Over 120 Years of Life—Dream…Change…Growth
Mount Saint Dominic Academy was officially founded in 1892 by the Sisters of St. Dominic. However, as described in the Religious Tradition section of this website, the Caldwell Dominican congregation was initially based in Jersey City with its roots tracing back to the Convent of the Holy Cross in Regensburg, Bavaria, Germany. In the 1880’s though, as Jersey City became ravaged by tuberculosis, things changed. The Mother Prioress at that time, Mother Mary Catharine Muth, sought out a location for her ill sisters to recuperate. History tells us that Mother Catharine’s brother Joseph took her and a couple of other sisters one May day in 1884 for a drive west in his horse and buggy to find such a refuge.
The Dominicans in Caldwell
At the time, twenty miles west of Jersey City- a day’s ride in those days, was an area called “the Denver of the East.” The town of Caldwell, located on the western slopes of what was termed the “Second Mountain” had in the 1850’s started attracting city people seeking clear air and water in the summer. In 1884 Mother Catharine purchased the Harrison Estate on Roseland Avenue containing a small home and garden and in addition to caring for the sick sisters started teaching both day students and boarders. Over the next decade as the number of students increased necessitating larger quarters, Mother Catharine and the sisters would move to several locations in the Caldwell area.
The Property “On Top of the Hill”
In 1891 Mother Catharine envisioned building a sizeable, permanent new home on the property “on top of the hill.” In 1893 her dream was realized as the cornerstone was laid for a new Motherhouse convent and school in Caldwell. Architecturally, the building was designed to resemble the original Motherhouse in Regensburg, Germany. In a cost saving measure, the sisters carried the bricks by hand from the railroad station at the bottom of the hill.
Once built, the Motherhouse served both as a convent and school with accommodations for boarders. Both grammar and high school students were taught. Until 1920 boys also attended the grade school; in 1920 they were only accepted for grades 1-3 and none after 1940. The grade school would stay open until 1980. As Sister Lois Curry, O.P. notes in her history of the Caldwell Dominicans, ” a true family spirit existed between the students and teachers as they went about many occupations, academic and recreational, dramatic productions, concerts, trips, snow rides, and hay rides.”
Until 1903 the Dominican Sisters tried to maintain a cloistered lifestyle, retained from their German origins and tradition, along with their teaching ministry. But by the early years of the 20th century, this had became too difficult and some of the demands of cloistered life were eliminated. The sisters then became Third Order Dominicans. This change gave the sisters the freedom to devote more time and energy to their duties in education.
In 1912 the Motherhouse officially moved from Jersey City to Caldwell along with the Novitiate. This increased the need for more space. So, in 1915 a three story school with a theater, auditorium and dormitory building, Mercedes Hall, was constructed across from the Motherhouse. About the same time, additional adjacent parcels of land were purchased.
Building a Significantly Larger School
By the late 1920’s however, additional living and teaching space was needed once again. This time Mother Joseph Dunn, Mother General from 1927 through 1945, led the expansion effort. After tearing down Mercedes Hall, a new, significantly larger building of Gothic design was constructed. The complex comprising Rosary Hall and Aquinas Hall was dedicated on September 23, 1931 by Bishop Walsh of the Newark diocese, Caldwell’s mayor and scores of other dignitaries. Another ceremony to inaugurate the auditorium was presided over in October by the famous speaker, Monsignor, and later Bishop, Fulton Sheen. As with the previous structures the building housed the school as well as a residence for those boarding. In spite of the Depression and World War II years, the school flourished.
In the 50’s applications increased and with that, a strain on the existing facilities. This time, Sister Germaine, principal of the Mount, headed the improvements and renovations. To help make way for additional classrooms, offices and a larger library, the school stopped taking boarders in 1958.
The Dream Goes On
In the years since there have been additional physical alterations and expansions to accommodate the changing needs of the school and student body. To address the explosion in women’s athletics and the much greater variety of sports played competitively by Mount students today, Sister Frances Sullivan, Head of School, spearheaded the construction of a new 19,000 square foot Athletic Center, completed in 2008. Stage II of this capital campaign was to renovate the former gym into a state-of- the-art Performing Arts Center. The newest building is the Doris M. Byrne Performing Arts Center. Named for an alumna of The Mount, this 400+ seat theater occupies what used to be our gymnasium/auditorium, which was constructed in the late 1920’s. The new facility offers a Broadway quality experience for performers and patrons while maintaining the elegance of the time when it was originally built.
Both of these projects not only provided upgraded facilities to The Mount, but serve and are available to the greater West Essex community as well.
The Caldwell Dominicans’ Other Endeavors
Caldwell Dominicans founded other academic institutions in New Jersey including St. Dominic Academy in Jersey City in 1878, Lacordaire Academy in Montclair in 1920 and Caldwell College (Caldwell University in 2014) in 1939.
In addition to their teaching mission, the Caldwell Dominicans have expanded their ministries over the years to include advocacy for justice, pastoral life, affordable-housing and social services. Through preaching, publishing and sponsorship of Genesis Farm in Blairstown, NJ, a learning center for earth studies, the congregation has become recognized leaders in promoting Environmental Justice.
*Sourced, excerpts from Sister Peggy Ann Clinton, OP, July 2003 from her research:
Saint Dominic by Simon Tugwell, OP and Women After His Own Heart by Sister Lois Curry, OP
Both books available in the Religious Studies Office