Politics & Policy

Building the Contemplative Life in the Garden State

(Image via Nunsopsummit.org)
An hour from midtown Manhattan, a Dominican cloister looks to expand.

About an hour’s train ride from midtown Manhattan is one of the most peaceful and joyous spots I’ve found in the Northeast corridor. It’s a monastery that’s home to a group of cloistered Dominican nuns. The chapel there at their Rosary Shrine exposes the Blessed Sacrament for Adoration daily. Along with the perpetual prayers of the nuns, it is as a beacon from a summit — Summit being their mailing address in New Jersey. (And hence the address from where their soaps and the occasional puzzle are shipped.)

Pope Francis has called a “Year of Consecrated Life” in the Catholic Church, meant be a time for prayerful focus on the countercultural witness of lives lived so radically. In a letter to consecrated men and women, he said, in part:

I am counting on you “to wake up the world,” since the distinctive sign of consecrated life is prophecy. As I told the Superiors General: “Radical evangelical living is not only for religious: it is demanded of everyone. But religious follow the Lord in a special way, in a prophetic way.” This is the priority that is needed right now: “to be prophets who witness to how Jesus lived on this earth . . . a religious must never abandon prophecy.”

The Dominican sisters in Summit are, in their little community on a hill in the Garden State, the summit of freedom in many ways. In their ministry to the rest of us, they are seeking to expand. And because they are friends of mine and I thought readers here might like to know about them, I asked Sister Mary Catharine Perry, O.P., one of the nuns there, a Boston native and author (of a mystery novel, no less), to talk a little about their lives and why they are looking to grow. — KJL


Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s your centennial campaign all about?

Sister Mary Catharine Perry, O.P.: Our centennial campaign is really about celebrating and giving thanks to God for 800 years of the Dominican order (in 2016) and 100 years of our own monastery (in 2019). One of the ways we live the charism of the Order of Preachers, which is preaching and the salvation of souls, is that our monastery is a home for the Word of God, a special place given to us and given to the Church where God is adored, praised, and loved. We preach this truth not by going out and actively preaching but by being a “city set on a hill” and a “light shining from a lampstand.”

From the very beginning, Saint Dominic wanted the monasteries of the nuns to be places of holy preaching. We do this in particular by becoming a place where everyone can come and experience the presence of God and his love and mercy simply by being in his Eucharistic presence and by participating in our life of prayer.

Also, we became very aware of the limitations of our monastic building in welcoming people. The stairs and multiple levels prevent many people from coming to our monastery. We know of some people who, during the summer when the front doors of the chapel are open, park their cars and adore our Lord from their cars, since they can’t manage the stairs.

We have come to see how detrimental is our lack of a suitable area for traditional monastic hospitality. We have been hurting without an adequate place to offer hospitality to the people, especially priests, who seek to have a time of silence and prayer.

Building this new wing will also give us the opportunity to ease the space crunch we’ve experienced since the monastery was first built in 1939. We’ve been making do, and we wouldn’t dream of building a new wing just for our own needs. The basement floor of the new wing will provide us with workspace, etc. We’re really so anxious for the new wing to be a reality!


Lopez: How close are you to your goal of $4 million dollars for a new wing? 

Sister Mary Catharine: We are not quite at 50 percent of our goal.


Lopez: Why is your future growth so important?

Sister Mary Catharine: Because the Church and the world need the witness of the joy and radical commitment of monastic, contemplative life.


Lopez: Why does a small group of cloistered nuns need more space? 

Sister Mary Catharine: While our monastery building looks big from the outside and from Google maps, about 75 percent of it is church. Our chapel is nearly the size of our parish here in Summit and seats 350 people. The nuns’ part, called the choir, seats 52, but our monastery was never built for that many nuns. Our living space is built around the church. One friend described it as a church with a lean-to for a monastery.

As we grow and as the needs of the community have changed in our nearly 100 years of existence, we need more living space and workspace. The monastic cells in the professed dormitory are all filled. We have others we use for workspace — an office, a sewing room, an art room, etc. — but there is no place to move to free those cells. In 2015, the need for a sewing room may never cross most people’s minds, but for a monastery it’s one of the most important work areas. They didn’t provide for one when they built the monastery , or for offices, so the sisters have just used free cells, little corners, etc. Our growing Cloister Shoppe, with our Seignadou soap products, and our candle shop and woodworking shop are running at full capacity. These are three monastic works that we never had in the past but that are a source of revenue for us now.


