Dominican Sisters in Iraq: a tale of devotion and courage

Dominican Sisters in Iraq

The story of the Iraqi Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena speaks of enduring struggle over more than a century to the present moment. It is a tale of hope and courage triumphing over despair and ignorance.

Guillaume de Montferrat was the first Dominican father to visit Iraq. He was the disciple of Saint Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order. Guillaume visited Mosul, northern Iraq, and Baghdad in 1235. Guillaume was followed by Riccoldo de Mont Croce, who travelled and preached extensively throughout the Middle East for over 12 years.

Riccoldo lived briefly in Baghdad, witnessing the sale of Christian slaves after the fall of Acre in 1291. A lone survivor, a Dominican nun, told him how the entire community had been put to the sword. He came across a mound of Dominican vestments, blood stained habits, breviaries and books.

During his stay in Baghdad, Riccoldo clashed with the local Nestorian Christians, preaching against them. He was allowed nonetheless by the ruling Mongol authorities to build his own church with the interdiction to preach in public. This enabled him to establish a foothold for the Dominican order in Iraq.

Father Pierre Duvall, the head of the Dominican mission in Iraq, facilitated the arrival of six French nuns. They reached Mosul on November 7, 1873. The newly arrived nuns set up a convent for the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation of Tours and later the Sisters of St.Catherine of Siena. Their original house still stands in Mosul.

From the outset, the order had a clear vision: to serve the Christian and all other Iraqis in equal terms. They wanted to provide religious education for girls and nursing the sick. The sisters engaged in catechesis work, pastoral work and hospital ministry. Initially, they set up many girls’ schools and clinics in northern Iraq. The pious nuns served assiduously in the area around Mosul, travelling between numerous villages despite the rugged and often harsh winter terrain. They opened an orphanage and a primary school in Mosul. In the surrounding country side, workshops for sewing and embroidery were established. Many local women were taught how to read and write.

The Dominican nuns played a major role in establishing women monastic life in Iraq. They set up the first and the oldest congregation of Iraqi nuns in the history of modern Iraq. This was in Mosul in 1877. Women were recruited from diverse Eastern Catholic and non-Catholic traditions (Chaldean, Syriac, Orthodox, Armenian and Nestorians).

During World War One, the Turks and their Kurdish allies persecuted all the Christians under their domain. The area went into turbulence. Several Christian villages and dioceses were burned and pillaged. Death lurked in every corner. Seven of the nuns were killed, three of them were savagely tortured before they were killed, and the rest were all scattered.

Despite these tragic events, the nun's faith blossomed amid death and the devastation of war. The superior nun decided to approach the Holy Father in Rome to allow them to re-start their convent in Mosul.  The permission was granted and they set up a new convent by the name of 'Saint Katrina Al Syriania'. The building was inaugurated on April 30, 1927.  It was a remarkable sight to see, women age 50-60 years consecrated to God, who for the first time would be called sisters and live under one roof.

In 1928 the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation opened a private school for girls and an orphanage in Bab Al-sharqi, a modern district of Baghdad.  This was the first private school for girls and was unique for its high standards of education and discipline it offered. The school continued to be popular until it was put under the government jurisdiction during the early part of the 1970’s.

During the thirties, the Presentation Sisters worked in many government hospitals of Baghdad as nurses.  They taught nursing and Midwifery to Iraqi women.  The first Iraqi nurse was a member of their order.  The Dominican sisters felt that they have achieved their mission’s objectives in Iraq and decided to return to France to rejoin their convent.

The Dominican Order needed somebody to enforce rules in the new convent. They got a nun from France to teach and uphold the rules for the convent. Sister Mary Amy was appointed to assist her and the convent director, who took care of the administration, until they elect the Mother Superior. On July 3, 1933, the religious committee met and voted for Sister Mary Amy to be the first General Superior and the first Mother Superior of the Convent of Saint Katrina Al Syriania.

During her tenure, Sister Mary was able to opened many kindergartens for girls and boys, helped many young women to live the Christian way. Mother Mary Amy before she became a nun, had opened many centres for teaching Christianity, mathematics and the Arabic language, in the North of Iraq.

In 1937 the Dominican sisters commissioned work to build a modern private hospital. It was inaugurated in 1950, with the name of St  Raphael. A nursing school followed in 1962. The school trained and graduated hundred of nurses who served in the government health sector.  More than 120 native Iraqi sisters belong to the congregation and at some point before the invasion of Iraq,  the sisters ran 10 schools with over 2,500 students.

In 1992, the sisters opened the Al-Hayat maternity hospital, which offered a 24-hour emergency clinic. The Dominican sisters who serve at the hospital spend long hours helping the doctors to save the most dangerous cases of pregnancy.

After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, most of the institutions run by the sisters remain closed or deserted, especially outside the autonomous region of Kurdistan. The hospital of St Raphael is still running, despite the killing and looting that goes on in Baghdad.  It is managed by Sister Maryanne Pierre.  The Sister, who studied nursing in the United States, remained steadfast and defiant to serve the Iraqi people.  Sister Pierre kept treating patients even as bombs fell around her and looters ransacked nearby buildings.

"This is my job to stay here to help people," she said in an interview with CBS News. "Even during the first Gulf War we stayed.  It's our duty to stay here for all the people."

On July 22, 2003, while everyone in the Motherhouse was sleeping, a missile hit the wing of the Novitiate where three postulants were asleep. The bomb shook the entire building, shattering all the windows. Thanks to divine care, none of the Sisters was injured by the bombing; only the building sustained damage. It was the first of many attacks on the Motherhouse over the ensuing years.

In an interview with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, two Iraqi Dominican nuns recounted their efforts to serve the Church and the needy in the nation amidst war and violence.

“When the bombs started falling in Baghdad and people started to flee, we opened our convents to families,” said one nun. “We gave people a place to stay … Years ago, the government nationalized our Catholic schools. After the regime fell, the government gave the buildings back to us. We let displaced families stay in the schools, too. We made sure people had the necessities to live. Our pantries were always empty, because we always gave everything away.” They added: “early in the crisis, especially in 2003 and 2004, most of Iraq’s hospitals closed down, we ran the Al-Hayat Hospital in Baghdad, and we stayed opened. We stayed open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We stayed open for the people.”

Despite growing numbers of Iraqi Christians fleeing their country, the Dominican sisters are committed to their mission of helping to shape a better future for Iraq and all her people. They have set goals to build schools and hospitals for those remaining in Iraq and to give hope to all Iraqis.

By: Robert Ewan