Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Author chronicles pioneering Dominican Sisters in Eastern Washington
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the April 30, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
One day in January, 1995, Spokane Falls Community College German instructor Inga Jablonsky (left) picked up a copy of the local newspaper. There she read an account of a small group of Dominican Sisters, the original group of which came from Germany, who had just been incorporated into the larger Sinsinawa Dominican community based in Wisconsin.
“I had not known that there were any German Sisters here,” said Jablonsky, a native of Germany who has lived in Spokane since 1988, “and they were right next to the college where I was teaching. I read the story on Sunday, and on Monday I was there talking to the Sisters. I knew right away that I wanted to research these German Sisters, but it was a long process. I gave up a couple of times over the years because I couldn’t get permission to go in the archives. It took a while for them to trust me because they said there was stuff in there, all in German, and they didn’t know themselves what it was. They were cautious.”
Jablonsky’s book is titled Pioneer German Sisters: The Real Missionaries of the Pacific “Wild” West.
This book isn’t a history or biography. Rather, Jablonsky translated and organized all the historical documents she could find about the founding Sisters from Germany, then known as the Poor School Sisters of St. Dominic. These missionary Sisters first traveled from Speyer, Germany, to Helena, Mont., in 1925.
“Mother Bonaventura’s diary was all in German,” Jablonsky said, referring to the group’s founding Mother Superior, “and no one had ever translated that, and I think that is the most important part in the book. I never thought of myself as a good translator, but Mother Bonaventura’s diary, there was some spirit in that. I found words that really expressed the spirit in which she wrote. Also, it was in that old 19th-century German handwriting. I worked with a magnifying glass.”
Finally, in 2001 Jablonsky received permission to do research in the Dominican Sisters’ archives. “I was in there three days,” she said, “and I took digital photos of everything, documents and old photographs, so everything ended up on my computer.” In 2005, the author had a sabbatical from her teaching position, and that gave her the time and energy she needed to write the book and put it into publishable condition.
“This book is the voices of the Sisters themselves,” the author said. “It’s journals, it’s even audio recordings that were made for their 75th jubilee, I think. Mother Bonaventura’s diary is titled, “The First Days in Carroll College.” Really, there isn’t even one personal interview in the book, because I talked to four nuns but they were so old, and their memories were failing. But what I’m good at is putting the material in sequence so the reader can get through it and get a logical picture of all the jumble that I found in the archives.”
She wasn’t able to use everything she found in the Dominican Sisters’ archives, however. “There was a file,” she recalled, “that had information about the Sisters’ lives before they entered the convent, and I thought it would make an even better story if I could portray the Sisters before they came to the order. But that was out of limits because that was personal information.”
Initially, the original group of 10 Sisters and one postulant settled in the Diocese of Helena, Mont., where they began working in various hospitals, a ministry that lasted for 36 years. In 1931, they settled at Our Lady of the Pines, a farm in Chewelah, Wash. In 1928, nine additional Sisters arrived from Germany, and between 1930 and 1934 another 12 German Sisters brought the total to 32.
Over the years, the German Dominican Sisters worked at various locations in Washington and Montana, including Kettle Falls, Wash., Conrad, Mont., Colville, Wash., and St. Mary Indian Mission, in Omak, Wash. In 1945 they opened St. Dominic Convent, a house of studies, in Spokane. Between 1931-1963 a total of 69 American women entered the community. This Dominican community is well known in the Spokane area for founding Holy Family Hospital in 1964. Jablonsky’s book includes a detailed list of the growth of the community and its many ministries down through the years.
Interviewing Sister Fidelis, one of the surviving Sisters from Germany, Jablonsky was surprised to learn that in the early 1930s, and possibly the late ’20s, the Sisters were required to observe long periods of silence. “Sometimes for days and days they were not allowed to talk,” she said. “Sister Fidelis said that this was quite a damper on their communication skills.”
A colleague at SFCC recommended that Jablonsky hire someone to listen to and transcribe the numerous audio taped interviews with the German Sisters, made in 1995, so she would have them in written form. “There were 18 or 20 audio tapes, and once they had been transcribed then I had something I could work with,” she said.
In 2004, the author visited with Sister Consuelo, another of the early German Sisters, then retired and living at the community’s motherhouse in Sinsinawa, Wis.
“Sister Consuelo says to me, ‘Well, Inga, do you have any writer’s training? Did you take classes?’ I said, ‘No, really I didn’t, but I want to put your story in order; there are many documents there.’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘you can’t write a book; maybe a brochure would be okay.’ And then she proceeded to tell me stuff, and she always prefaced it with, ‘But you can’t write about it, don’t use that.’ She told me stories. I had a legal pad full of stories she told me, and I couldn’t use it.
“When I asked (Sister Consuelo) for names of people I could talk to, especially on the Reservation where the Sisters worked, she said, ‘Well, I’m going to visit my brother out there next year, and I’ll take you to the Reservation and introduce you to people.’ So then when she came here she didn’t have time to do this. She was very blunt, she told you exactly what she thought and made no bones about it. There were many stories like this (told by people) at her memorial service when she died in January of this year.”
In the end, then, Jablonsky’s book relied on written historical documents. “I read from the book at a book event at SFCC, when it was first published,” she said, “and I read several pages from Mother Bonaventura and Sister Fidelis, and some people in the audience were crying. A colleague came up to me after the reading and said, ‘I don’t think I have ever heard about such good people. I feel that I am in the company of very good people, in your book, like we might not have such good people anymore.’ The goodness of the Sisters (is so evident in this book).”
She added a reminder that the Sisters were immigrants. “Some of their stories of coming to American are quite funny – the journey on the ship, and later on the train where they saw the prairie. Sister Bonaventura talked about how they saw grain still in the fields, but back in Germany the grain had already been harvested by August, which she took as a sign of the Germans being more industrious. Also, she remarked on how the food was prepared in America and how the fish dishes, especially, were hard to take. Also, the Sisters missed their feather beds.”
The last word for Jablonsky, however, is this: “The Sisters were so selfless – and so poor! Many times there wasn’t even money for postage to send letters to Germany. Sister Fidelis talked about how they came to the mission school in Omak, and Mother Bonaventura told the Sisters that they couldn’t buy any garden hoses. Sister Fidelis and the others thought this meant there was no store where they could buy hoses, so they all wrote home for hoses for the garden work. Only then did they find out that, of course there were stores where one could buy hoses. But Mother Bonaventura didn’t have any money to pay for the hoses. Mother herself got sick at Carroll College, and there was no money to pay for medication, and they had to ask the Fathers there to donate money for medication.”
(Pioneer German Sisters is published in softcover by Lulu .com. Inga Jablonsky will autograph and read from her book on Wednesday, May 6, at 7:30 p.m. at Auntie’s Bookstore, 402 W. Main Ave., Spokane.)