Sister Judith Nilles and Sister Sharon Stangler sat in a quiet office at Holy Cross Cemetery in north Spokane earlier this month, reflecting on nearly 90 years of history and service. If you have not heard of the Dominican Sisters, chances are you are familiar with some of their works, including Holy Family Hospital in north Spokane, DominiCare — a caregiving program for homebound seniors in Stevens County and Miryam’s House — a nurturing refuge for women recovering from homelessness, addiction, abuse and displacement.
Sister Judith Nilles and Sister Sharon Stangler
Sister Judith Nilles and Sister Sharon Stangler.
“We tried to respond to unmet needs in the community,” said Sister Judith when describing the origins of various projects and social service programs. Hearkening to the example of St. Dominic — who left the monastery and devoted his life to preaching and teaching — the Sisters have made it a point to emphasize collaboration over isolation, serving as catalysts for programs that help the sick, poor, vulnerable and disenfranchised. The journey began back in 1925 when 11 sisters from the Dominican Order in Speyer, Germany relocated to Helena, Montana to address the domestic duties at Mt. St. Charles College. By 1938, the number had grown to 84 with sisters branching out into fields like healthcare and education. By that time, their influence had spread to seven sites in Washington and Montana. Many Sisters left Germany during the brutality of the Nazi regime. Those who arrived in the Northwest found a safe and supportive refuge at the provincial home in Kettle Falls, established in 1935. A decade later, the Order would establish its first residential site in Spokane for those Sisters attending Holy Names College and Gonzaga University. By 1963, the Sisters were involved in many hospitals and schools throughout the region, according to a history of the Sisters by Linda Sharman. In 1960, Holy Family Home, an 80-bed nursing home was serving north Spokane. The same neighborhood would see the dedication of Holy Family Hospital, a 136-bed, $3.5 million project, in 1964. Land where the hospital would be built was purchased with foresight by the Sisters as part of a 40-acre parcel in 1944. Sister Judith, who worked in Catholic schools and parish ministry and is now the secretary and service representative for Catholic Cemeteries, recalls how the Sisters did their part to support construction of Spokane’s first major hospital on the north side. “We had to live very simply so every penny could go into this building fund,” she said. In 1993, the Dominican Sisters of Spokane transferred sponsorship of the Dominican Network, which included Holy Family and several other hospitals, to the Sisters of Providence. “Providence has been a good partner,” said Sister Sharon. “They have been good stewards of the mission.” In 1995, with their numbers in Spokane declining, the sisters merged with the Dominican Sisters in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. By the late 1980s, the Sisters had established the Dominican Outreach Foundation, an umbrella organization for non-healthcare programs like DominiCare and Miryam’s House. “It’s about stewardship and a foundation that can carry that ministry forward,” said Sister Sharon, former DominiCare director, now retired. Sister Judith and Sister Sharon are among 10 remaining Dominican Sisters of Spokane, half of whom live in the Spokane area, and the other half residing in Wisconsin. The Sisters’ last communal home — The Dominican Center on Fort Wright Drive in northwest Spokane — now serves as a central hub for SNAP and is at the center of the agency’s first-ever capital campaign with a goal of raising the funds to purchase the building in late-autumn of 2013. “We wanted someone who appreciated our mission and values,” Sister Sharon said. “SNAP serves the poor and meets unmet needs as the Sisters have always done.” The Dominicans are one of four Orders of Sisters that currently sponsor Transitions, a Spokane-based nonprofit organization dedicated to ending poverty and homelessness among women and children. The Transitions administrative team and one of the agency’s programs, the New Leaf Bakery, share the former Dominican Center with SNAP. SNAP CEO Julie Honekamp, whose office is located at the Fort Wright campus, said the agency is honored to inherit the space that served as the Sisters’ home from 1970 to 2010. “The Sisters have forged a remarkable legacy of service, education and charitable work in this community,” Julie said. “Every time I go into work, I think about their enduring example of dedication and compassion and what it means to be in this building.” Story & photos by Craig Howard. Originally published: 10.17.13