Dominican Sisters celebrate 150 years in NZ

17 Dominican congregation

by JEFF DILLON

They may have had to delay their celebrations by a month, but members of the Dominican Sisters order in New Zealand gathered in Mosgiel, near Dunedin, at the end of March to mark 150 years of their special contribution to the life of the Church in Aotearoa.

The original intention was to have their celebrations close to February 18, which was the day back in 1871 when the first ten sisters arrived at Port Chalmers from Dublin aboard the Gothenburg. They had been recruited by the newly-appointed first Bishop of Dunedin, Bishop Patrick Moran, who arrived with them.

But Covid-19 and a change in alert levels, particularly in Auckland, necessitated a postponement of the planned celebration to late March.

By the afternoon of March 24, 20 sisters had gathered at Burns Lodge and the Holy Cross Centre in Mosgiel. They had come from Invercargill, Dunedin, Oamaru and Auckland. Celebrations began with a communal meal that evening. For the next two days, the group focussed on prayer and reflection. On the Friday, there was the opportunity to hear a presentation from Toitu Otago Settlers Museum curator Sean Brosnahan, who spoke about Mother Gabriel, who led the original 1871 sisters, and the history of the order in New Zealand.

The original ten sisters who arrived in 1871 ranged in age from 20 through to 60. Within the first few days of arriving they had taken charge of an existing primary school. Then followed the establishment of St Dominic’s College for girls beyond primary school. By 1877, the first wing of the F. W. Petre-designed Dominican Priory had been opened to provide suitable accommodation for them, and also some classroom spaces for St Dominic’s College.

Their early endeavours saw their numbers grow to establish communities and schools in Invercargill, Oamaru, Queenstown, Cromwell, Lawrence, Milton, Bluff, North East Valley and Kaikorai.

By the 1960s, the focus of their work began to change as the sisters moved out of the schools and into other areas of ministry, such as working in chaplaincies in various institutions.

The culmination of their days of reflection and celebrations was a public Mass on the Saturday morning at the Mosgiel parish church, which enabled parishioners, well-wishers and past pupils to gather to join in marking this significant milestone. The Mass was celebrated by Bishop Michael Dooley. Concelebrating with him were Bishop Emeritus Colin Campbell, Msgr Vincent Walker, Msgr John Harrison, Fr Michael Hishon, Fr Mervyn Hannifin, Fr Mervyn McGettigan. There were also many other members of the clergy in the congregation.

Following the readings, Sr Sandra Winton, OP, spoke about and named the ten original sisters who arrived in 1871. She noted the “force of their resolution and their determination to overcome all obstacles”. She spoke of their optimism and their faith-filled lives.

Coming to the 1960s and the effect of Vatican II, she observed that the Dominican Sisters let go of many areas that were dear to them and headed into new ventures. “They embraced and fostered a new faith and spirituality.” In summary, she believed that the sisters of the 20th and 21st centuries were “as joyful, hopeful and courageous as the original ten”.

Following the Mass, there was morning tea in Burns Lodge, which provided many opportunities for former pupils to meet their classmates and former teachers to wind up a successful celebration of the 150 years of the involvement of the Dominican Sisters in this part of the world.

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