The Congregation of St Cecilia, based in Nashville, Tennessee, is a community of well-educated women, about 260 in all, who run academic institutions across the United States, but particularly in the southern states.
It was founded in 1860 from Ohio by the then Bishop of Nashville, James Whelan. A school was built and given the name of the St Cecelia Academy, and the new congregation also took up this third century martyr as its patron.
By 1935, when the congregation celebrated its 75th jubilee, there were 115 sisters with over 2,000 students in 14 schools, not only in Tennessee, but also in Virginia, Illinois and Ohio.
Since 1988 there has been an increase of over 100 sisters with a median age in the mid-thirties. They have expanded their apostolate into even more schools across the country including the Denver, Washington DC, Birmingham and New Orleans dioceses.
After the recent hurricane their school in New Orleans was the first one to be cleaned up and reopened. In gratitude for their work in keeping up morale in the city, President Bush included their school on the list of places for Prince Charles to visit on his good will tour of the States. There is no evidence that they managed to convert the Prince, but footage of him smiling alongside three young sisters did make it onto an ABC world news report.
Every year the Congregation takes in an average of a dozen new postulants. In 2005, 16 entered, including Claire Lindorff, a young Australian from Anakie in Victoria. Other Australians are known to be tempted but are living in hope that the Congregation might set up a foundation in Australia so that they don't have to live so far away from home.
Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney will be visiting the Congregation in 2006 to direct a retreat for them, and his visit will no doubt foster the interest of the Congregation in things Australian.
The fact that vocations are literally pouring in has created a space crisis in the Motherhouse. When all the members are home the chapel is too small to accommodate them all, with some of the sisters living in rooms at a nearby motel. In response to this situation, the Sisters have undertaken a $45 million expansion project that includes the construction of a completely new chapel large enough to take congregations of around 400 people. By May 2005 the Sisters had raised 82 per cent of the $45 million from friends of the Congregation across America.
The major work of the Congregation within Nashville itself is the conduct of a Liberal Arts College called Aquinas College. Aquinas offers degrees in teaching, nursing and commerce. The fact that it is set in the Bible belt creates some amusing marketing problems for its Faculty. They often receive enquiries from people who think that the College has some link to the Dominican Republic in the West Indies.
However their nursing graduates are very highly regarded in the local hospitals and they therefore have quite an impact on the life of the general community. This raises the profile of the college, notwithstanding the fact that Catholics are a religious minority in the region.
Aquinas College is built on a beautiful estate with a "Gone with the Wind" white mansion in its centre and a primary school on the perimeter of the property. As a consequence the sweeping green lawns of the campus are dotted with small children in tartan pinafores as well as nuns in the trade-mark Dominican black and white habits.
One of the key features of the curricula of the college is the attempt to integrate a theological dimension into each of the courses, so there is no sharp dichotomy between sacred and secular subjects.
The success of the Congregation tends to be attributed to the leadership of Mother Marie William MacGregor, a woman who was expelled from secondary school for smoking cigarettes. She steered a steady course through the chaos of the 1960s and '70s. When she received some directive from Rome to the effect that no-one should be given the habit of the Order until her final profession, meaning that someone could be in the Order for seven years before ever wearing a habit, Mother MacGregor interpreted the word "habit" to mean the full kit with all the trimmings.
She decided to reserve some parts of the full regalia for final profession, but still have the novices wearing the basic habit from the day of their first profession. She also realised that the contemplative nature of the congregation had to be kept alive and that the moment members of the congregation could skip communal prayers in order to attend lectures, visit the poor, or anything else, the whole operation would fall apart.
The special charism of the Dominican Order is to give to others the fruit of one's contemplation and study. The Congregation therefore has a strong interest both in education and in a life of communal prayer. Every evening at the end of the Office, the entire Congregation chants the Salve Regina while walking in procession to a side altar dedicated to Our Lady. The sight and sound of some 260 nuns doing this is a spiritual treat for anyone despairing of the relevance of religious life in 2006.
Dr Tracey Rowland is Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne. Further details about the Congregation can be obtained from their web-site at www.nashvilledominican.org