For today’s post, I thought I’d highlight a group of women who have devoted their lives to making the world a better place – the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic.

Maryknoll Sisters in Punahou, Hawaii c. 1920s
Photo from the Maryknoll Mission Archives

Maryknoll is just one of several places that have a pretty big footprint in Ossining but exist on the sidelines of Ossining’s collective consciousness. At least, I don’t often think about it unless I happen to run (or drive!) along Pinesbridge Road.  

Maryknoll Seminary on Pinesbridge Road, Ossining

But in recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know some of the Sisters there, and their lives and accomplishments are certainly worthy of a Women’s History month post.

First, what exactly IS Maryknoll?  Officially, its title is the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, and includes the Fathers and Brothers of Maryknoll and the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic.  Founded by Father James Walsh and Father Thomas Price, they received Papal approval in 1911 and wasted no time in finding a home for their seminary.  Purchasing several tracts of land in Ossining, they hired Italian masons who had worked on the Croton Dam to build many of the Maryknoll buildings – hence the remarkable stone masonry evident. (According to Brother John Blazo, the Maryknoll Historian, it was decided to give the cupola a particularly Chinese theme in order to motivate the missionaries to go to far away places and spread the word of God.)

But back to the Sisters.  They were founded in 1912 by Mary Josephine “Mollie” Rogers (later known as Mother Mary Joseph.)  She’d gone to Smith College and become inspired by the active Student Volunteer Movement there and the idea of overseas missionary work.  

Mary Josephine “Mollie” Rogers, c. 1910.
Photo from the Maryknoll Mission Archives

Fortuitously, she met Father Walsh and began working in his office to help him get his Society started. Brother Blazo tells the story that Father Walsh had found it increasingly difficult to purchase some of the parcels of land he needed to put together the campus he envisioned.  Sensing that there might be anti-Catholic sentiment at the root of it, Mollie Rogers dressed up in her most formal Smith College-wear and purchased the land on behalf of the Fathers, looking to all the world like a rich, Westchester matron.

Working in tandem with the Fathers and Brothers, it took almost a decade for the Sisters to be officially recognized by the Catholic Church.  Mother Mary Joseph, along with few others, charted a course through unmapped waters – theirs was the first group of American religious women whose primary mission was overseas service. Frankly, it seems like the Church didn’t know what to do with them –  they were rebuffed again and again by Church leadership, both here and in Rome.  But by 1920, they were officially approved to begin their mission work.  Soon, they were serving in faraway places like Manchuria and the Philippines and China, and women from all over the world were joining their Sisterhood.

According to their website, what Mother Mary Joseph asked from her Sisters was “Charity, fearless honesty and speaking the truth in love as they give witness to God’s love and devote their lives to service overseas.” 

Sister Mary Joseph with novitiates at Maryknoll.
Photo from the Maryknoll Mission Archives

World War II interrupted their mission work, especially in Asia – there, some Sisters were put in prison, others were arrested and deported.  Two Sisters disappeared and were never found.  In the States, when Japanese Americans were put in concentration camps, Maryknoll Sisters went with them.

Maryknoll Sisters in China, c. 1940s
Photo from the Maryknoll Mission Archives

Over the decades, they’ve opened schools, clinics and hospitals, expanding their reach into South America, Africa, Thailand, Japan and South Korea.  They’ve nursed lepers in Hawaii, AIDs patients in El Salvador, taught English in Jakarta, provided social work services to Sudanese refugees, guided Vietnamese asylum seekers through a maze of red tape, performed surgery in Guatemala, started health clinics in Tanzania, nursed the sick in South Korea – in short, as their website says, they serve “the poor, the ailing and the marginalized around the world.”

Each one of these remarkable women has gone through rigorous training programs, learned several languages, and lived for years in foreign countries, often in great peril, as they served in some of the most unstable and violent regions in the world. 

The Maryknoll Sisters campus in Ossining offers space for nuns to take a breather between postings, opportunities for further training, and as a home base to serve locally.  Both of my sons fondly remember the Sister who was a regular in their 2nd grade classroom at Brookside School (just across the street), and how it was always a treat to be in her reading group. 

Currently, there are nearly 300 sisters serving in 18 countries.  

My interactions with them have been inspiring and humbling – they are all more informed about current events than anyone I know.  They also take a keen interest in politics and democracy, understanding that it is a potent tool to effect change.  But it’s their sincere belief in social justice, peace, and humanity that really sets them apart.

I asked one of the sisters what made her want to be a missionary nun and she told me the following story: 

 “When I was a very little girl, my father took me to see some shacks that had appeared at the end of our very nice street.  ‘They’re called Hoovervilles,’ he told me. (Yes, Herbert Hoover was President when she was a little girl!)  I cried.  ‘But we have to help these people, they can’t live like that.’ My father shook his head – ‘There are too many of them and they need too much.  There’s nothing we can do.’  Well, I think that was moment that started me on this path – I was only about four years old, but I’ve never forgotten that moment.  Yes, there ARE too many and they DO need a lot.  But there’s always something we can do.”

In the spirit of Women’s History month, may I suggest that you peruse a few of the biographies of these inspiring women here.

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