In late August 1850, Joseph Sadoc Alemany, OP, a Dominican Friar and the newly named Bishop of California, traveled to Europe to invite religious women to provide a Catholic education for young women in a very wild and uncivilized California… of the Gold Rush days. One of his first trips was to The Monastery of the Cross in Paris.
There he met Sister Mary of the Cross Goemaere, OP, a Belgian novice. She volunteered to accompany him and another Dominican, Francis Sadoc Vilarrasa, OP, and on December 6, 1850 landed in San Francisco. In spring 1851, Sister Mary settled in Monterey, became prioress of the first group of women religious in the new state, and opened a Catholic school for girls, Santa Catalina, with the financial help of local residents and the bishop of California. Within three years, nine women (three American, one Mexican, and five Spanish) had joined Mother Mary to form the Congregation of the Most Holy Name of Jesus.
In 1854, the sisters moved from Monterey to Benicia because it seemed to offer a more promising future for a school than Monterey and because Alemany’s newly divided diocese no longer included Monterey. The school and convent were named St. Catherine’s Academy. Mother Mary continued to guide the sisters and to instill in them a sense of Dominican life and apostolate. Her last act as prioress was to open a convent and school in San Francisco in 1862. This school, St. Rose Academy, was closed after extensive damage suffered in the 1989 Loma-Prieta earthquake.
The sisters whose original purpose was to provide education have operated and taught in elementary and secondary schools in California and Nevada for a century and a half. Under the forty-two years of leadership of Mother Louis O’Donnell (1887-1929), the sisters also entered the health care field in Stockton, California (St. Joseph’s Home and Hospital, 1899) and in Reno, Nevada (St. Mary’s Hospital, 1912).
With tremendous faith, generous donations, and pledges of financial support, Mother Louis arranged for the construction of a new Victorian-Renaissance style building which became Dominican College of San Rafael, including the convent, novitiate, and the upper and lower schools for girls in the beautiful Magnolia Valley. Although some sisters remained at St. Catherine’s in Benicia, they tearfully bid good-bye to the entire novitiate and several professed sisters who set out by schooner to begin ministry and community life together in San Rafael. (In 1965 the elementary and secondary schools were relocated in nearby San Anselmo at San Domenico and the Victorian convent was destroyed by fire in 1990.) Today, Dominican University of California continues to operate as an independent, co-educational, liberal arts university with both undergraduate and graduate programs. Our sisters still serve on the faculty and Board of Trustees.
Education and healthcare continue to be a part of the mission of the sisters. The renewal of Vatican II encouraged the sisters to extend their mission beyond education and health care into other areas depending upon the individual’s talents and the needs of the time. Dominican Sisters of San Rafael teach, administer schools, care for the sick, work with the materially poor, do social service, missionary work, and are engaged in a variety of other ministries. At its height in 1965, the congregation numbered 376 women religious. Presently we are 77 sisters who continue to minister primarily in California and Nevada.