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photo: Philippe Jeannin, OP

From 1206-2006: Dominican Nuns Celebrate the 800th Anniversary of Prouilhe’s Founding

Sister Barbara Estelle Beaumont, OP

The nuns are indeed the elder sisters of the Dominican family, having been founded nearly ten years before the Order of Preachers came into being. Their first site, Prouilhe, was initially a refuelling stop for priests combating the heresy of Catharism in southwest France. (Catharism was an anti-Catholic, ascetic movement that saw the world as evil and denied the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.)

This first monastery at Prouilhe was essentially a work of mercy on the part of Dominic, not the fulfilment of some abstract dream about the beauty of enclosed contemplative life. It was a practical response to an urgent pastoral need. What was he to do with the small group of Cathar women he had converted at Fanjeaux, and how could he stop other young women from impoverished Catholic families from being seduced into heresy through the free education the Cathars offered? Obviously a safe house was necessary. A monastic community grew out of these unpromising beginnings, thanks to donations of land and goods and to willing lay helpers.

Dominic did not opt for the easy solution and affiliate these ‘converted women living religiously,’ as they were described in one of the earliest Prouilhe documents, to an existing religious order such as the Cistercians. This was possibly a sign that he was thinking of something new in the Church, a foundation that would embrace both brothers and sisters in the same religious family. The sisters at Prouilhe received their official status as nuns ‘moniales’ (Latin for nun, usually a contemplative who observes enclosure) at the same time Pope Innocent III took the Friars Preachers under his apostolic protection, on October 8, 1215.

The community at Prouilhe flourished, and in 1219 was able to send eight sisters to help Dominic’s second female community at San Sisto, Rome. Within a hundred years of Dominic’s death, foundations of nuns of the order spread rapidly throughout Europe, from Portugal to Poland, from Sicily to Scandinavia. The first overseas foundations were made in Latin America – Mexico, Peru, and Ecuador – before the end of the 16th century. The other continents had to wait a good while to see their first monasteries of Dominican nuns: North America in 1880 with the foundation at Newark, N.J., and Africa and Asia not until the second half of the 20th century.

Many crises in history have disrupted the development of Dominican monasteries, but they never disappeared completely from the map. The French Revolution and its aftermath was by far the worst, leaving Prouilhe itself abandoned for almost a hundred years, from 1792 to 1880.

Today there are 235 monasteries worldwide, with roughly 3,500 nuns. About half of them are Spanish-speaking, with 82 communities in Spain and 47 in Latin America. There are exciting new foundations underway: a first monastery for Vietnam, founded from Farmington Hills, Mich., and also for India. The vocation of nuns of the Order of Preachers is lived out in widely differing ways, according to local culture and custom, yet all remain faithful to the charism of St. Dominic, following the same rule of St. Augustine and the same book of constitutions.

The author’s home monastery is Monastère de Marie Médiatrice at Herne in Belgium. She is associated with the International Community at Prouilhe for historical work in connection with the upcoming jubilee.
A commemorative album, 800 years of Dominican history at Prouilhe, edited by Sister Barbara and published by éditions du Signe, is scheduled for publication in April 2006.

reprinted with permission from Just WORDS, newsletter of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, IL
February 2006

photo: Philippe Jeannin, OP

chapel: photo:
Philippe Jeannin, OP

photo:Margaret Ann Cox, OP (Springfield)

photo:Margaret Ann Cox, OP (Springfield)

photo:Margaret Ann Cox, OP (Springfield)

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