers emerged from challenges that have parallels in the 21st century, said Dominican Father Dominic Legge, a professor of dogmatic theology at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, located within the Dominican House of Studies.

St. Dominic de Guzman of Spain felt compelled to establish the order after realizing that uneducated clergy and wealthy monasteries were failing to impart the faith properly. As a result, some Christians came under the influence of gnostic sects such as the Cathars or Albigensians, who denied the goodness of the material world, including the body.

Father Legge, a member of The Catholic University of America Council 9542 in Washington, said we face a similar gnosticism today. “We think we can be spiritual without honoring our body in a way ordained by God,” he said.

St. Dominic founded the Order of Preachers to refute this heresy and grounded the order upon four pillars: prayer, study, community and preaching.

To aid his missionary efforts, he spread one of the Church’s most treasured devotions: the rosary. According to tradition, the saint devised the rosary after he received a vision of the Blessed Mother.

About 10 years before the order was approved, St. Dominic gathered a group of women converts into a monastic community, whose members prayed for the success of his preaching. Contemplative Dominican nuns emerged from this community, while the order’s active religious sisters were established later.

Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century saint and doctor of the Church, joined the Dominicans within a few decades of the order’s founding. He remains the greatest thinker and theologian to emerge from the order, which regards his work, especially the Summa Theologica, “as a special heritage,” said Father Legge. Together with Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Martin de Porres and St. Rose of Lima are among the 103 canonized Dominican saints. More than 370 Dominicans have been beatified.

The friars and nuns have “a close and important relationship,” said Father Legge. Like the friars, the cloistered nuns take a vow of obedience to the master of the order. Today, they are led by Father Bruno Cadoré, who was elected in 2010 for a nine-year term and is the 86th successor of St. Dominic.

The nuns pray for the friars’ preaching and the friars provide intellectual development for the contemplative sisters.

“It’s a spiritual friendship,” said Sister Maria of the Angels, novice mistress at the Monastery of Our Lady of Grace in North Guilford, Conn.

Active Dominican sisters, with congregations around the world, are part of the order but retain various degrees of autonomy. Their apostolates include teaching as well as caring for the young, sick, incarcerated and the poor.

A number of lay and priestly fraternities and organizations also exist to further the work of the order. Lay Dominicans, formerly called the Third Order of Preachers, number more than 150,000 worldwide.


The success of the Dominicans was not guaranteed, Father Walker pointed out. When it was founded, preaching was primarily the prerogative of bishops, and an order of priests wandering “across the known world with universal permission to preach … was a radical idea,” he said. The fact that they were mendicants, or beggars, and the order’s internal emphasis on the democratic process were similarly “eyed with suspicion,” said Father Walker.

But supported by the nuns’ prayers, St. Dominic’s order spread throughout Europe and beyond.

Dominicans arrived in the New World in 1526, just two years after the Franciscans. They soon went to the Philippines in the late 16th century, eventually founding the University of Santo Tomas, the oldest existing university in Asia. In Vietnam, which now enjoys a strong Dominican presence, the order arrived in the 17th century; Dominican friars were among the first martyrs in the region.

In 1806, the Order of Preachers gained a permanent presence in the United States when Dominican Father Edward Dominic Fenwick established the first province – St. Joseph. Three additional U.S. provinces – St. Albert the Great (Central), St. Martin de Porres (Southern) and the Most Holy Name of Jesus (Western) – followed.

Dominicans have a long history of meeting and forming young minds through their outreach at colleges and universities. In addition to Providence College, founded in Rhode Island by the Dominican friars in 1917, there is a Dominican presence at dozens of U.S. campuses, including New York University, Stanford, the University of Virginia and Purdue.

Rooting its work in approximately 40 provinces worldwide, the order extends its charism outward through foreign missions, and over time, missionaries lay the foundation for new provinces. St. Joseph Province’s current mission is in East Africa.

In Poland, Dominicans established a province just a few years after the order was founded.

“It’s amazing to realize that the Dominicans have been in Kraków continuously for nearly 800 years, surviving even two world wars,” said Father Benedict Croell, St. Joseph Province vocations director and a member of Archbishop Elder Council 1195 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

During World Youth Day in Kraków July 25-31, Dominicans helped the Knights of Columbus with the largest English- speaking catechetical site at the international pilgrimage.

An enduring relationship between the Knights and the Dominicans was established more than a century ago, when Dominicans arrived at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven just four years after Father Michael J. McGivney founded the Knights at the parish in 1882 (see sidebar).


With thriving communities around the world, “we’re experiencing extraordinary grace during this jubilee year,” said Father Croell. “Now is a Dominican moment.”

Internationally, growing provinces include those in England, Nigeria, Ireland, Vietnam and Poland.

In May, 11 men were ordained priests for the St. Joseph Province – the largest class of friars ordained for the province in 45 years. This summer, around 16 men will enter the province’s novitiate on the feast of St. Dominic, Aug. 8. Approximately 70 men are in formation, making it the order’s second-largest formation program in the world for a single province.

Among the fastest-growing Dominican congregations of active sisters in the United States are the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tenn., and the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Another thriving community, the Dominican Sisters of St. Rose of Lima in Hawthorne, N.Y, was founded in 1900 by Catholic convert Rose Hawthorne, the daughter of the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Dominican Father Gabriel O’Donnell, who served as the initial postulator for Father McGivney’s cause for canonization, has also served as postulator of Mother Rose’s cause, which is currently being reviewed by the Vatican.

Some of the flourishing contemplative, cloistered communities in the United States include the Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, N.J.; St. Dominic’s Monastery in Linden, Va.; and the Monastery of Our Lady of Grace in Connecticut.

Our Lady of Grace Monastery went years without a single vocation, but now four women are in formation and three are in the application process.

According to Sister Maria of the Angels, the order has attracted vocations in part because it offers a healthy blend of prayer, study and charity. People might think of a cloistered monastery as dour or lonely, but the opposite is true, she said. When you are aware that “God created us to be his friends,” she said, “you have great joy.”

There’s a balance in the Dominican order, added Father O’Donnell. “It has to do with laws, but more fundamentally with a vision of the human person,” he said. “We have an optimistic view of creation. Every aspect of life is important, not only prayer, but eating, drinking and sleeping.”

This holistic, incarnational understanding of human life informs how Dominicans engage with the world.

People might think of them as bookworms, said Father Croell. “But we are meeting people where they are – on the Metro, on our YouTube page.”

Reflecting on the order’s efforts and this year’s jubilee, Father O’Donnell – a Dominican for more than a half-century – said the 800th anniversary “has prompted a lot of gratitude.”

“We’ve had highs and lows in the order over the centuries and have been reduced at times,” he said, “but it’s as vibrant now as when I entered.”

“As Dominicans, we believe that if people see truth, they will move toward it,” added Father Croell. “We are trying to help them see it.”

KATIE SCOTT is a reporter for the Arlington Catholic Herald.