February 26, 1995 in City

Local Dominicans Close Order Catholic Sisters Join Wisconsin-Based Order After 70 Years Of Independence

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tags:History

Scattered, the good grain bears fruit. Collected in a heap, it spoils.

- St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order of Preachers

Sister Xaviar Berberich was just 24 when she left Speyer, Germany, in 1937 to join the Spokane Dominicans.

After spending six weeks at the order’s convent in Kettle Falls, where she learned a few English words, she was sent to an Indian mission in Omak. One of her first chores was to kill a big rattlesnake that slithered onto the grounds. She and another sister chopped it up with a hoe.

“The thing was wiggling all day long,” said Berberich, now 81, in a German accent. “There were 11 rattles. I sent them home.”

Berberich’s journey to a strange new land to face the unknown might as well be a hallmark among Spokane Dominicans.

Since the Dominican Sisters came from Germany 70 years ago, the Catholic order has built hospitals and schools, and has founded innovative programs to help the poor.

Today in a private Mass, they will make their final move as an independent order. The 36 remaining sisters will pledge their allegiance to the Sinsinawa Dominicans, a large Wisconsin-based order.

The Spokane Dominicans will cease to exist. Like many religious orders, they succumbed to dwindling numbers and an aging membership.

It is the final page in a history that dates to 1925.

At the request of Bishop John Carroll, 11 sisters and one postulant (a fledgling nun) came to Helena to cook and clean at a college later named for the bishop.

The postulant went home a year later, unable to adjust to the rugged life.

Following the philosophy of St. Dominic, the original 11 and those who followed spread throughout the region.

From a small group of housekeepers at the Helena men’s college grew an organization responsible for running hospitals and schools in 12 cities across the Inland Northwest.

“St. Dominic’s charisma was meeting the needs of the times,” said Sister Bernadette Ries, a counselor with the order.

While they labored, the sisters from Germany watched the world change both in and outside the church.

They survived the horrors of Nazi Germany and a journey halfway around the world.

They heard the language of the Mass change from Latin to English. They watched as younger members of their order shed white habits for street clothes - even pierced their ears and applied a little lipstick.

“Our sisters from Europe, they are the strong ones,” said Sister Judith Nilles, the order’s current prioress. “They give us courage. They have been through so many changes and transitions in their lives.”

Of the 36 remaining Spokane Dominicans, 20 are from Germany. Most are retired. They will live out their retirement, as long as they wish, at the Dominican Center on Fort Wright Drive.

The decision to end their lives as a separate religious community was not an easy one.

Although the merger began almost three years ago, the recent weeks at the Dominican Center along the Spokane River have been filled with grief and anguish.

“Given the pain and the loss of identity, it’s a bittersweet thing,” said Sister Pam Miller, western province team leader for the Sinsinawa Dominicans. “But I think the dynamic of choosing to do something by design rather than waiting to see what happens by default is an example to everyone.”

That’s how the Spokane Dominicans have always done it, said Berberich. From killing rattlesnakes to plotting their own closure, the sisters have always risen to the challenge.

A dedicated teacher, Berberich was banned from doing her job by the Nazis as the Berlin government cracked down on all religious instruction.

“I loved nothing more than teaching school,” she said.

So she came to America in 1937, along with 22 other sisters, novices and postulants to join the group that immigrated earlier.

Because she was the oldest, Berberich was in charge of the money.

Sisters Eumelia Scheufele, 77, and Isentrude Mathies, 79, remember asking her for money to buy a beer.

“She would not give us any. We were so angry,” Scheufele said. “Just because she was the oldest, she got to have all the money.”

Berberich said that in a siege of seasickness, she thought she had given the money to one of the other sisters.

“When we got off the boat, I opened my prayer book and there it was,” she said. “I had been so sick I had not even opened my prayer book.”

From Kettle Falls, the sisters went forth as nurses and teachers, to towns like Conrad, Tonasket, Colville and Chewelah.

The order flourished with new members until the 1960s. Then, like all religious orders, its numbers dropped. Many sisters returned to Germany or quit.

But another Dominican truism is that during times of difficulty, their greatest accomplishments were achieved.

In their first 25 years, the group opened five hospitals, four schools and a residential home for women.

In 1960 they opened a $1.2 million nursing home on Spokane’s North Side. In 1964, they financed and built the $3.6 million Holy Family Hospital.

The hospital has thrived by capturing the loyalty of North Side families. The sisters still point to it as their crowning jewel.

Nilles remembered when it opened.

“I cleaned it, I slept in it,” she said.

In 1993, they turned Holy Family, Mt. Carmel Hospital in Colville, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chewelah and Holy Family Adult Day Care over to the Sisters of Providence and their management corporation, which also operates Sacred Heart Medical Center.