Lopez: Why are guestrooms so important? 

Sister Mary Catharine: Adequate guestrooms will provide us with the ability to offer true monastic hospitality to not only the families and friends of the monastery but to our Dominican brothers, priests, religious, and laity who ask to make a retreat and to the women who come for vocation retreats. Currently we have one guestroom, in the basement. We’ve done our best to make it welcoming, but it’s not sufficient and really not conducive for someone on retreat. I mean, it’s in the basement, and it’s cold and damp and there is a lot of mold.


Lopez: What’s the quickest answer to: Who are you as a community so close to New York City and yet in many ways so far? 

Sister Mary Catharine: Well, what comes to mind is the Gospel reading the other day, about the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man asserts that there is a chasm between them. It’s sort of the same way between New York City and New Jersey. It’s a 52-minute train ride, and on a good day with good traffic it’s about an hour’s drive from the city to our monastery. However, there is a sort of cultural chasm. People from New Jersey go into the city all the time, but the city people don’t come to New Jersey so much. The interesting thing is that when we were founded in 1919, Summit was considered the “Denver of the East,” a place where New Yorkers came to escape the hot city.


Lopez: Why is your location important? A Rosary shrine and monastery could be cheaper elsewhere, I’d imagine? 

Sister Mary Catharine: We are the only cloistered monastery in the Archdiocese of Newark, one of most densely populated dioceses in the United States. Cloistered nuns are in a special way at the heart of the Church, as Saint Thérèse so beautifully said. The mystical body of Christ as manifested in the Archdiocese of Newark needs its heart!

New Jersey has become one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. It wasn’t always the case, certainly not when we came here in 1919. At the time, Summit was nearly the “back of the beyond”! However, this doesn’t mean that we should dig up our roots and move elsewhere. A monastery also has a supernatural reality, and God has a place for us here. We live in such a nomadic culture that monastic stability is really not understood. Abbot Francis Kline, O.S.C.O., who recently died, said that monastics have to become “lovers of the place.”

God has a particular mission for our community right here in Summit. And why not? Summit has often been called a bedroom community of New York. Perhaps our little monastery on a hill at the corner of Morris and Springfield Avenues points out, for the people rushing by, that there is something more to life than being successful and becoming wealthy.

The people of Summit and the immediate area love our monastery. For so many of them it is an oasis. It’s a place of silence and God’s presence in a frenetic and often violent world. Our chapel doors are open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.,  and all day long people come in and spend time with our Lord.


Lopez: What’s the best part of your day? 

Sister Mary Catharine: I suppose each sister would give a different answer, but I would say that for me the best time is early in the morning, although I never considered myself a “morning person.” Our day starts off with giving God praise in the office of Lauds, and then there is about 50 minutes for silent prayer, followed by Holy Mass. I love that time of silence and stillness. I haven’t had a chance to be distracted by many things in imitation of my heavenly sister Saint Martha.


Lopez: Are the Rosary and the Eucharist the center of your lives? 

Sister Mary Catharine: Not only the Rosary and the Eucharist but also the Divine Office, so I would say that our life is particularly liturgical. It’s what drives our day and gives each day it’s shape and meaning. The Rosary is one way we reflect on the sacred mysteries that we celebrate daily.


Lopez: Can they be the center of life for the rest of us — those of us who are out in the world?

Sister Mary Catharine: Absolutely. While in one sense we live apart from the world, in another sense, especially as Dominicans, our way of life touches the heart of the world. A life centered on God and prayer isn’t the unique purview of monks and nuns. Rather, monks and nuns have a uniquely prophetic role in the Church. Our life is supposed to get under people’s skin a little, to challenge them to focus their lives more on God and less on this world. On a personal note: My own upbringing was done in the shadow of a Benedictine monastery. I don’t think we were usually aware of it, but the lives of the Benedictines challenged us. On a day when the wind was right, we could hear their bell for the times of the Divine Office and for the Angelus. It was a reminder to us of our responsibility to pray.


