Dominican Sisters are coming to St. Jude, Peoria Notre Dame

Photo Caption: Gianna Vitale, a fourth grader at St. Jude Catholic School in Peoria, meets Mother Assumpta Long, OP, prioress general of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

By: By Jennifer Willems

Another dream has come true for St. Jude’s School and Peoria Notre Dame High School.

Father Patrick Henehan, pastor of St. Jude’s Parish and School, has announced that the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist have agreed to send four Sisters to central Illinois. Two will teach at St. Jude, the Diocese of Peoria’s newest elementary school, and two will serve at Notre Dame, which is preparing to celebrate 150 years of Catholic secondary education in Peoria.

Father Henehan shared the news at all Masses on Feb. 2 and 3, the end of Catholic Schools Week. St. Jude parishioners responded with excited murmurs and sustained applause.

The Dominican Sisters of Mary are expected to be in place this summer and start teaching when classes resume in August. Father Henehan said they will be housed in a convent that is being constructed on the St. Jude campus.

“When I got the phone call from Mother Assumpta I jumped — I actually jumped in the rectory — because I was so excited about the possibilities for our students and for our school,” Father Henehan told The Catholic Post after the parish’s 9 a.m. Mass on Feb. 3.

“Our teachers are great. Our staff is great. But now, adding these Sisters enhances everything and gives us what I want, which is a very strong Catholic identity,” he said. “If we’re not sanctifying souls, what does it matter?”

The Dominican community, which is based in Ann Arbor, Mich., was founded in 1997. Started with just four Sisters, including Mother Assumpta Long, OP, prioress general, it now includes more than 115.

Not only is the community young in terms of history, but also in membership — the average age of the Sisters is 28.

“Their youthfulness brings with it a charisma and an attraction,” said Msgr. Mark Merdian, president of Peoria Notre Dame. “These are beautiful young women who have consecrated their lives to Christ. ‘If they can do it, so can we,’ may be the way the students will think.”

The Dominicans’ focus on the formation of young people is a welcome gift, he added.

“Their whole lifestyle is geared toward helping young people experience Christ. There’s a natural excitement there when you have someone who can lead you to Christ,” Msgr. Merdian said.

Both priests noted it is quite a coup to have the Dominican Sisters of Mary in the diocese, since they are in great demand.

“We’ve had over 200 requests — I don’t know how many I answered just this week,” Mother Assumpta told The Post in a telephone interview last week.

The warm welcome by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, was a crucial element in her decision to establish a presence in central Illinois, she said. He visited the Ann Arbor motherhouse with Father Henehan and was “most gracious in inviting us to the diocese.”

“The school system seems to be in sync with our own charism of education. I was impressed by the schools and what they are trying to do,” Mother Assumpta said. “It just seemed to fit, that our Sisters would be very welcome in the school system.”

They are more than welcome, according to Dr. Sharon Weiss, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Peoria.

“It is with great joy that the Dominican Sisters of Mary will be joining our diocesan educational community,” Weiss said. “What an incredible opportunity for St. Jude Catholic School and Peoria Notre Dame High School to share in their apostolate of ‘preaching and teaching the Truth in order to gain souls for the Kingdom of God.'”

Father Henehan got to know the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist through one of his former students at Marquette High School in Ottawa. Sister Maria Frassati Jakupcak, OP, was a member of St. Joseph’s Parish in Marseilles then.

She entered the Dominican community in 2001 and professed perpetual vows in 2009.

“I started to visit them to visit her,” said Father Henehan, who also served as chaplain at Central Catholic High School in Bloomington before coming to St. Jude in 2010. “Through that relationship I think they started to get to know us, because I had connections through the high schools.”

Visits to high schools in the Diocese of Peoria led to visits at the Newman Centers at Bradley University and the University of Illinois. Last year the Sisters presented a day of recollection for 200 sophomore girls from Catholic high schools around the diocese.

“It’s not just me who brought the Sisters — it’s the bishop, it’s Maria Frassati, it’s so many people who have been praying,” Father Henehan said.

During a First Friday visit, for example, an elderly parishioner told him, “It’s already done. I’ve been praying for this. You’re going to get the Sisters.”

Another parishioner offered “a substantial amount of money” to St. Jude to build a convent for the Dominican Sisters of Mary.

“I don’t know if we’ve fundraised it totally, but we’re well on our way,” Father Henehan said.

Both St. Jude School and Peoria Notre Dame are moving forward with construction projects. A new St. Jude School is taking shape at 10811 N. Knoxville Ave. as part of a $4.5 million project begun last July. In October of 2012, Peoria Notre Dame broke ground on the site of a planned new campus complex near the corner of Willow Knolls and Allen Roads in Peoria.

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