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February 15, 2005 > Circles of Caring

Circles of Caring

A circle is a powerful symbol. This perfectly balanced cipher is without beginning or end and speaks equally to the space within and outside its boundaries. It can imply effortless motion or concentration on a specific point in time and space. Looking beyond the borders of the circle, space is beyond dimension and infinite - the domain of God - while visualizing this phenomenon's borders and interior can be used as a temporal social reference.

The combination of both circle concepts can be applied to the Dominican Sisters mission: to live and proclaim Jesus Christ through evangelizing, preaching, education and promoting justice and peace. Dominican Sisters lead rich and vital lives filled with respect for life and a dedication to education and peace, especially among the young, poor and vulnerable.

The Dominican Sisters are inspired by over 800 years of history beginning with Dominic de Guzman, born in 1170 in Caleruega, Spain whose wisdom and vision enabled him to integrate the best of the contemplative and apostolic life. A statement by the Dominican Sisters encapsulates their ideology: We are religious women energized by the love of our Lord, God, committed to building communities of faith in a variety of educational ministries, women who love deeply and serve generously . . . women who make a difference.

To fulfill the promise of their congregation (Congregation of the Queen of the Holy Rosary), Dominican Sisters have, since their founding by Mother Pia Backes over 125 years ago and in the spirit of St. Dominic, served in schools, hospitals, with social services and in a wide variety of professions through a "vowed life." Over 350 Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose can be found working throughout the U.S., Mexico and Germany. The spiritual center and administrative "heartbeat" of these good works is the "Motherhouse," located in Fremont behind Mission San Jose. The grounds of the Motherhouse include living and dining quarters, study areas, administrative offices, chapel and a caring center which opened in 1956.

The caring center, named St. Martin Residence for Elderly Sisters, is a place for those who have faithfully served the spiritual and physical needs of others to complete their circle of life. These sisters may be frail and in need of physical support who come "home" to a place of dignity, solace and worship within the heart of the Dominican Sister community. Design of the existing chapel and adjacent caring center raised questions of accessibility and quality of life for sisters in need of assisted living. A project of retrofitting for earthquake protection led to a discussion of quality of life issues and the desire to provide a warm, attractive and inclusive environment for the caring center. An ambitious plan called "Circles of Caring" was the result calling for a $10.8 million renovation of chapel and caring center.

It is understandable why the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose use the term "Circles of Caring." At the Motherhouse, the circle of spiritual and earthly concerns will be addressed seamlessly. Circled areas are themes of a new garden area accessible to all including those housed in the caring center. The chapel will also feature wheelchair and walker accessibility along with a refurbished stained glass gallery of windows allowing natural light to fill the chamber.

Chapel and care center spaces have been designed for ease, comfort and practical use by the congregation. Safety is a primary concern and the buildings have been cleared of hazardous materials and protected with approved sprinkler systems. The refurbished chapel will include a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and an improved sound system and more natural and efficient lighting. A new, lighter look will greet sisters at prayer and extend to the care center spaces.

The St. Martin Residence for Elderly Sisters will now include new flooring, individual bathrooms, specialized shower and bath facilities, improved elevator access, better dining and preparation facilities and common rooms for family and friends to visit with residents. Improvements will allow easy access to the chapel and the new rose garden. For Sisters who are unable to leave their rooms, a closed circuit TV installed in all 27 rooms will allow them to see and hear daily Mass celebration. Each room features individual heating and air conditioning controls. Although refurbishments will ease living conditions for sisters needing assisted living care (average age of care facility residents is 87 years old), the new design still reflects the simplicity of the lifestyle they have practiced through their many years of service.

A tour of the new facilities is impressive even without full knowledge of the previous facilities. Dominique Mintz, project director said that Circles of Caring has been a great challenge and success as it nears completion. It is currently in its "very final stages" and will soon be ready for occupancy. It has been designed with a "feminine quality" and inclusive features developed with architect Armando Ruiz through discussions since 1995. For instance, the new baptismal font has been designed with layers to accommodate wheelchair bound participants.

Mintz added that design considerations are well thought out extending even to small details. As an example, "The motif of the Motherhouse - the olive - has been incorporated into the flooring." She adds that the chapel's liturgical pieces, designed by Ruiz, were crafted by Ernie Valentino who worked on them with the "pure love of craftsmanship." The Sisters asked that two key features - the sanctuary light and the tabernacle - were to be visible from any part of the chapel.

In the chapel, every single stained glass window was removed, unleaded, pulled apart and dipped in a cleaning solution and re-leaded - work that lasted about a year. The result is vibrant color and a significantly increased amount of light showing through the windows.

Although some funds were raised towards the expense of this immense undertaking prior to construction, the total amount necessary including costs of complications (i.e. the contiguous buildings were actually found to be separate structures requiring additional retrofit requirements, a water leak in the garden area required additional design and repair, etc.) was a challenge.

People whose lives had been touched by the Dominican Sisters and many who respect their mission joined the effort, including schools. St. Edward School in Newark hosted a "Movie and Pajama Day" when kids (and teachers) watched Finding Nemo and gave a donation to the Dominican Sisters. Sister Karen Elizabeth Zavitz, principal of St. Edward, was able to present over $1,000 to the construction fund from the fundraiser.

St. Catherine's Military Academy principal Sister Mary Menegatti, OP sent a check for $5,000 to the fund. An accompanying note said that the money was the result of a "day of caring" in which "the students took part in various activities to raise money." She added that the financial gift "is the result of the love of our students, faculty, staff, parents and friends - with a matching sum from our honor of all our Dominican Sisters who have served in any way at St. Catherine's."

Among the many welcome donations from individuals and groups was a large envelope received from Colegio Junipero School in Mexico. Unknown to the local Dominican Sisters, children of this community were busy gathering funds to help the reconstruction effort. Inside the envelope was a rainbow-colored thermometer indicating progress towards a goal of $10,000. Accompanying the chart was a check for $10,000.

Over a year ago, 25 sisters left a care facility that had one shower and bathing room, no sprinklers, no air conditioning and small, seismically unsafe rooms with walls filled with asbestos. The adjoining, gloomy chapel was unable to accommodate them denying adequate access to the spiritual center of their lives. A "new" St. Martin Residence and adjoining chapel is scheduled for completion Easter 2005. The new alter will be blessed using olive oil from Motherhouse grounds olive trees by Bishop Cummins on April 3. This year's celebration promises to be one of great joy enhanced by the realization of another miracle of planning, determination and generosity.

For some of the Dominican sisters, viewing the new facilities will be an update of previous visits during construction while others including Sister Charlotte Shea, will be viewing it for the first time. Sister Charlotte said she prefers to get the full impact of the change at one time. She is in for a breathtaking experience.

Note: Circles of Caring is still in need of additional funds to complete this project. Those who would like to help are asked to contact or call (510) 657-2468 ext. 308 to arrange a pledge, receive updates on the project and visit the Motherhouse.

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