South Africa is the birthplace of our Congregation. On 30 March 1889, a group of eight young sisters arrived at Oakford, an abandoned farm about 40 kilometres north of Durban. They were to provide a small group of rescued and liberated slaves with religious as well as general education. The sisters took up this new challenge and responded wholeheartedly to the current needs.
The mission station "Oakford Priory" developed, including as well the people of the area. Out of nowhere and under very poor conditions, schools provided education for generations of children of different cultural backgrounds, a kindergarten, an outpatient clinic, a small retirement home and, of course, flourishing gardens that provided fresh food for the entire mission property.
Oakford Priory thus became the seat of the motherhouse of a new Congregation today officially known as the "Dominican Congregation of St. Catherine of Siena of Oakford, Natal." Soon after the foundation of Oakford, the sisters went out in the spirit of Saint Dominic and worked with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to found many new mission stations.
Finally, the sisters also went to cities such as Pretoria, Johannesburg, Durban, Empangeni, and Pietermaritzburg to found maternity homes, schools, girls' residences, and a retirement home, thus providing financial support for the many mission areas.
The church’s understanding of "mission" has changed. The socio-political situation in South Africa has changed. The number of young, active sisters has fallen sharply. The work of continuing the mission of Jesus is as urgent as it ever was. We do not run big institutions anymore. Our sisters work today in small groups or individually among and with the people – mobile, adaptable, ready to be sent where the need is greatest.
Here in the festival brochure for the 125th anniversary of the Congregation you can find further information on the history of the Dominican Saints. Catherine of Siena, Oakford, Natal.
In the early years of the Oakford Congregation, German sisters who lived in South Africa went to Europe to recruit candidates for the apostolate in South Africa. Initially, these women travelled by ship directly to South Africa in order to receive their religious training there. Between 1890 and 1912, for example, there were 67 women looking to make South Africa their new home. From the port in Durban, the journey continued by train and ox-wagon to Oakford, some 40 km away.
Since it was very expensive and complicated to send these young women to Africa immediately after their entry into the Congregation, a novitiate was opened in Neustadt am Main in 1909 to train young sisters. At that time, only a few finally professed sisters lived in Neustadt for the training, the administration, household and agriculture, while all other sisters were usually sent to South Africa immediately after their first profession - sometimes even before! This meant saying goodbye to family and friends for life, because before the Second Vatican Council there was no possibility for sisters to return home on vacation. The young women who joined until the late 1960s did so with the clear intention of going to South Africa for the rest of their lives.
During the 1950s, the political situation in South Africa raised concerns that the apartheid government would stop allowing young women religious to enter the country, so the congregation looked for other opportunities of apostolic work that the sisters could perform in Germany. In the 1970s, in cooperation with Caritas, a rehabilitation centre for mentally ill young people was established on the site of the former Benedictine abbey. The sisters were active in management and therapy for many years.
In 1921 a house on the Volkersberg in the Rhoen was acquired as a training centre for young missionaries. Since 1956, it has been the youth and adult education centre of the Diocese of Würzburg. Our sisters were involved in educational work, the domestic management, in the administration of the house as well as in the service of the parish and the pilgrimage church. The last sisters were withdrawn from Volkersberg in 2013.
In 1956, when the city of Flörsheim am Main was looking for a religious community to take over the city hospital, the leadership of our Congregation decided to accept the request and deploy some nurses in the renamed "Marienkrankenhaus". Over a period of fifty years, the community at times grew to over twenty sisters. In 2003, the "Marienkrankenhaus" was incorporated into the “Marienhaus GmbH”. Today a small community of our sisters lives in an adjacent house in Flörsheim. They are engaged in pastoral service.
For over 100 years, the Dominican Convent of St. Josef in Diessen am Ammersee was an independent congregation, originally a branch of the Dominican Convent in Landsberg am Lech, which in turn was the foundation of the Convent of St. Ursula in Augsburg. In 1950, the sisters opened a secondary school, which was later called the "Liebfrauenschule". In 1967, as part of the re-structuring and renewal after the Second Vatican Council, the sisters in Diessen joined the Oakford Congregation; both congregations had their roots in St. Ursula’s in Augsburg. For about 30 years, a number of young sisters taught in the Liebfrauenschule, some of them after having worked in South Africa for several years. In 2003, the school was incorporated into the "Schulwerk" of the Diocese of Augsburg and still enjoys an excellent reputation. In 2008, the last two sisters left the school and retired. At the end of 2019, the convent of St Josef in Diessen was sold to new group of religious women.
In 1921, the first four sisters arrived in Chingford, near London, to prepare young women, primarily from England and Ireland, for their missionary work in South Africa. The local population also benefited. Over the years, more convents were opened in England. The sisters devoted themselves to various tasks, including the education and pastoral fields, in youth education and in the care of old people in a retirement home. Today two sisters still live in a retirement home near Pinner, where they receive excellent care. They are regularly visited by sisters of the Congregational Leadership. They devote themselves to prayer for the concerns of the people and the Congregation.
In 1931, five sisters were sent to Bremersdorp (later renamed "Manzini"). The sisters were involved in pioneering educational work among the Swazis - initially under a tree. This "school under a tree" was further developed and “St. Theresa's” became one of the best schools in the country where many royal children and grandchildren were taught. At the request of the local bishop, two of the sisters devoted themselves for some years to the formation of local sisters for the diocese. The Oakford Dominican sisters were withdrawn from Swaziland in late 1992. The school was given to the diocese and the convent sold to the bishop.
The first Oakford Dominican Sisters arrived in the United States in 1955. They were initially employed in the St. Albert study house of the Dominican Fathers. The sisters arrived in Oakland, California, young, full of energy and with a dream: they dreamed of one day founding a training house to prepare young sisters for missionary work in Latin America.
The beginnings were not easy. The work among the young religious men proved to be extremely fruitful over the years. The young Dominican Brothers appreciated the strong testimony that the sisters brought to their lives and mission.
Through the association of the Congregation with St. Albert's, several sisters had the opportunity to study theology. When the South African government refused entry permits to the sisters intended to teach in the mission, the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael offered scholarships to our German sisters at their university in California. For years, our young sisters from Germany received tertiary education at the Dominican University in San Rafael.
Over the years, the apostolic outreach of the new American Region expanded mainly in California.
When our sisters looked for new apostolates among the poorer people, several smaller communities were founded in Arizona.
In 1970 our Congregation bought a house in Rome near the basilica “Santa Maria Maggiore”. The house, “Regina Angelorum”, served as a guest house for pilgrims and as a house for our student sisters. It also served as an international study house for the Dominican family, for Sabbatical and Formation programmes. In 1994, the house was sold.
In 1974, at the invitation of Bishop Kemerer of the Diocese of Posadas, our Congregation opened a house in 25 De Mayo. In 1984, a novitiate building was erected in Obera. The first Argentinian postulants started their training in 1986. In 1989, a pre-novitiate was opened in Panambi. Our sisters' apostolates included community work, nursing, health care, social work, care of the aged and pastoral services. The Oakford Dominican Sisters withdrew from Argentina in March 2003.