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MSJ Dominicans serve the young, the poor, the vulnerable

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Archbishop Romero story advances history of people struggling for justice

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placeholder April 6, 2015   •   VOL. 53, NO. 7   •   Oakland, CA
MSJ Dominicans serve the young,
the poor, the vulnerable

With missionary zeal and a practical eye, Mother Pia Backes — all of 24 years old — led a delegation of three Dominican sisters to San Francisco in 1876, at the request of Archbishop Joseph Alemany, to serve the German-speaking immigrant children.

Mother Gonzaga Buehler and Mother Pia Backes (foundress of the Mission San Jose Dominican sisters) with a group of orphans at St. Catherine's Orphanage in Anaheim in the early 1900s.
courtesy photo
"The compassion of Christ moved her again and again to respond to the needs she encountered in California," said Sister Gloria Marie Jones, OP, congregational prioress, in giving a short history of the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose, in January to guests, who included German Cardinal Reinhard Marx.

Mother Pia and her teenage companions, Sister Amanda Bednartz and Sister Salesia Fichtner, answered the call "to serve the young, the poor and the vulnerable."
"She bequeathed to us, her daughters, a love for liturgical prayer, a global vision and a love for Dominican education," Sister Gloria Marie said.

Those daughters grew in number, responding to the emerging needs in the West. In 1890, Mother Pia went to Mission San Jose to see a seminary, built in the previous decade by Archbishop Alemany, but closed in favor of the Menlo Park site.

"She didn't think of a novitiate," Sister Gloria Marie said, but rather as an orphanage for American Indian children.

In 1891, the Sisters purchased the property adjacent to Mission San Jose. "It was the money from the vineyards that paid the mortgage," Sister Gloria Marie said, adding they may turn to vineyards as a source of income once again.

Dominican Sisters
of Mission San Jose

Founded: San Francisco, 1876 Arrived in East Bay: 1891, Mission San Jose

Original ministry: To serve the young, the poor and the vulnerable

Current ministry: To serve the young, the poor and the vulnerable.

Current number in congregation: 188

Current number in East Bay: 84

Where stationed in East Bay: Oakland: St. Elizabeth Elementary and High schools and Dominican Sisters Vision of Hope; Berkeley: Vocation Director, Director of Novices and School of the Madeleine; Moraga: St. Monica Parish; Fremont/ Newark: Our Lady of Guadalupe School, St. Joseph School and St. Edward Parish, as well as Dominican Sisters Motherhouse

For information contact: Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose, 43326 Mission Blvd., Fremont, CA 94539-5829; 510-657-2468; www.msjdominicans.org
As they have in all their days, the Sisters have responded to the changing needs of those around them. "We have engaged with our new partners, Alzheimer Services of the East Bay, to open on our grounds a center for those dealing with memory loss," Sister Gloria Marie said.

The clients can go to the program at the motherhouse for the day, and "be supported and cared for," she said, additionally providing a respite for their caregivers.

Education has been a primary ministry of the sisters, who have three schools in Southern California and more in Mexico. Their charism continues to enlighten and enliven affiliate schools, including St. Elizabeth Elementary and High schools in Oakland; St. Joseph and Our Lady of Guadalupe in Fremont; St. Edward in Newark; and the School of the Madeleine in Berkeley. The Sisters continue to teach music at the Motherhouse.

"Many of our affiliate schools are inner city, where we're trying to keep alive Catholic education," Sister Gloria Marie said.

Sisters continue pastoral work and adult spirituality. They reach out to the undocumented and the incarcerated, and support people who have been released from prison.

Leadership roles in the Diocese of Oakland have been held by Sister Rose Marie Hennessy, who served as superintendent of schools, and Sister Glenn Anne McPhee, who served as chancellor.

One of the sisters' greatest sources of gratitude is that the oil pressed from the olives grown on the trees at the Motherhouse is consecrated as chrism each year, playing a role in confirmations and ordinations.

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