Return of the Dominicans

  • Written by Nathan Whalen
  • Published in NW Stories
Dominican Sister Mariana Thayer, shown with her first-grade class last year, is teaching kindergarteners this year at Our Lady Star of the Sea School in Bremerton. Photo: Courtesy Our Lady Star of the Sea School Dominican Sister Mariana Thayer, shown with her first-grade class last year, is teaching kindergarteners this year at Our Lady Star of the Sea School in Bremerton. Photo: Courtesy Our Lady Star of the Sea School

Women religious join the team of lay teachers at Bremerton school

When eighth-graders at Our Lady Star of the Sea School found out their new teacher, Dominican Sister Maria Caeli Parmeter, liked Star Wars, someone gave her a lightsaber.

Soon Sister Maria Caeli was wearing her rosary on one hip and the lightsaber on the other, said Matthew Jordan, who graduated with the Bremerton school’s eighth-grade class in June.

Dominican Sisters
Dominican Sisters Maria Caeli Parmeter, Daniela Bennett and Mariana Thayer are starting their second year as teachers at Our Lady Star of the Sea School in Bremerton. It’s been two decades since women religious were members of the teaching staff. Photo: Jennifer Sokol

Matthew said he appreciated that Sister Maria Caeli wasn’t afraid to show who she was and had the humility to admit when she made a mistake. “She was very, very good helping us learn our faith,” he said. “She was the best teacher I’ve had.”

The presence of Dominican sisters during the 2017–18 school year after an absence of two decades was “a real delight for everyone in the parish,” said Father Derek Lappe, pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish in Bremerton. Principal Jeannette Wolfe said the sisters fit in well with the rest of the teachers and staff, and teacher Kevin Kealy said it’s been great having Sister Maria Caeli teaching religion.

“She’s a living example for the kids. She brings a whole new view and look at it,” said Kealy, who teaches math, science, computer science and language arts for various grades at the school.

And Sister Daniela Bennett, who taught fifth grade, worked with Kealy and other teachers as part of a professional learning community to improve math instruction for their students, he said.

Parishioner Sarah Sexton said Sister Daniela helped demystify women religious for her daughter, Lisa, and helped her envision religious life.

“It was a blessing to have her as my daughter’s teacher,” Sexton said.

The three sisters — Sister Daniela, Sister Maria Caeli and Sister Mariana Thayer — are returning to teaching assignments at the school this fall.

“I hope to bring the joy of our Dominican life to the parish,” Sister Maria Caeli said.

Teen journey sparks the idea

The idea to bring women religious back to Our Lady Star of the Sea School was sparked about seven years ago when Father Lappe accompanied 14 parish teenagers to an Ignite Your Torch youth conference in Kentucky. During the trip, they stopped by the Nashville headquarters of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, a community of more than 300 religious sisters whose average age is 36, Sister Daniela said. (The congregation includes one of Archbishop J. Peter Sartain’s sisters.)

Father Derek Lappe
Father Derek Lappe

The teens loved visiting the motherhouse, Father Lappe said.

“Their reaction made me realize how wonderful it would be to have the sisters come out and be part of our parish community,” he said. “We knew it would be a fantastic addition to our school.”

When Our Lady Star of the Sea School opened in 1926, three Dominican sisters taught 110 students in grades 1–6, according to a history on the school website. Enrollment steadily grew and, by 1944, 12 sisters taught some 500 students in grades 1–8. Gradually, the number of sisters dwindled, and in 1994 the last Dominican, Sister Amanda, retired.

When deciding to bring women religious back to the school, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia were chosen because of their worldwide reputation as Catholic educators, Father Lappe said.

The school began working in 2013 to pave the way for the sisters to arrive, Wolfe said. A group of Star of the Sea parishioners traveled to the Nashville motherhouse to give a presentation about their parish and school, as well as the surrounding area, Father Lappe said.

The parish needed to provide an appropriate environment for the sisters — access to daily Mass and regular confession, and a residence suitable for religious life. So the parish transformed its 6,000-square-foot rectory into a convent (a smaller rectory was built across the street from the church). A significant addition to the convent was a chapel with an altar crafted by Father Hans Olson, pastor of St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Everett.

The chapel is “definitely conducive to our life in times of silence,” Sister Daniela said.

Dominican Sister Daniela BennettDominican Sister Daniela Bennett teaches her fifth-grade students about self-discipline, responsibility and how to become saints and future leaders of the church. Photo: Courtesy Our Lady Star of the Sea School

Engaging with the parish community

When the sisters arrived during the summer of 2017 to fill vacant teaching positions, they found the parishioners welcoming and with a deep love for Jesus, said Sister Mariana, who taught first grade.

Besides their teaching assignments, the sisters have engaged with the parish community. Sister Maria Caeli organized praise and worship nights and started a mothers’ group, said Alexis Jordan, Matthew’s mother. She also has helped with the parish’s Fidelis program for girls in grades 6–12.

Dominican Sister Maria Caeli Parmeter
Dominican Sister Maria Caeli Parmeter, who played sports with her brother growing up, teaches eighth grade and religion at Our Lady Star of the Sea School in Bremerton. Photo: Courtesy Our Lady Star of the Sea School

The sisters have enjoyed being part of a Christ-centered environment and building community in the school and parish, said Sister Daniela, who joined the Dominicans in 2012 after attending Benedictine College in Kansas (“I knew I wanted to do something radical for the Lord,” she explained).

Sister Mariana began discerning her vocation while in graduate school at Franciscan University of Steubenville and took her final vows in 2012. Sister Maria Caeli worked with NET Ministries before taking her final vows in 2011.

While busy teaching classes and helping out in the parish, the sisters also have incorporated prayer and contemplation into their lives: daily Mass, regular reconciliation, a half-hour of meditation in the chapel, prayers together in the morning, then evening prayers including vespers and the rosary, and finally, compline at night.

“We are contemplative as well as active,” Sister Daniela said. “We can bring that to the world through our apostolate.”

After spending the summer taking graduate school classes, the sisters are eager to return to their classrooms at Star of the Sea.

This year, Sister Mariana will be teaching kindergarteners. “Her enthusiasm, coupled with her classroom demeanor and focus on our faith, will be a beautiful stepping stone for these new kindergarten students as they begin their school career here,” Principal Wolfe said in an email. “We thought it would be a nice entrance to our school to have a sister as a teacher.”

Northwest Catholic - September 2018