Friday, April 8, 2011

Preliminary Historical Notes on DSQHR Site: 20th Century Horizon

DSQHR Lenten procession of girl students. The convent supported approximately 3000 children, mostly orphans and Native American, according to data dated 1913.

Establishment of Convent

The Dominican Sisters of the Queen of the Holy Rosary (hereafter DSQHR) is a Third Order Regular of St. Dominic operating in the United States. This particular order of religious was first established in New York in 1853 as the Holy Cross Convent of Brooklyn, New York. The founding sisters were four Bavarian nuns from the Holy Cross Convent located in Ratisbonn, then the Grand Duchy of Bavaria. The Ratisbonn convent itself was founded in 1233 CE.

The California chapter of the Dominican Sisters of the Queen of the Holy Rosary was in turn initiated by three nuns of German descent: Maria Pia Backes, Maria Amanda Bednartz and Maria Salesia Fichtner. In 1876, these three Catholic nuns were dispatched from from Holy Cross Convent, New York , to establish a school for German immigrants in the small parish of St. Boniface in San Francisco, California.

With the success of this primary mission, a separation from the Motherhouse in Brooklyn, New York, was affected resulting in the establishment of the first Motherhouse of the new Congregation of the Queen of the Holy Rosary in California. This first Motherhouse was located at Immaculate Conception Priory on Guerrero Street in San Francisco. After the devastating earthquake of 1906, the General Chapter approved the transfer of the Motherhouse to Mission San Jose.

DSQHR Lenten procession of orphans circa 1904.

Institutional Demographics circa 1913:

193 sisters, 20 novices, 16 postulates, 1 academy, 1 orphan asylum, 9 schools, 2926 pupils.

Early 20th century Site Use

The property, consisting of twenty-nine acres and the building that had been St. Thomas Seminary for the Archdiocese of San Francisco (situated at Mission San Jose) was purchased by Mother Pia in 1891 from the Archdiocese with the intent of establishing, in the parlance of the period, an Indian School.

Establishment of Orphanage and Normal School

In the years immediately after the DSQHR move to San Jose, the organization concentrated on the growth of Catholic education. DSQHR established orphanages at Mission San Jose, Anaheim, and Ukiah, and undertook to provide teachers as well as domestic help for the orphanage at St. Vincent's School, San Rafael. The resident academy at DSQHR San Jose was often a forerunner to later schools. Teaching also extended to parish catechetical work as well as catechesis on the Native American reservations, and in the prisons of San Quentin.

During the incumbency of Mother Pia as Prioress General of DSQHR, the order assumed the staffing of twenty-five schools in California and Oregon as well as seven schools in Mexico. To assure solid preparation of the sisters as teachers, a normal school was established at Mission San Jose in 1908.

DSQHR sister with view of some orchard property in background. Note surface soil turbation (circa 1906)

Preliminary Notes on Potential DSQHR Orchard 20th Century Artifact Assemblages

At the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century CE, the DSQHR convent complex supported a population in excess of 3000 individuals, the vast majority of which were children. Many of these children were from economically and ethnically marginalized groups, i.e., the working poor, orphans, and California Native American tribal groups.

Station of the Cross: note architectural feature in background.

DSQHR sisters engaged in contemplation, walking, and devotional reading of brevaries. This is a good example of religious site use and note the possible orchard in background (circa 1906).

The collection of photographs supporting these notes suggest that the orchard was juxtaposed to formal gardens immediately adjacent the convent building. The garden contained a processional path. The path and garden served a theurgic purpose within the convent’s Roman Catholic context. The path proximate to the orchard, based on photographic evidence, contained Lenten Stations of the Cross. This layout of sacred space was designed to aid in spiritual contemplation and meditation.

The DSQHR Orchard Site may be expected to yield artifacts related to children fitting the demographic profile outlined above. The site may also yield artifacts related to processional activities, the agricultural maintenance of the orchard, and perhaps the casual or incidental use of the landscape for recreational activities by small groups of children, or larger supervised groups of children.

