*Editor’s note: This article was written to complete Katie Rosendale’s honors thesis at Calvin University. It was published on woodtv.com after Rosendale had accepted a position as a digital content producer for WOOD TV8 but before she began her term of employment.
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Even in childhood, Sister Ann Walters felt drawn to vowed religious life.
“We had two Grand Rapids Dominican sisters teaching in our two-room school,” said Walters, who grew up in the tiny village of Suttons Bay, Michigan, north of Traverse City.
“Ever since I could remember, from third grade on, I kind of wanted to be a sister,” Walters said, “or a professional baseball player, or an officer in the army.”
While Walters never became a military official or a sports star, she did achieve one of those dreams. In 1961, Walters entered the congregation. She has been a Dominican sister for 62 years.
Over the past six decades, Walters has taught students, been a school principal, prepared women to enter the congregation and served as a spiritual director. Her ministry took her all across the state of Michigan, west to Chicago and St. Louis and beyond: Walters spent time working with sisters in Nigeria, too.
In 2009, Walters moved back to Grand Rapids.
“The Motherhouse –– we always come back here (to Grand Rapids),” she said.
The Motherhouse, a massive neoclassical building on Fulton Street near Aquinas College, is all red brick and intricate detailing, crowned by a cross. For a century, it was the beloved home of the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids.
But in 2020, they said goodbye. That year, facing an aging population and very few new members, the sisters made the difficult decision to sell their historic Motherhouse.
What happened in Grand Rapids is part of a wider pattern as religious congregations are confronted with changing times. But here, the sisters’ transition points a way forward. Despite the natural grief of losing their longtime home, the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids have embraced their new home across the street, undeterred from their mission to serve God and others.
RICH TRADITION OF PRAYER AND ACTION
The Dominican Sisters’ history extends back almost a millennium, according to the website of the Grand Rapids Dominicans.
In the 13th century, St. Dominic founded the Dominican Order in the south of France. The order was characterized by service to and interaction with the wider world.
According to Elizabeth Chamberlain, adjunct professor of history at Aquinas College, there is a stark difference between “nuns” and “sisters.” (The more modern term “women religious” encompasses both.)
The word nun, she said, denotes a life of contemplation.
“Their job is to pray. They usually live a cloistered or semi-cloistered life. They usually wear the habit and that’s their job,” Chamberlain said. “As a feminist, I would say that they’re quite conservative.”
Sisters, however, are more active.
“They pray, of course, but they do more than pray. They have careers outside of religious life,” Chamberlain said. “They also engage in acts of ministry, which I would call social justice activism.”
The Dominican Sisters fall into the second, more active category. In 1853, centuries after their founding, four sisters from Germany saw a need for teachers in New York and filled it — the sisters’ first foray into the United States. By 1877, they were teaching in Traverse City.
The sisters arrived in Grand Rapids in 1889 to run St. John’s Home for Orphans. As they continued to teach and expand, they needed a home — a Motherhouse. In 1921, they laid the cornerstone of the (now former) Motherhouse on Fulton Street. They called their 34-acre campus Marywood.
“What the sisters considered their Motherhouse was where (many of them) lived,” said Mindy Hills, director of Dominican Center Marywood at Aquinas College.
Other sisters lived scattered throughout Grand Rapids in smaller communities.
Up until 2020, the “very vital” Motherhouse hosted spiritual programs and welcomed visitors day in and day out, according to Hills.
“This was a very active building, open to the public,” Hills said.
In that Motherhouse, Hills said, there was a semblance of the sacred.
“You could feel it,” she said. “You could walk in those doors and there was a sense of prayerfulness in the walls that you could feel.”
“As a historian, I would say (the Motherhouse) represents the history of the Sisterhood,” Chamberlain said. “It represents a specific time –– that time when there were large numbers of sisters and they were teaching.”
In the period after World War II, Walters said, there was a particularly sharp increase in the numbers of women religious –– a “blip” in the larger scheme of history, as Walters termed it.
“Mid-1960 was the zenith, the high point of the number of sisters. When you look at the very long, broad history of religious womanhood, this zenith was really an anomaly,” Chamberlain said. “At Marywood, there were about 900 sisters in the mid-20th century.”
