By KATIE BORKOWSKI
While researching family history, Madonna Dries Christensen – a native of the Diocese of Sioux City – discovered a unique story. A mother and her four daughters all entered the convent on the same day, nearly 80 years ago.
Although Christensen has not lived in the Diocese of Sioux City since 1959, she still has connections here.
Christensen was born on an Ashton farm in 1935. Her family moved to Sibley in 1942, where she lived until 1959. Her two older sisters, who are now deceased, lived in Sioux City their entire adult lives. Dolores Dries Campbell was a parishioner at St. Boniface Parish and Sybella Reiners was a member of St. Michael Parish.
Campbell’s daughter Kelli Solsma is Christensen’s niece and diocesan seminarian Alex Solsma is her great-nephew.
Christensen’s great-uncle, Father Herman J. Dries from Ashton, was the first priest ordained in the newly-formed Sioux City Diocese in 1902, and the first priest from the diocese to celebrate 60 years as an active priest (mainly in Willey).
Christensen learned about the women who embraced a vocation as nuns doing family research in the 1980s
“That in itself was astonishing, but there was additional intrigue,” she said. “The daughters had been members of a well-known all-girl band, The Texas Rangerettes. This evoked a vague childhood memory of my mother mentioning cousins who were in show business. The mother and my grandmother were first cousins, and my mother was the age of the oldest daughter.”
The mother was Mary McLaughlin Jones and the four daughters were Hazel, Gladys, Dorothy and Evelyn. The mother grew up in Iowa, near Mason City, and the girls grew up in Park Rapids, Minn., where The Jones Quartet entertained at local events. The family later moved to San Antonio, Texas, where the four young women and two others formed The Texas Rangerettes and traveled the country performing.
As women religious, Mary Jones became Sister Pius. Hazel became Sister Jude. Gladys became Sister Genevieve. Dorothy became Sister Catherine. Evelyn became Sister Dorothy.
“As my research continued, I learned that it was the first time in religious history that five women from one family entered the convent at the same time,” Christensen said. “Upon discovering these cousins through genealogy, I became fascinated and intrigued with their musical and spiritual journey.”
In 1938, they entered the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament in San Antonio, and went on to teach music and other subjects in San Antonio and other small towns in that area.
“My letter to the sisters at Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament Convent in San Antonio brought a reply from Sister Dorothy, the youngest of the four,” said Christensen.
In the letter, Sister Dorothy wrote, “It was nice to hear from you. I doubt that I can furnish you with as much information as you might need, but I’ll do my best. I should be happy to hear from you as you complete some history.”
A few months later, Christensen received a letter from Sister Catherine letting her know Sister Dorothy had passed away. She then corresponded with Sister Genevieve, who provided pictures, newspaper articles and anecdotes that “revealed the personalities” of each of the women.
“I pieced together an article about them that appeared in Catholic Digest, Reminisce and Family Tree Magazine,” said Christensen. “The sisters enjoyed their early life being revived. After each publication, I received letters and phone calls from people across the country. Some were related to the sisters or who knew them as children; others had seen them perform and were delighted to find out what had happened to them.”
Story to book
After Christensen’s story was published in the Tampa Tribune, a Los Angeles woman contacted her and proposed she be a consultant on a screenplay she would write based on the material about the five sisters.
“She wanted all rights to the story for three years,” said Christensen. “Although I believed Swinging Sisters would make a delightful movie, my concern that the story might become lost in a Hollywood version convinced me to retain sole rights to the work.”
“Swinging Sisters is a fictional account of the lives of the Jones sisters and their mother,” said Christensen. “With roots in the Irish famine of the 1840s, the sisters were raised in a Catholic household in rural Minnesota, where religion, family and music were their mother’s trinity.”
She explained that those who knew the Jones family “should understand that because my information about them came late in their lives, I needed to create fictional situations, dialogue and characters in order to present the essence of the way it might have been. Whenever possible, facts were used. Information pertaining to convent life is general and might not be exactly as it would have been at Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament, but I believe all are typical scenes of the era.”
All royalties from Swinging Sisters go to the retirement fund for the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament in Victoria, Texas.
“I’m still in touch with the nuns there, some who knew the five extraordinary Jones women,” said Christensen. “For those who didn’t know them, their story is legendary in the annals of the order.”
During the past 30 years Christensen’s writing has appeared in more than 100 publications, with three Pushcart Prize nominations. For 20 years, she edited and published a local memoir magazine, Doorways. The diocesan native now lives in Sarasota, Fla., with her husband Gary.
Christensen is currently a contributing editor and columnist for an online publication, Extra Innings. Swinging Sisters and her other books can be found by searching her name on www.amazon.com.