Photographic Sources:
The C.C. Pierce Collection

This collection of roughly 16,000 principally black-and-white photographs contains the work of several photographers as well as the collections which, in some cases, they themselves formed. Some of the prominent local photographers associated with this collection are C.C. Pierce, George Wharton James, and Charles Puck. Subjects include Los Angeles and environs, California Missions, Southwestern Indians, and turn-of-the-century Nevada, Arizona, and California. Though the images date from 1860 to 1960, the major strength lies in 1890-1930 vintage Southland views.
The C.C. Pierce Collection is distinctive for its thorough coverage of city and street views and for the many images of Los Angeles architecture. C.C. Pierce, active from 1886 to 1940, was one of the leading photographers of his day. He was also a collector of photographs of Los Angeles and actively bought older photographs of the city. The George Wharton James Southwestern Native American Portraits collection was one of C.C. Pierce's purchases, acquired by him in 1902. It contains 2,000-3,000 negatives of Indians of the Southwest, along with images documenting the southwestern frontier in general.

Narrative Sources:

Charles B. Herbermann, et al. eds., The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. XIV, Simony-Tournely: New York, 1913) p. 640.

Hoffmann’s Catholic Directory and Clergy List Quarterly (Hoffmann Bros. Catholic Publishers, Milwakee & Chicago, 1886) p. 112


  1. Excellent work David. I just returned to the blog to make the first post, but this post is much more substantial than I was going to do! Kudos!!

  2. What a great post - thanks for your work, and especially for the photographs! What an intriguing supplement to Sister Karen's mini-history. Fascinating to think that the sisters were a self-sustaining community around the time those photographs were taken. And now I'm excited about the prospect of perhaps finding some early 20th century children's toys!

    Sure, there's tons we could rule out, and the kids were orphans - which means they probably didn't have many mass-produced toys. But thinking that we might find an old metal-cast toy or two is a lot more fun than only expecting to find ground squirrel tunnels! :)

  3. Woah,
    I didn't know that the DSQHR once had an orphanage asylum. So many Hollywood influenced mental images flood to me when I think of that.


  4. Hello Maria and Xia: thank you for the comments. I continue to find the history of the location of high interest. It would be nice to find some reflection of these children in the archaeological record - let us see what turns up.

  5. This is great information that goes into much greater detail than what Sister Karen had told us (she didn't have a lot of time though). I was wondering if in your research you came across the conditions under which the Native American children came to the orphanage. It would be interesting to know if they came willing or if they were taken from their communities by the convent in order to convert them to Catholicism.

  6. This is a very profound question and given the troubles afflicting the Catholic Church in the present era, a balanced answer is necessary: orphans and widows form a class which is not often studied in either the historical or archaeological record. Compounding this situation is that scholarship in English on women Catholic religious is equally scant in both disciplines for our period. Much more data is available for orphans and Native American orphans attending Protestant institutions associated with the 19th and early 20th century Office of Indian Affairs (1824-1947). There is a much larger body of historiography related to women committed to religious work operating through Protestant organizations (often founded by women). As a result, when reading through the secondary literature on the subject of Native American educational experiences within Catholic institutions run by women religious, one finds that the context is often naturally distorted by the much greater attention brought to bear on Protestant sources which were often located directly on reservations.

    If this were not enough, the period we encounter in the historical record with the DSQHR orchard site (1891-present), suffers from an almost complete lack of study in our region. I am therefore quite pleased to find my field course in archaeology confronting such a wonderfully difficult and worthy problem.
    Orphans of any stripe had little say in the course of their childhood development, particularly when it came to pedagogical choices related to schools. My initial research suggests that the Office of Indian Affairs much preferred to indoctrinate Native Americans in Protestant reservation schools rather than send Native American orphans to Catholic institutions. It should be noted that the DSQHR website itself stresses that Mother Superior Pia initially sought to establish, in the parlance of the day, an Indian School, which never materialized. This is worth pondering.

    Orphans that found themselves in Catholic Asylums (and we should take care to render the meaning in its Latin context) learned Catholicism, became Catholic, and participated in Catholic Culture.
    I was pleased to have a brief conversation with Sister Evangela about the archives at DSQHR. The period represented by the Dominican Convent in San Jose is very different from that of the Franciscan Mission. It should also be stressed that the activities and land use are fundamentally different from those of the St. Thomas Seminary that the convent came to occupy. Most obviously because of the transition from a male to female gendered religious space. Catholic female orders stress a character and quality of practice as distinct in detail as it is generally similar in outward form to the Roman form.

