By Teresa Schmidt
Sister Gloria Marie Jones, prioress of the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose, recently traveled to their German priory at Altenhohenau to participate in a celebration of gratitude and farewell.
In the Bavarian district of Germany, Dominican life began in the early 1200s. The Monastery of the Holy Cross, founded in Regensburg in 1233, was soon followed by the establishment of a monastery at Altenhohenau in 1239, when nuns from San Sisto in Rome came to establish the new foundation. For close to 600 years, life in the monastery continued as the nuns sustained themselves with farming, a bakery, a brewery and teaching stitchery and housekeeping. The priory was at its height in the 1700s when it flourished under the leadership of the mystic Mother Columba Weigl. Her sanctity inspired devotion which has continued through the years evident in the pilgrimages to her gravesite.
Political changes in Germany caused hardship and changes following the secularization of 1803 and finally the confiscation and sale of the property in 1822 to Josef and Hubert Soyer. In 1923, the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose were able to purchase from the Soyers the monastery, church and land to be used as a novitiate to prepare sisters to serve as missionaries in California.
In spite of the challenges of secularization, economic hardship, war and famine, the community lived its mission to the fullest for the next 90 years. Children were taught and cared for in the boarding school, music instruction flourished, sister doctors cared for the people of the area, and milk and food were provided through the dairy, animals and rich harvests. At various times, the monastery was a refuge for women and children, especially the poor and vulnerable.
Through the years, the 197 German sisters who came to California significantly shaped the lives of MSJ Dominicans through their skills as artists, scholars, weavers, carpenters, and farmers. In the early decades, they assisted in raising chicken, harvesting olives and cooking. The sisters served in a variety of ministries including childcare, education, and household care.
This rich 774-year history of Dominican life in Altenhohenau is coming to an end. During the past few years, the MSJ leadership has engaged in conversations with the Dominican congregations in the area, the German provincial, and the Master of the Order regarding the future of the site. Two years ago, it was determined that the MSJ Dominicans would conclude their life at Altenhohenau.
The eldest 93-year-old German sister, Ludovika Sewald, moved this June to a site in Munich run by the Daughters of Charity which cares for elder religious, priests and lay people. Two other German sisters, Imelda Loch and Pia Jobst, moved to Mission San Jose in July. Sister Margarita Sondorfor will remain in Altenhohenau for a few months to conclude business there and enjoy a sabbatical before coming to Mission San Jose.
A farewell celebration for the Dominican family and friends of Altenhohenau was held on June 29. Sisters Gloria Marie Jones, Christopher Miller and Eva Beehner represented the U.S. congregation. German Dominican provincial, Father Christophe Holzer, numerous members of the Dominican family and the many well-wishers in attendance gave witness to the impact the sisters made in their service in Germany. Wonderful music from a three-parish choir, the presence of many civic groups, and family members all paid tribute to a long and loving presence in Germany.
With great joy, the sisters of the motherhouse in Mission San Jose welcomed Sisters Pia and Imelda on July 12. Sisters, translators, and invited guests joined on Sunday for Eucharist and brunch, with a special blessing for Sisters Pia and Imelda. In the afternoon a celebration of our shared life and history in Germany helped all focus on the future through music, prayer, German snacks and dinner, presentations, exhibits, and artifacts.
An illustrated history of the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose’s German roots and heritage was created in 2009 and is available online. View PDF
Teresa Schmidt is communications associate for the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose.