Monday, January 5, 2015

The Mother House at Dominican

During the summer of 1989 we held our 25th annual California Poets in the Schools conference in the Mother House at the Dominican Convent in San Rafael. It was a a big international event with guest poets from several Writers in the Schools programs, and poets from the USSR and Mexico.

Dominican Convent, San Rafael, California, circa 1908 [postcard‘ Marin County Free Library 
The Convent, dedicated on July 21, 1889 in San Rafael, California, was originally the home for nine Dominican Sisters, four postulants and one novice. The same building housed a girls' school plus high school. The Sisters also taught children at St. Raphael's School at Fifth and A Streets. The college was increased to a four-year institution and the first class of Dominican College graduated in 1922. The elementary school and high school moved to San Domenico in San Anselmo in 1965. In 1971, the College became coed, and in April 2000 Dominican changed its name to Dominican University. The Convent burned in 1990, and the Sisters elected to replace the remains with a new, more modern building. —Marin County Free Library 

The Mother House, designed by San Francisco architect Thomas J. Welsh, was an intricate and ornate four-storey affair, built of solid redwood. A grand Victorian dame replete with cupolas, bell towers and widow walks. There was gorgeous turned woodwork, hidden nooks, lace-curtained vaulted windows and Greco-Roman touches worthy of any fin de siècle grand hotel. Massive grand staircases, fine tongue and groove, intricate tile-work, wall panels of black walnut, oak and rich mahogany patterned veneers.

The Mother House was a living museum. I was attracted to the early California plein-air pastoral paintings worthy of the Hudson Impressionist School, probably hung on the walls when they were still wet. There was a rumor of a Rembrandt. It also contained the usual array of religious iconography, stained glass, and wooden shields, heavy antique claw-footed furniture, and vast carpets of Persian rugs blossoming everywhere.

I gave a presentation in the foyer on my poetry and art exchange program in the USSR. It was an uncomfortable time for me as my ex, John Oliver Simon, was also there, so I was a loose cannon. As it was, I had run off to Russia to escape John, his poetry program, and my past.  But you can't escape the past. It stays with you like a shadow. (Later, I would be a modern day Conchita—Doña Maria Concepción Argüello, California's first postulant, was a star-crossed lover who grew tired of waiting for Count Rezanov to return from the dead. But that's another story...)

John and I went to great lengths to avoid each other, like wary cats, and of course, then we'd run into each other, chest-thumping on sharp turns of empty stairwells. Face to face, filled with awkward dités, punctuated with profound silence. That weekend, fate had its way with us, rubbing our noses in our own excrement at every corner. The University’s motto, Veritas fax ardens, means “Truth Is a Flaming Torch.” Dirty laundry aside, I was on fire.

At the party we shared a slow dance, Goodbye, Sweetheart, an unchained melody, for old time's sake. A temporary truce, within the sanctuary of nuns. Everyone was hoping we'd get back together. Kathy Evans teared up and said, Are you sure it's over? You fit so perfect together. But I was one mass of raw scar tissue, unfit for any man (or woman).

At one point, in order to avoid John, I ran off to join a poetry caucus encamped on the front lawn. Tobey Kaplan laughed, and said, What are you doing here, this a GAY caucus! Sure enough, Francisco Alarcón, Fernando Castro, Patrice Veccione and others were there. But I wasn't about to leave. I needed mothering. I said, You're all poets, aren't you? And so they made room for me on the nurse-log.

The Dominican shield for the year of my birth, was a purple heart, Caritas Omnia Superat, Love Surpasses all Things. Yeah, right. I deserved a purple heart just for surviving the relationship. But I had to learn the hard way that anorexia was not a workaround for betrayal. For John's year, it was Pax Copia et Sapientia, Peace, Abundance, and Wisdom. Neither of us could find peace, and wisdom was hoarded in a future that will never come. Our cross to bear.

After the big evening poetry reading, Jorge Argueta, Celia Woloch and I sat on the wide verandah, after curfew, drinking aguaguardiente, telling ghost stories under a full moon. I thought for sure we were all going to go to hell. But the ground held. It held. The word Dominican, (domini canes) means "Hounds of the Lord." I sure didn't want them hounding me throughout all eternity.

Me & Celia Woloch on the front porch
The Dominican Mother House turned a hundred years old that summer, and it was redolent with ghosts of the past. Some of them were my relatives. I'm sure when the nuns, hard up for income, opened up the convent to educational groups, that wild poets dancing in the foyer, and drinking whiskey on the porches was not exactly what they envisioned. On the other hand, the nuns were conscripted to educate the children of the wild 49ers, a rough and ready bunch of outlaws.

The history of Dominican University of California in traces back to 1850 when Joseph Alemany was appointed Bishop of Monterey.
As Bishop Alemany was returning [from Italy] to his new post in [Monterey] California, he stopped in Paris and expressed a desire to have a few Dominican sisters join him to teach the children of the forty-niners. Within three years, nine women (three American, one Mexican, and five Spanish) joined Sister Mary to form the Congregation of the Most Holy Name. In 1854, the Dominicans moved to Benicia.
History of Dominican University
Conchita, or Sister Dominica, was the lone Mexican sister in that congregation, she lies in a graveyard in Benicia, and someone brought dirt from Rezanov's grave so they could share the same earth as they eternally slept. California's saddest love story of unrequited love fired the imagination of Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky who wrote Juno & Avos, it inspired Bret Harte who wrote of
"the love at ne'er grows old," and Gertrude Atherton wrote a novel about the love affair. It was mentioned in many histories of California, including the works of Hubert Bancroft, and an 1885 history by Theodore Hittell. —SF Gate
We all slept in shocking random configurations in the old St. Thomas dormitories. There was a covered walkway that connected the dorms. Like stepping back in time. The buildings stank of old linseed oil, the contractors must've already been working on restoring the buildings during 1989. Someone wrote on Facebook that the convent fire began on the top floor, from an unattended air blow torch (used to blister paint). The painting contractor got the job because of his sister, who was a nun. No one was injured. Some of the Aubusson rugs, antique furniture and fine art was salvaged. But much more was lost in the fire.

 So sad that the Mother House burned down the following July. We were planning on having our next annual statewide conference there in 1990, and we had no place to go. The Ann Hathaway cottage was far too small. I don't remember where we wound up holding our conference. I don't think Walker Creek was a conference center yet.

I had a relative at Dominican. Yes, a Dominican nun. She eventually became Mother Superior—but not there (I think). She died recently, at the age of 97. I don't recall her spiritual name but she was my grandfather's sister, Anna Reilly. She left the order, went back to Ireland, and then claimed several Irish holdings that should've come to our family. Not a very nice woman in the end. 

Several of my mother's cousins and relations either taught at, or attended Dominican during the early 1960s. Many teachers I knew got their teaching credentials at Dominican, it was the first college in California to grant BA degrees to women. It wasn't even coeducational until 1971.

In 1854, the Dominicans moved from Monterey to Benicia (following the state capitols, as it were). An Irish woman, Mother Louis O'Donnell (1887-1929) was responsible for moving the school, and novitiate from Benicia to San Rafael in 1889. Conchita, or Sister Dominica did not make that final journey from Benicia but she was there in the Mother House, in spirit. Irish women (Mother Jones) were instrumental in establishing public schools across America. During WWI, the convent school expanded to include the purchase of Meadowlands, the summer home of the illustrious de Young family, as well as holdings of the Buck family.

My cousin got her BA ca. 2010 from Dominican so we got to see lots of old building interiors, not all of it was destroyed, just the mothership. The Mother House was like a big ornate wedding cake to God and the sky. Sadly it's not the first Victorian that's succumbed to careless contractors with blow torches. Helluva birthday party, burning down the house like that. 

And only now, 25 years later, am I able to write about it.

I attended my cousin's alumni reception in June 2015,
and who did they feature in their newsletter? Me

Thank you for attending the Pathways/ADC Alumni Gathering,
and a special thanks to our Steering Committee!

We enjoyed connecting with you and hearing your stories.
Here are some responses to the question
"What word describes your Dominican Experience?"
Engrossing, Enriching, Self-Fulfilling & Spiritual,
Encompassing, Rich, As wonderful as having my 33 year old son!

Click here to join the Pathways/ADC LinkedIn Group.
We hope to see you at our upcoming alumni events.
Questions? Please contact Claire Neenan
at (415) 482-1948 or

After I'd posted this blog post, Jason Lewis of Marin Nostalgia posted a photo of the fire. There are lots more photos there. He's looking for Marin stories, so if you have some, leave them on his Facebook page. His Dominican Marin Nostalgia link now leads back to this post with a quote from me from this blog post! Love the circular filing aspect. Thanks, Jason.

Teddy Robertson has a blog post on her days at Dominican at The tribe of sunny childhood 
She used my blog as a reference, and I found it when I was hunting down word thieves who had nicked bits of my blogs... Teddy wrote that the Dominican sisters no longer teach, that's not true. Many of my cousin's favorite teachers were nuns. Lay people are also now included in the staff.

My research notes: As usual, this began as a tiny Lost Marin Facebook post that grew and grew. I never think a Facebook post will morph into a blog, and I also never think to save the first simple iteration. Only after extensive revision, once I have a vested interest in it. The original post went something like this:
I had a relative at Dominican. why yes she was a Dominican nun. She eventually became Mother Superior—but not there (I thnk). She died recently, at the age of 97I don't recall her nun's name but she was my grandfather's sister, Anna Reilly. Hey Barbara Dillon Reilly! In the summer of 1989 we had a big international California Poets in the Schools conference in the Mother House. There was early California art on the walls, and incredible rugs everywhere. I gave a presentation there on my travels to the USSR. We sat on the verandah and told ghost stories. The building was then a hundred years old. We slept in the old St. Thomas? dormitories. Pretty cool. So sad that it burned down soon afterwards. We were planning on having our next annual statewide conference there in 1990, but it burned down and we had no place to go. My cousin got her BA ca. 2010 from Dominican so we got to see lots of old building interiors, not all of it was destroyed, just the mothership. It was like a big ornate wedding cake to God. Sadly it's not the first Victorian that's succumbed to careless contractors with blow torches
here's the Facebook link to the post.
BACKSTORY: I was able to glean this from an online newspaper search—the OCR was loaded with typos and stray articles. The information, so hard to glean, is too good to pass up, so I'm posting it here, in my notes. And besides, Conchita figures heavily into my USSR writings. I would've given my eye teeth to find this article during 1990, as it was damned hard to come by, and I found out about it accidentally when the Leningrad Rok Opera came to Fort Ross to sing Juno & Avos. That's where I met pop singer Valerie (Valera) Stupachenko standing in line for dinner at the fort, we bonded over borscht and salmon. He was part of the group that got stranded on the research vessel, the Akademik Shirshov, during the putscht. Then I later ran off to live with him in Leningrad. Wild times.

According to an article in the Daily Independent Journal, the Dominican Sisters sent two nuns to take charge of St. Vincent's Orphanage in 1868. When my grandmother's house in Forest Knolls was remodeled during the 1950s, all the windows came from that orphanage. The connections run deep. 

Daily Independent Journal, Page 62,  March 25, 1961
San Rafael, California Dominican Sisters Brought College To Marin 
Donvent and gardens—This building was the first one to be erected on the Dominican campus in i889. Solid redwood was used in the building that is when the Marin Convent was rimmed by a wide hedge and wooden gates. Later metal gates replaced the original.Today both the gates and hedge are gone. 

Twenty-one years after the Dominican Sisters sent two nuns to take charge of St. Vincent's Orphanage in 1868. the mother provincial received permission to move the order's mother house from Benicia to San Rafael. Since then the Dominican Sisters have developed a small girls’ school into one of the outstanding woman's educational centers in the West. 

The sisters arrived in California in 1850, part of a small band who had crossed the Atlantic from Paris to New York by schooner and the Isthmus of Panama on muleback reaching Monterey where they opened a school and novitiate named Santa Catalina. The following year the order received its first postulant. Concepción Arguello, daughter of Don Jose Arguello. once governor of Alia California and later of Baja California. 

Concepcion was born in 1791 at the San Francisco Presidio where her father was comrnandante. When still a very young girl, Concepcion met Count Nicolai Rezanov, chamberlain and personal representative of the Czar of Russia, Rezanov tiad traveled to California on a diplomatic mission in the early part of the 19th century. The Russian nobleman fell deeply in love with the dark-eyed California girl and asked her to become his wife. 

THE ENGAGEMENT was announced and Rezanov left for Russia to make his report before returning to California to claim his bride. But Rezanov never came back. Many years later, long after Concepcion herself was dead it was learned the Russian nobleman's ship might have been lost at sea. 

Concepcion became interested in caring for the poor and sick and when the Dominican Sisters arrived in Monterey she asked to be admitted to the order. She was accepted the following year and took the name Sister Mary Dominica. 

The Domincan Sisters moved their school and novitiate to Benicia 150 miles north to the Carquinez Straits in 1854. Benicia was the state capital. Daughters of California families were sent to complete their education at St. Catherine’s in Benicia until 1889 when the school was moved to Marin.

 In 1862. the Sisters opened a school in San Francisco. St. Rose of Lima that today is a junior and high school at Pine and Pierce Streets, and in 1870 another school, St. Vincent's in Vallejo that is still operating. 

WHEN THE CAPITAL was moved to Sacramento, Benicia fell into de- cline. and the mother house of St. Catherine's was beginning *o worry about survival. The Sisters received a loan to start in San Rafael. Land was purchased from William T. Coleman. Coleman donated half the parcel valued at $20.000. 

In 1901 Dominican became accredited to the University of California and 14 years later Dominican Junior College conferred its first bachelor of arts certificate. In 1920 with the aid of the University of California. Dominican became a fully accredited four-year college. 

IN 1924, the college was empowered by the State Board of Education to grant certificates for teaching in the public high schools and grade schools of California, and two years later Dominican was placed on the approved list of the Assn. of American Universities. 

Today the college is a member of the Western College Assn. The college has promoted a number of firsts over the years including founding of the Marin Branch of the American Assn. of University Women in 1931. In 1932, Dominican was made the Pacific Coast branch of the Catholic University of America. To celebrate the Dominican Sisters centennial in California in 1850 the college initiated a graduate schooL

(Dominican then)

Dominican Convent 
Marin County Free Library
SF Gate

(Dominican now)
Dominican Sisters House of Formation in San Rafael Becomes the First LEED-Certified Convent in the US The convent was rebuilt in 2005, utilizing modern environmental features.
Russian Rock Opera? Epic Love Story Hits Bay Area

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