Our Foundress, Mother St. Dominic of the Cross

Source:  Called to Serve Marie Thérèse Retout O.P.

Family Background

Our foundress, Reverend Mother St. Dominic of the Cross, was born Marie Thérèse Joséphine Gand, on July 16, 1819 at Boulay in Lorraine, France, into a deeply religious family.  It was on account of their belief in God and royalist sympathies that the family was forced to leave their then home and to settle eventually in Chalon-sur-Saône.  Her father and her aunt, a Benedictine nun, made arrangements for her to pursue her education with the nuns at the age of 13.  However, this did not work out as Marie Thérèse could not bear the separation from her family and eventually returned home.

Vocation to Religious Life

However, seeds had already been planted.  In 1835 Marie Thérèse visited her aunt to let her know that she herself wanted to become a nun.  Contrary to expectations, she did not join the Benedictine Order like her aunt.  Rather, she was attracted to a group of Dominican nuns whose fledgling monastery was located in Chalon.  She entered on August 3, 1838 and was given the name, Sister Dominic of the Cross.  On March 19, 1839 she received the Dominican habit from the hands of the bishop of the diocese.  It was a time of great uncertainty but Sr. Dominic was sustained by her confidence that she was pursuing the will of God for her life.  On March 21, 1840, at the age of 21, Sr. Dominic of the Cross made her perpetual profession.

Mother St. Dominic of the Cross overcame many challenges in the course of her religious life.  At the age of 19, she was directed by her Prioress to write the future Constitutions of their young community and to teach in the school.  She was subsequently responsible for the reorganisation of the monastery and school and appointed Novice Mistress on February 4, 1850 and later Prioress of the community.  It was in 1852 that she received into her community at Chalon the three Bonnardel sisters for religious formation.

Her character

Mother St. Dominic of the Cross guided the French Congregation of St. Catherine of Siena with courage, wisdom, humility and patience through good times and bad:  through turmoil within her own congregation to the peace of restoration, through the sorrow at the untimely passing of her sisters to the joys of the foundation of new communities, through political upheaval and war.  She excelled in her ability to balance both the contemplative and active aspects of Dominican life.  She was endowed with a great power of love, a strong faith, a vivacious character with an understanding and compassionate heart.  She was never afraid to make decisions and to apply them with firmness.  She was a loyal and sincere person, generous, magnanimous, intelligent and particularly mindful that religious formation must be attentive to study.  It is said that she used to say to the sisters: “What is the love of God when it is not founded on knowledge?  It produces a sentimental piety based on the moods and imagination of one’s temperament.”  She herself wrote extensively.  Her works include the Constitutions of the Congregation, the Memoir of the Congregation (1861-1904) and six other memoirs concerning various foundations, the biography of Fr. Francois Balme, OP, who served as her counsellor for many years, Lives of the Sisters of the Congregation in five volumes and a Day in the Dominican Way of Life, among others.

Mother St. Dominic visited Trinidad and Tobago for the first time in 1889 at the age of 70.  The occasion was the inauguration of Holy Name Convent and the date – March 21, 1890 – was chosen to coincide with the 50th anniversary of her religious profession.  It was a truly joyous and memorable time.  She stayed in Trinidad for six months.

Our Foundress spent 69 years of her life in the convent and was professed for 67 years.  She served the Congregation as Prioress General for 53 years and died on February 2, 1907 at the age of 88.  By the time of her death, eleven convents had been established, four of them in Trinidad.