TACOMA – When the first Dominican sisters arrived in the Pacific Northwest in 1888, the Sisters of Providence were there to greet them. Now, after years of discernment, meeting and planning, the two communities are deepening that long friendship by entering into a covenant relationship.
“As we looked at the aging of our sisters, we knew we needed a plan for the future,” said Sister Sharon Casey, president of the Tacoma Dominican Sisters, Congregation of St. Thomas. The congregation has 46 sisters, with a median age of 81, Sister Sharon noted.
“The Spirit was saying we could no longer do it alone.”
The procession at the beginning of the October 21 covenant Mass includes Providence Sister Judith Desmarais, back left, provincial superior of her community, and Tacoma Dominican Sister Sharon Casey, president of her community. Pam Sibos, director of pastoral care at Provident Mount St. Vincent, carries the cross. Photo: Providence Sister Felma Cerezo
After researching several models, the Tacoma Dominicans decided to pursue a covenant, an agreement between two or more religious communities. The covenant allows each community to retain its identity, with one providing administrative support to the other, Sister Sharon explained.
The Dominicans reached out to the Sisters of Providence, Mother Joseph Province, which has a community of 114 sisters. It was a natural match, said Dominican Sister Peg Murphy, noting that the two communities have collaborated on various social justice projects. Those include working against human trafficking and the death penalty, and working to empower women on the margins, Sister Sharon said.
One of the main purposes of the covenant “is that each community member can live her life to the fullest,” said Sister Judith Desmarais, provincial superior of the Mother Joseph Province.
‘We are one family in Christ’
The Tacoma Dominicans first started thinking about how to care for their aging sisters back in 1989. That’s when they sold Marymount, their motherhouse in Tacoma, and invested the proceeds in a retirement fund, Sister Sharon said. The following year, the Sisters of Providence agreed to take in Dominican sisters in need of care at St. Joseph Residence, their long-term care facility in West Seattle.
“One of the major links between us has been the care they have provided for our infirm sisters for many years,” said Dominican Sister Kay Lewis. “They have been extremely welcoming of our culture, which is important. We are one family in Christ.”
Since the fall of 2014, leadership committees from both communities have been meeting regularly. “All the sisters have been involved in the conversation and the discovery of next steps,” said Sister Peg, a leadership committee member. “We’ve been learning, praying and discerning together.”
In 2017, the Providence financial department assumed financial management of the Tacoma Dominicans, Sister Sharon said. The remaining step is sending a request to the Vatican for a commissary (congregational leader) to be named from the Sisters of Providence. The request will be considered by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
Maintaining the separate charisms of the communities is a key part of the covenant.
“We will be able to maintain our own identity and our mission with the help of their support, especially administrative personnel,” said Sister Kay. “Our numbers just aren’t able to sustain the structures we’ve had.”
Providence Sister Charlene Hudon greets Tacoma Dominican associate Bonnie Sanchez at a reception following an October 21 Mass to celebrate the new covenant relationship between the two communities of women religious. Photo: Providence Sister Felma Cerezo
Although the two communities have different charisms, each is concerned about caring for those who are unjustly treated, Sister Judith said.
“Both of our charisms are about bringing the word of God to the people of God and caring for the poor,” Sister Sharon said. “We express them differently.”
Local communities of women religious have been working together in other ways for some time.
“All of the groups of Northwest religious have become collaborative,” Sister Peg said. “Many of us were educated together through the same sister formation program in the ’50s. As Vatican II moved on, we continued our collaboration in ministry.”
Beginning in the late 1980s, they also began developing some intercommunity projects together, doing together what none of them could do alone, Sister Peg explained. Out of that collaboration came the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center and Mercy Housing Northwest.
Celebrating the covenant
To honor the covenant, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain celebrated Mass October 21 at Providence Mount St. Vincent, a senior care community in West Seattle that is operated by Providence. That way sisters living at the nearby St. Joseph Residence could attend or watch a livestream, Sister Sharon said.
Wheat stalks were displayed at a Mass on October 21 celebrating a covenant being formed between the Sisters of Providence and the Tacoma Dominican Sisters. The wheat symbolizes the Dominican sisters’ founding in 1888 in the midst of the wheat fields of Pomeroy, in what was then Washington Territory. Photo: Providence Sister Felma Cerezo
“Archbishop Sartain has been a good friend to us in all of his support of the leadership of women’s religious conference,” Sister Peg said. “He’s been gracious [and] a good listener. Even though our commissary will be appointed by Rome, we always respect Archbishop Sartain in his approval of all of this.”
The date honoring the covenant held special significance for the Dominican sisters: October 24 was the day their foundresses arrived in Pomeroy in 1888. “We will celebrate this year on the 21st,” Sister Sharon said. “That’s significant because we are bringing this covenant to a new level.”
The Mass was a time to come together and “be expressive of who we are and who we are together,” Sister Judith said. “This is God’s call for both our communities at this time.”
Going forward, the sisters say they expect there will be a few challenges in learning how to work together.
“I’m sure there are going to be some rough spots, since we’re only human,” Sister Kay said, “but we’ve worked hard to involve all of our sisters, benefactors and supporters” in the process.
“I’ve been 67 years at this,” she added. “It seems you just keep going and you try to listen to the Spirit. Both communities have been attentive to what God is telling us.”