“When I entered in the early ‘60s, the classes were running anywhere from 40 to almost 60 women entering,” Walters said.
‘THE WORLD WAS MODERNIZING’
Today, these classes look a little different.
Now, Walters estimates between three and five women per year enter as novices and take part in an introductory experience to better understand vowed religious life. These women do not necessarily enter the Grand Rapids congregation: 17 separate Dominican congregations –– many outside of Michigan –– collaborate to provide this initial formation experience. So, with three to five novices entering among 17 congregations, there might be years in which the Grand Rapids Sisters receive no new members at all.
What accounts for this decline?
“A lot of things happened simultaneously,” Chamberlain said.
First, the 1960s saw the rise of second-wave feminism.
“Women are looking at the world around them and saying, ‘We deserve a full life,’” Chamberlain said. “There are increasing opportunities for women to have careers outside of the home, outside of being a wife.”
Many women had entered religious life when that was the only option available to them besides marriage. But with more opportunities popping up –– education, the military, the workforce –– some of these women left the congregation altogether.
The rapid changes of the 20th century touched the church, too.
“The world was modernizing. The church was not. It realized in the early 1960s that it had to update itself,” Chamberlain said.
In this spirit, the Second Vatican Council, a “monumental” gathering of leaders in the Catholic Church, met from 1962 to 1965.
“Prior to Vatican II, if you were a priest or a nun, your spiritual status was higher than a married person,” Chamberlain said. “After Vatican II, they said, ‘No, that’s not the case.’ It basically said that all Catholics are the church and there is no hierarchy.”
With this knowledge, fewer women joined the ranks of women religious.
“A lot of women said, ‘I’m going to have just as much opportunity to be close to God and minister to people and experience faith even if I’m not a nun,’” Chamberlain said.
Additionally, after Vatican II, it became much more difficult to join vowed religious life: Hopeful members were newly subject to rigorous evaluation and “intense scrutiny.”
“(These rigorous standards) also contributed to the declining numbers,” Chamberlain said.
Chamberlain noted that this decline is specific to women religious who are active in the world –– in other words, sisters. Nuns, who live a more cloistered life, have not experienced the same drop in their population.
‘PIVOTING FORWARD’ FOR AN AGING POPULATION
Today, there are about 147 Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, according to Chamberlain –– an 84% decrease from the mid-1900s zenith of about 900.
“They’re aging out,” Chamberlain said. “There are so few women entering.”
With a smaller, aging population, the massive Motherhouse no longer fit the needs of the Sisters. The building had not been designed for older women, according to Walters.
“When I entered (the congregation), we had what we called a health care that had four beds,” she said. “As we aged, the building didn’t fit the needs of an elderly community.”
So the leadership team –– a group of four sisters –– had to make a difficult decision: They would sell their historic Motherhouse and move elsewhere.
“It was a decision they made based on the trajectory of their population — basically just pivoting forward,” Hills said. “I think it was a really insightful decision (that considered the questions): Where are we going to go from here? We have this big building: How can it be put to good use?”
On July 20, 2020, the sisters announced that they would transfer ownership of their historic Motherhouse to Third Coast Development and the PK Development Group. The Motherhouse would become a mixture of affordable and market-rate senior housing.
Construction is underway. On one sunny April morning, the former Motherhouse was blocked off by concrete barricades and bright pennants, the entrance of the building graced by a massive crane. Every so often, a truck sailed down the road, carrying workers in neon vests. From the nearby woods, it was relatively quiet, but the sounds of construction –– the beeping of vehicles, loud voices –– occasionally broke through.
Walters estimated that the construction would be complete within 18 to 20 months, though she is not involved in the process.
“There was grief over the building that served as our home for 100 years and yet excitement, because the developer who bought it fit our values: to provide affordable housing for senior citizens,” Walters said of the sisters’ experience.
The sale of the Motherhouse “reflects the social justice outlook of the sisters,” Chamberlain said.
“They didn’t sell it to make a buck,” she said. “They wanted to make sure that that space was going to be used in a responsible way.”