Even in the last five years, while the Spokane Dominicans worried over their future, they created new programs.

They turned the old Shriners Hospital into the Transitional Living Center, an apartment complex for homeless women and children. They co-sponsored Miryam’s House, a residential center where addicted mothers receive treatment. They created the Women’s Drop-in Center to support women and children in need.

The sisters also created Dominicare, an in-home health service for the elderly of Stevens County.

“That was the life-giving part,” Nilles said. “You almost needed to be doing something like that, to keep going and not just focus on the dying thing.”

All those programs have been handed to local boards and corporations, which will keep them operating in the spirit of the Dominican ministry.

After today the legacy will be all that remains.

“We will continue to be a presence here,” Nilles said. “Not so much a public presence, but a quiet presence of prayer.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with story: Highlights Highlights of the Spokane Dominicans’ tenure in the Inland Northwest: 1925 - Eleven sisters and one postulant arrive in Helena from Speyer, Germany. They cook and clean for a men’s college later named Carroll College. More follow over the years. 1929 - The sisters take charge of St. Mary’s Hospital in Conrad, Mont. 1930 - The order builds and opens St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chewelah. 1934 - The order buys land and builds a convent, Our Lady of the Valley, in Kettle Falls. 1936 - The sisters take charge of St. Mary’s Mission in Omak. 1938 - A new wing is added to St. Martin’s Hospital in Tonasket, as the order takes charge of the hospital. 1939-1941 - The sisters’ mail is censored by the United States government because of their connection to Germany. 1945 - St. Margaret’s School opens in Cut Bank, Mont. 1946 - Immaculate Heart School opens in Oroville, Wash. 1947 - St. William’s School opens in Shelby, Mont. 1958 - Assumption School opens in Spokane and Mount Carmel Hospital opens in Colville. 1960 - Holy Family Nursing Home opens in Spokane. 1962 - St. Thomas Moore School opens in Spokane. 1964 - Holy Family Hospital opens. 1969 - The order builds the Dominican Center on Ft. Wright Drive bordering the Spokane River. 1979 - Sisters create Dominican Health Services to manage their hospitals. Later, control of all Dominican health facilities is transferred to the organization. 1983 - New St. Joseph’s Hospital is built in Chewelah. 1986 - Spokane Dominicans break from their mother house in Speyer, Germany. 1986 - The Dominicans, with four other religious communities, open Miryam’s House, a home for women recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. 1986 - Holy Family Adult Day Health Service opens. 1989 - St. Joseph’s Long Term Care Center built in Chewelah. 1990 - New wing opens at Mount Carmel Hospital in Colville. 1993 - Transitional Living Center opens in the old Shriners Hospital in Spokane. -Kelly McBride, staff writer

This sidebar appeared with story: Highlights Highlights of the Spokane Dominicans’ tenure in the Inland Northwest: 1925 - Eleven sisters and one postulant arrive in Helena from Speyer, Germany. They cook and clean for a men’s college later named Carroll College. More follow over the years. 1929 - The sisters take charge of St. Mary’s Hospital in Conrad, Mont. 1930 - The order builds and opens St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chewelah. 1934 - The order buys land and builds a convent, Our Lady of the Valley, in Kettle Falls. 1936 - The sisters take charge of St. Mary’s Mission in Omak. 1938 - A new wing is added to St. Martin’s Hospital in Tonasket, as the order takes charge of the hospital. 1939-1941 - The sisters’ mail is censored by the United States government because of their connection to Germany. 1945 - St. Margaret’s School opens in Cut Bank, Mont. 1946 - Immaculate Heart School opens in Oroville, Wash. 1947 - St. William’s School opens in Shelby, Mont. 1958 - Assumption School opens in Spokane and Mount Carmel Hospital opens in Colville. 1960 - Holy Family Nursing Home opens in Spokane. 1962 - St. Thomas Moore School opens in Spokane. 1964 - Holy Family Hospital opens. 1969 - The order builds the Dominican Center on Ft. Wright Drive bordering the Spokane River. 1979 - Sisters create Dominican Health Services to manage their hospitals. Later, control of all Dominican health facilities is transferred to the organization. 1983 - New St. Joseph’s Hospital is built in Chewelah. 1986 - Spokane Dominicans break from their mother house in Speyer, Germany. 1986 - The Dominicans, with four other religious communities, open Miryam’s House, a home for women recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. 1986 - Holy Family Adult Day Health Service opens. 1989 - St. Joseph’s Long Term Care Center built in Chewelah. 1990 - New wing opens at Mount Carmel Hospital in Colville. 1993 - Transitional Living Center opens in the old Shriners Hospital in Spokane. -Kelly McBride, staff writer


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