    The orphans spent much time in school and observing a religious regimen. I am informed that they were assigned chores and assisted in the daily needs of the convent. There is no sign of forced labor that characterizes the primary source documents dating from the mission period.

  7. It is worth noting that the Dominican Sisters that founded DSQHR in California were from Bavaria, this much we glean from the sister’s website; what is not stated is what the significance of having Bavarian Catholic nuns in California represents culturally. Catholicism in Germany during the period Bismarck was Imperial Chancellor was locked a major cultural war (kulturkampf) with the Prussian state seeking to forcibly marginalize Catholic institutions in Bavaria, Baden-Wurttemberg, and parts of the Rhineland. German Catholics immigrated in large numbers to the United States during this period and this sets an interesting context for the DSQHR. Catholicism was also developing a strong social and ethical response to both capitalism and Marxism during this same period. All of this is by way of saying that Catholic Dominican nuns engaged in teaching in the United States, a very Protestant country, were themselves seeking to preserve a Catholic culture many believed to be under pressure from a variety of sources. What does this mean for Native American orphans?

    Most of these orphans were the children of Native Americans whose generation participated in the Ghost Dance movement of the 1890s. The historiography associates this movement with the violence of Wounded Knee and the Sioux experience; however, the origin of the Ghost Dance movement is to be found in the California-Utah Paiute culture. Specifically the Paiute leader Wovoka whose visions incorporated a syncretism of both Christianity and Native American beliefs and practices. Wovoka was particularly fond of the Old Testament prophets who could command the weather and Jesus whose narratives relate walking on water. There were Native American analogues to individuals whose spiritual powers could control the elements and bring the water of life.

    Catholicism in Alta California is deeply imbued with Native American syncretic elements expressed very carefully through the veneration of saints. What Bavarian nuns had in common with Latin American Catholicism was the miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary. In the summer of 1876, about the time Custer’s 7th Cavalry was getting wiped out, and dab smack in the middle of the Prussian kulturkampf in Germany, three girls in a small town called Marpingen in the Northern Saarland, claimed to experience the miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary. It is very curious that this last quarter of the 19th century produced a large number of narratives describing such apparitions throughout Germany, Italy, France, and Spain. The Marpingen apparition was; however, very famous among contemporaries.
    Thus, when the Dominican sisters founded a convent, asylum, and schools in San Jose, the Marian element of Catholic spirituality found an equally strong Marian element already in place in the form of the Virgin of Guadalupe. To put this another way, the German Mary and the Indigenous Mary were products of cultural traditions reacting to strong hostile pressures. It is therefore fascinating for me to see that among the photographs we have for DSQHR during the early twentieth century, is one recording a Lenten procession prominently honoring the Virgin Mary, the female aspect of the divine, the sacred mother, and not the more masculine expressive symbols of Christianity (a child can be seen carrying a smaller labarum with an image of the cross).

    The Marian banner [an imperial Roman labarum], by the way, carries the Latin phrase Regina sine labe originali concepta Ora Pro Nobis [Queen conceived without original sin, pray for us]

    This element, radically different from Protestant doctrinal positions, combined with the very Latinity of early 20th century Catholicism itself, offered a cultural bridge between Native American orphans from Northern California (many of whose parents had spent time in the vast reservation in Southern California at Fort Tejon) and syncretic base of hispanized Native California.

  8. Lastly, I have an appointment at the Archives of the Archdiocese of San Francisco on Wednesday. I have no clear idea how orphans were selected for life at DSQHR during this period, but will see what I am able to find. Perhaps the sisters can aid in answering this question as well as curator Galvan.

  9. I wanted to thank you David for all your work on the history of the site. Having just completed my report, I can tell you that your historical research really helped put things into perspective. I wanted to point out- I think it was back in this post where you guessed that we may find some children's toys. I know we cannot know definitely since our soil is so mixed up, but this old guess of yours makes the jack that we found much more interesting!


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