Mount professor’s video project to detail history of the Dominican Sisters of Hope

February 07, 2019

James Phillips, Mount Saint Mary College associate professor of Theatre, discussed his history of the Dominican Sisters of Hope project at the college recently. 

James Phillips, Mount Saint Mary College associate professor of Theatre, kicked off this semester’s Investigating Research on Campus (iROC) series by discussing his video interview project documenting the history of the Dominican Sisters of Hope.
Mount Saint Mary College owes much to the vision and hard work of the Dominican Sisters. St. Dominic established the first community of the Order of Preachers in the 13th century. Following in St. Dominic’s footsteps, the Dominican Sisters of Newburgh founded Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, N.Y. in 1959, using as a guideline the four pillars of Dominican life: study, prayer, service, and community. This year marks the beginning of college’s 60th anniversary.
In 1995, three branches of Dominican Sisters – Newburgh, N.Y., Ossining, N.Y., and Fall River, Mass. – consolidated into the Dominican Sisters of Hope, bringing together three cultures and histories into one.
Nearly three years ago, Phillips and Mount alumna Rebecca Gordils ’16 sought to honor the legacy of the Dominican Sisters by interviewing the members of the order. Their goals were to chronical the history of the sisters and their impact on the Mount, as well as to create a theatre project in their honor. 
As part of the 800th Jubilee Year of the Order of Preachers in 2016, the Dominican Sisters of Hope approved the project. The interviews illuminate each sister’s history, with questions related to why she joined the order, what she accomplished during her assignments, and how she benefitted from a life as a Dominican.
“The objective of the interviews is to capture the individual story of each sister, so the questions were devised with that goal in mind,” Phillips explained. “We get sisters with great stories.”
Phillips and Gordils hope to interview every living Dominican Sister of Hope, around 150 at the time of this writing. As of January 2019, they’ve gotten about one third of these interviews completed, some recorded with optimal sound and lighting, others filmed at nursing care facilities, outside conference centers, and a myriad of other locales.
“We will go where the sisters live,” Phillips said, noting that for some sisters, health issues are a concern. “It would make it impossible for them to get here. So we go to them.”
Each sister has something wonderful to contribute to the project, even if she doesn’t believe so, said Phillips.
“They are extraordinary women we are interviewing, with fascinating stories to tell,” he said. “We owe it to them and our future students to preserve their legacy.”
During interviews, the sisters sometimes remember details that would otherwise have been lost to time. For example, “Consistently, sisters tell us that the white habit [worn many years ago by the Dominican Sisters of Hope] was incredibly difficult to keep clean,” Philips explained. 
Another stories are well known. One such story that has been part of Mount Saint Mary College lore for many years was told by Sr. Catherine Walsh, OP, communications professor emerita. During her postulant year in 1963, Sr. Walsh lived in Guzman Hall, taking college courses. But before stepping through those doors for the first time and starting her journey, she smoked one last cigarette. With the last exhale, she threw away her cigarettes for good, leaving behind her old existence and embracing the religious life fully.
The interview project will culminate with a Mount student performance using a script adapted from interview transcripts. It will follow in the footsteps of Notes from the Field, which playwright Anna Deavere Smith recently performed at the Mount for 9th Annual Center for Adolescent Research and Development (CARD) conference. Smith’s play edits and reshapes transcripts from many interviews, and Phillips and Gordils will use a similar technique to create a powerful, authentic script celebrating the legacy of the Dominican Sisters of Hope.
“Everything spoken by a specific character was said in an interview. The intention of the speaker remains, but the language itself is reduced to only what is essential,” noted Phillips.  “The performance will allow our students to learn about the women who founded the college through speaking their stories.”
Phillips and Gordils hope to have a script prepared during the 2019-2020 school year, with a performance by the end of 2020.
The goal of the college’s iROC is to “provide a forum for Mount faculty, staff, and students to showcase their research endeavors with both Mount Saint Mary College and the local community in a manner easily understood by attendees,” explained series coordinators Evan Merkhofer, assistant professor of biology, and Jennifer Park, assistant librarian for access and outreach services. Presentations include research proposals, initial data collection, and completed research projects.