“The beautiful thing about this is the sisters modeling letting go and continuing their mission in helping the underserved and the marginalized,” Hills said.
Even though the sisters will no longer live there, Hills has “no doubt” that the building itself will retain its sacred feeling.
“I think where there is that presence of prayerfulness and intentional goodness, that never goes away.” She hopes that senior citizens who move into the apartments will be able to sense it, too.
In fact, this very feeling is already attracting hopeful seniors to Marywood, according to Walters.
“A lot of people who I know have their names on the list to be considered for the housing already know us,” Walters said. “People describe it (like this): even stepping on land here, there is a peace.”
Even children, she said, have picked up on this peace.
A NEW HOME FOR THE SISTERS
Meanwhile, the sisters transformed the former Marywood Health Center, which announced its closure in April 2020, into their new Motherhouse.
The health center is on the Marywood campus. If you look out a window at the health center, you can see the Motherhouse across the street.
It took about two years to finish remodeling the “hospital-like rooms” of the health center and turn them into apartments, according to Hills. Now, the building is warm and welcoming, full of natural light and echoing with conversation. There’s a chapel that hums with activity and, nearby, a communal gathering space, complete with shelves of books and a piano.
In February 2022, the sisters moved into the new Motherhouse. Currently, about 46 sisters live there, Walters said. Others live in Aquinata Hall, an assisted living facility, or scattered in groups throughout Grand Rapids.
Meanwhile, the Dominican Center’s programming now takes place on Aquinas College’s campus, in the former Bukowski Chapel, according to Hills. What had once been contained under one roof is now split.
“For me, I witness a bright sadness (in the sisters),” Hills said. “There’s still that shimmer of joy in the sisters’ eyes, because they know their programs are living on.”
The “sadness,” according to Hills, hinges on the “social interaction” of the former Motherhouse.
“Where they used to be living, there were all kinds of people coming in and out (for programs),” she said. “(The sisters) could look out their windows and have a gauge of how many people were coming to these programs — and now that’s gone. There is, I think, that undergirding sense that something has been lost.”
For Walters, letting go of the old Motherhouse chapel stings the most.
“We had a very strong connection with people outside of the (Dominican) community who were coming to worship with us on Sundays,” she said.
On any given Sunday, the sisters would be joined by about 200 people from the local community.
But when the chapel closed for COVID-19, many of those attendees didn’t come back.
“A lot of the people have rejoined other parishes, so they’re choosing to stay with their parishes,” Walters said.
The chapel of the new Motherhouse reopened to the public for this year’s Holy Week. The new chapel is an inviting place, resplendent with light and arranged around the cross. But the space is much smaller, according to Walters, and cannot accommodate so many guests. She estimated that the new chapel could hold 40 to 60 people in addition to the sisters, a fraction of what the former chapel could accommodate.
But despite what Walters calls “the normal grieving,” she believes the sisters have adjusted well to the transition.
The new Motherhouse already feels sacred, Hills said.
“I have heard people say the same thing: this place feels a lot like the old Marywood. It feels prayerful,” she said.
Walters, who moved to the new Motherhouse from a smaller house in Grand Rapids last September, said that she already feels comfortable in the space.
“I was delightfully surprised because it became home for me almost immediately,” she said. “No matter where you are in this building, it draws you into nature. Growing up in a rural area, nature has always very much been a part of my life and very nurturing. I believe that’s why I can say I felt at home immediately.”
Her bedroom is a particular source of joy.
“I happen to be on ground level, and I have a bird feeder outside my room. I have a two-prong: (another sister) has a bird feeder on one prong, and I have mine on the other,” Walters said. “So we attract the birds and the squirrels. And it’s delightful to oftentimes just sit there and watch.”
A ‘SENSE OF PEACE’ IN THE GARDEN
From her window, Walters can also see people walking and praying in the Saint Francis Sculpture Garden, which lies right in front of the former Motherhouse.
The 11-acre garden’s pathway displays 17 bronze sculptures that depict stories from St. Francis of Assisi’s life, complete with explanatory plaques. You can walk the trail quickly or linger at each site, pausing to contemplate. All the while, you’re surrounded by trees, birds and several water features, including a creek and a pond.
