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A brief history of the Racine Dominicans

The Congregation of the Sisters of St. Dominic, now more commonly called the Racine Dominicans, was founded in Racine, Wisconsin, by Mother Benedicta Bauer and Mother Thomasina Ginker in 1862. The two nuns traveled from the monastery of Heilig Kreuz in Regensburg, Bavaria, in 1858, intent on establishing a motherhouse and school to teach children of German immigrants. After four years, the Regensburg Sisters gathered ten companions, purchased property in Racine, Wisconsin and began the foundation of our community serving the underprivileged and providing education in English and German to mostly working class immigrant students.

For more than 150 years, the Racine Dominicans have continued to build on this foundation begun by Mother Benedicta and Mother Thomasina in serving people in need through education. During the Racine Dominicans congregational peak, they served in over fifty institutions of learning. In addition to traditional roles in the field of education, the Racine Dominicans currently serve as health care professionals, social workers, prison ministers, community organizers, environmentalists, counselors, administrators, cooks, pastoral ministers, artists, spiritual directors, musicians, peace activists, researchers, college professors, writers and more. They are living in eight states in pursuit of truth and justice throughout the world.

Learn more about some of the individual journeys of our Sisters.

Maria Benedicta Bauer

Mother Benedicta founded Sisters of St. Dominic of St. Catherine of Siena in 1862

The Congregation of the Sisters of St. Dominic of St. Catherine of Siena was founded in Racine, Wisconsin, by Maria Benedicta Bauer and Maria Thomasina Ginker in May 1862. The two had traveled from the monastery of Heilig Kreuz (Holy Cross) in Regensburg, Bavaria, in 1858, intent on establishing a motherhouse and school to teach the children of German immigrants.

After nearly two years of teaching in Williamsburg, New York, with sisters sent there earlier from Heilig Kreuz by Mother Benedicta herself, they had attempted foundations first in Nashville, Tennessee (1860), and then in Green Bay, Wisconsin (1861).

The first, however, had never come to be because of the disarray of the German community in Nashville. The second had failed after only a year because the German Catholics of Green Bay were too poor to support even the simplest of schools. But by 1862 the two Regensburg nuns had already gathered ten companions, and with the purchase of property in Racine they began a foundation which would in 1877 be formally incorporated into the Dominican Order.

Commitment to Immigrants and Education

This foundation, as so many others of the era, grew out of the movement of cloistered European nuns who sent members to the United States to work with immigrants of their own ethnic backgrounds. Maria Benedicta Bauer's work in this country was marked from the beginning by a determination to Americanize.

She emphasized in all of her advertising for her schools that both English and German would be used. As she had in her schools in Bavaria, she recruited as students especially children of the working class. The latter emphasis continued strong in the community after Mother Benedicta's death in 1865. Efforts at adapting to the American culture, however, were much weaker in her successors, and for years the Racine Dominican community remained heavily German, especially in its internal life.

The Racine Dominicans would serve as educators in many schools in Racine, Wisconsin and throughout the United States for 150 years beginning in 1862. Mother Benedicta Bauer and her small band of sisters founded St. Catherina Female Academy in 1864. It became St. Catherine's High School and continues to this day. On August 1, 2018, St. Catherine's became part of the newly-founded Siena Catholic Schools in Racine operated under the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and is no longer a sponsored ministry of the Racine Dominicans. However, a member of the Racine Dominicans will sit on the Board of Trustees for the indefinite future.


The Dominican Order Affiliation


The point of formal affiliation of the congregation within the Dominican Order in 1877 brought a critical turning point for the sisters, who up to this point had assumed that they would remain members of the "second order" or cloistered branch of the Order, maintaining schools connected as closely as possible with their houses as the foundresses had in Bavaria. They were discovering, however, that in this country this was in most cases impractical or even impossible.

It was the Master of the Order who insisted that they choose either to live a fully cloistered life without schools or to change their status to that of sisters with simple rather than solemn vows. Though the latter meant giving up their status as canonically recognized "religious" within the Roman Catholic Church, the sisters chose to remain faithful to the purpose for which they had made the American foundation. They were the first of the American houses founded out of Heilig Kreuz in Regensburg to make that difficult decision - which all of those American congregations eventually made.

In 1892 the congregation adopted its first Constitution designed specifically for this now non-cloistered teaching community.

Though written (typically for the time) not by the sisters themselves but by their chaplain, it was nevertheless unique to them. But when non-cloistered sisters were canonically recognized as "religious" in 1900, and norms for such groups were published by the Vatican soon thereafter, Racine Dominican Constitutions were rewritten in a mode that made them all but identical to the constitutions of all other non-cloistered sisters. The community's distinctive identity for years survived mainly in the form of its habit and its devotions.
Thomasina Ginker

Faithful to Their Purpose

The Racine Dominican congregation grew rapidly during its first hundred years, reaching its numerical peak in 1962 with 607 professed members working in more than 50 schools and other institutions.

Sister Formation Movement

Meanwhile, the late 1950s had seen the birth of the Sister Formation Movement, which fomented profound change every women's community in the United States, primarily through inter-community collaboration and the pursuit of advanced education. By the time renewal of religious communities was mandated by the Second Vatican Council in 1965, Racine Dominicans like so many others were ready for a thorough re-examination of their historical identity, their structures, their lifestyles, and their works.


More about Mother Benedicta when establishing the first motherhouse
from Embrace the Swelling Wave by S. Suzanne Noffke, OP

The sisters arrived in Racine on May 12, 1862, and settled into a house they had purchased on St. Claire Street – what is now Douglas Avenue – across the street from St. Patrick’s Church. On May 28, The Racine Advocate carried the following announcement:

The Nuns of the Order of St. Dominic: — Now 655 years in existence. The Rev. Mother Benedicta is a professed Nun of a Bavarian Monastery, who came to this country to establish her Order. The establishment in Racine is the first house of this Religious Order in the United States. She has now eleven Sisters under her direction. They intend opening a School under the direction of Rev. Father GIBSON, in the 4th Ward, on the 2nd of June. They will teach music on the Organ, Piano, Melodeon, Guitar, and Singing. Also, Embroidery, Ornamental  Needle Work, etc. The Rev. Mother has been teaching music in her native Monastery for the last thirty years, and is one of the most perfect teachers. For terms, etc., enquire at their house opposite the Catholic Church, 4th Ward.

Within a few months the young community outgrew the first house and a second they had purchased on St. Claire Street; so in spring of 1863 they moved to the property on the future Park Avenue where, piece by piece, our “old motherhouse” would rise.

Continue reading except from Embrace the Swelling Wave...

Books on the History of the Racine Dominicans:

Embrace the Swelling Wave by S. Suzanne Noffke, OP

Embrace the Swelling Wave is the first volume about the history of the Racine Dominicans. Embrace the Swelling Wave won the Wisconsin Historical Society's 2005 Award of Merit for its contribution to the history of the state of Wisconsin.

Read brochure describing the book.

Order Embrace the Swelling Wave from publisher, Authorhouse.

A Time to Grow by S. Dolores Enderle, OP

This volume of the history of the Racine Dominicans narrates the steady growth of the community from 1901 through 1964. The book is available in both hardcover and paperback through the publisher, AuthorHouse, as well as from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Siena Retreat Center bookstore (262-898-2590).

More information from the publisher.
Download brochure.

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