Several years ago I hosted a former co-worker and her high school aged daughter on their first visit to the Motherhouse. After our walk, I phoned her and invited her comments. My friend mentioned the beauty and peace of the campus, and then laughing she added, “My daughter told me the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose (DSMSJ) Motherhouse reminded her of the movie—The Sound of Music!”
Her comments made sense to me. The Motherhouse with its olive trees and historic buildings do celebrate the beauty of God’s creation, and although framed by golden Mission San Jose hillsides rather than green movie landscapes, the grounds do echo with the sounds of music.
Music holds a special place in religious communities, in their liturgy and the formation of members. But these Dominican musical traditions also enriched the lives of Bay Area families, while providing financial resources for a congregation establishing its mission in California. According to Sister Imelda Pellettieri, music educator and current Assistant Archivist with the DSMSJ, “Every Dominican convent had a piano teacher, and in those early years teaching music helped put food on the Sisters’ table.”
Music sustained the Sisters’ lives as local families enrolled in piano, organ, violin or voice lessons. DSMSJ Motherhouse records in 1936 note that Sister Clementina Lefebre taught 45-minute lessons for $2.50, providing $60 in monthly income. The instruction continued as Dominican Sisters also taught in parish schools and offered music lessons.
Sister Mary Bertha Rehers, the music school’s early, visionary director established a comprehensive musical program that grew to serve more than 300 students, and by the 1960s six full time Sisters and their lay colleagues taught in the newly established Queen of the Holy Rosary School of Music. Adults and children also enrolled in popular summer programs at the Motherhouse, which included orchestras, marching and symphonic band, and an annual musical production.
Today, the Sisters musical legacy continues under the leadership of Sharon Hendee. An experienced violin and viola instructor, Sharon taught at the DSMSJ School of Music for 23 years and performed in Bay Area orchestras and with the Chamberlain String Quartet. She replaced Sister Eva Beehner, who ended her 21-year tenure as director in July 2021. Sharon affirmed, “I was so excited to lead such an amazing group of musicians who are committed to developing student’s musicianship as well as the whole person.”
Currently eight professional musicians, including Sister Andre Marie Fujier, serve on School of Music faculty, offering private and group lessons in flute, piccolo, guitar, clarinet, violin, viola, piano, and voice. The curriculum includes musicianship, theory, performance opportunities and annual recitals. Every student is encouraged to participate in local, state or international music competitions and festivals according to their musical goals and abilities.
To better serve families in the East Bay, the School of Music expanded its outreach using social and print media to highlight programs open to students at all levels. These marketing efforts describe a hidden musical gem located on the Motherhouse campus in Fremont. “The future of the School of Music is strong,” said Hendee. “The School of Music is a special place. The nurturing, caring environment the Sisters created continues! Of course, all teachers want students to excel and to love music. Most students come to us young and innocent. We guide their musical growth and in some small way their personal growth too. We strive to be mentors and role models along with great teachers.”
Dominican Musical Timeline
1880— Music instruction supports the congregation
1929— Queen of the Holy Rosary College offers college credit music instruction for sisters and adults
1936— Rosary Studio site of Motherhouse music lessons
1959— S. Mary Bertha named Congregational Chantress, Choir Director and Chair of QHRC Music Dept.
1961— Queen of the Holy Rosary School of Music (QHRSM) offers instruction for youth and adults
1992-2000 – S. Marie Yvonne Armstrong QHRSM director
2000-2021— S. Eva Beehner, QHRSM director
2015 – QHRMS renamed: Dominican Sisters School of Music
2021— Sharon Hendee, first lay DSSM Director
By Margaret McCarthy