Patrick Bishop, the president of the nonprofit that maintains the garden, said that many people use the space for contemplation and reflection.
“Everything is so fast-paced, whereas if you walk into the garden, there’s an intentionality about it,” he said. “Things just slow down.”
“I wanted (the garden) to be a place where people could learn about St. Francis and relax,” said Mic Carlson, the founder of the garden. “It’s kind of a hidden secret.”
Carlson is also the sculptor of the bronze statues that are showcased in the garden. In 2004, many of his statues were displayed at the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in the saint’s Italian hometown. The basilica dates back to the 13th century.
When it came time to find a permanent home for his work, Carlson hoped to place them in green space in honor of St. Francis, the patron saint of the environment.
Carlson ultimately partnered with the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, who owned a section of undeveloped land on their Marywood Campus. The garden began in 2010 with a few sculptures, Bishop said, and grew from there.
Now, people from the local community and beyond enjoy the garden: In a single day, Carlson said, he met visitors from several different states.
Saint Francis Sculpture Garden also hosts community events, like an annual Blessing of the Animals in honor of St. Francis’ legendary taming of a wolf. According to Carlson, this event has seen dogs, cats, pigs and even a goldfish.
Despite the sale of the former Motherhouse, both Carlson and Bishop said that Saint Francis Sculpture Garden will endure. Most of its land is still owned by the sisters, except for a “tiny sliver” on the northwest side of the garden that is “a little bit in flux,” according to Bishop. While nothing is set in stone, Bishop said that they have had “great discussions” with Third Coast Development. He believes that they want the garden to remain intact.
As construction continues, the garden will remain open, though parking might become slightly more difficult.
“We have good faith that it’s going to be OK,” said Carlson.
Despite some remaining uncertainty, Saint Francis Sculpture Garden continues to look to the future with new initiatives: In the coming months, organizers will build a bridge across the creek, which will open up even more space for the garden.
SACRED SPACE AND ‘ONGOING’ DOMINICAN LIFE
In the garden, the former Motherhouse and the new Motherhouse alike, people have experienced the sacred — what Hills termed a “sense of prayerfulness” and Walters described as a marked “peace.”
When does a building become more than a building? What is the connection between the material and the immaterial, the physical and the spiritual? And how can it be that a particular way of life can transform physical space itself? Kyle Kooyers, associate director of Grand Valley State University’s Kaufman Interfaith Institute, described sacred spaces as “deeply human environments where we can be more aware of our core self.”
“Sacred spaces ultimately draw us deeper into our individual and collective sense of humanity,” he said.
The Dominican Center fits this definition perfectly, according to Kooyers.
“I think (the sisters’) spaces hold that balance of welcoming all people, regardless of their religious, secular or spiritual background, into a space where they can find room for that connection and personal transformation,” he said.
Kooyers believes that the “ethos of hospitality and inclusivity” of the Dominican Center is “a very natural outpouring of the spirit that is the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids.”
This feeling is not about a specific location; it’s about a way of life, according to Walters.
“I think our form of life radiates something that we’re not even necessarily conscious of,” she said. “Our commitment to truly wanting God to be the center of our life –– I think that radiates and that is picked up.”
Physical space remains important: The sisters’ natural grief at the loss of their former Motherhouse testifies to this. But physical space is not all-important: Despite a locational transition, the sisters’ way of life has allowed them to adapt and persist. In the same way, they will also persist despite population declines, Walters and Chamberlain said.
“I believe that Dominican charism will be ongoing,” Walters said.
Chamberlain said that defining success by numbers alone is a “Western capitalist concept.”
“That’s not how (the sisters) define success,” she said.
Rather, for the sisters, success hinges on whether they are helping people and changing lives.
“I think you’re seeing a population aging out, but I don’t see an end to women religious,” Chamberlain said. “Is it going to change? Absolutely. But that’s been the history of women religious since the history of the church began: they’re always adapting.”
For Walters, there is always hope.
“I’m a firm believer: when one door is closed, a new door opens that can be very surprising,” Walters said. “I call that the faith by which we live, that God never abandons us.”