Lopez: Who are the pilgrims you want to attract and accommodate? 

Sister Mary Catharine: Each and every person seeking God, and in particular those who love our Blessed Mother and trust in her intercession.


Lopez: What kind of young women are you finding God bringing to your door? 

Sister Mary Catharine: I never cease to be amazed at the women God is sending to us. They come from all over: Texas, Kansas, Canada, Ireland — and even New Jersey. Each sister is so different, but they all come with a desire to give their whole lives to God, and with a desire for the preaching of the Gospel and the salvation of souls. One common thread is their attraction to sacred study. Some come with a particular attraction to adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, others to the Rosary, and others simply to a joy that is particularly Dominican.


Lopez: What’s the future if your community? 

Sister Mary Catharine: The future is in God’s hands. He gives us the present to adore and love Him. I do think our community has a future, because I see it in my young sisters.


Lopez: This might be odd to ask a cloistered nun, but what does your personal future look like? 

Sister Mary Catharine: It’s not really an odd question. As a cloistered nun, I am blessed to know what my future will be here and for all eternity if I am faithful. What I am doing now I will be doing for all eternity: loving and praising God and interceding for his people. The other stuff, whether I’m novice mistress or kitchen sister, the one who does the laundry or the one who makes candles, are really all secondary.


Lopez: Some of you are voracious readers. What’s the latest you’re reading? 

Sister Mary Catharine: As a community we just finished The Relevance and Future of the Second Vatican Council by Cardinal Marc Oullet. For the year of Consecrated Life, we have begun reading Consecrated Life: Contribution of Vatican II by Father Dominic Hoffman, O.P., and Father Basil Cole, O.P. I have just started reading Literary Converts by Joseph Pearce. Because of my classes with the novitiate, most of my theological reading is for class preparation. Right now we are studying the liturgy, digging into the thought Benedict XVI, Louis Bouyer, Henri Dalmais, O..P, Odo Casel, O.S.B., and M. V. Bernardot, O.P. We’re also reading the Conferences of Saint John Cassian and other works on lectio divina and prayer. Although I have taught these classes a number of times, each time I read these texts I gain something from them for my own growth and, I hope, wisdom.


Lopez: How much of a financial concern is health care?  

Sister Mary Catharine: Health insurance, unfortunately, is a major part of our expenses, especially with the new laws of Obamacare. Small-group insurance has been hit especially hard. Because our median age is about 48, we have more sisters on our insurance plan than “retired” sisters. We don’t have a fancy plan or anything like that. It’s just expensive.


Lopez: Why do the nuns make soap? How is it important to your life and growth? 

Sister Mary Catharine: Dominicans are medicant, and so we trust in Divine Providence to provide us with what we need. Our Lord has never failed us! He continues to bless us with generous benefactors, often surprising us just when we think we won’t be able to pay bills. Our monastery “industry” making soap, creams, lip balms, candles, and wood products provides us in a small way with a way of working toward our support and sharing in the life of people who often have to work hard every day to provide for their families. It doesn’t cover all our expenses, of course. To have that sort of a business, we’d have to stop doing what we came here for, which is a life of prayer totally dedicated to God. Work is one part of our whole life, but it has to be kept in a balance.


Lopez: What’s your final pitch on why someone might contribute to your growth? 

Sister Mary Catharine: We are praying that the Lord will inspire people who want to be a part of something good and something of great importance and value in the Church and world today to support our building campaign. So many churches and convents are closing, but we need to expand. One glance at the news and you know that an oasis of prayer like our monastery is crucial to the world. We hope that people who believe in the value of our life of prayer will support our project.

Contributing toward our building project is a spiritual investment with a 100 percent guarantee of return. God will always bless those who give alms, and you also have the promise not only of our prayers but of the prayers of generations of nuns to come and of those already in heaven. We take praying for our benefactors very seriously, and it is truly a joy for us to do so. Each one, in a sense, because a spiritual child to us. With confidence and in a spirit of humility, we simply ask your readers to make a donation of whatever amount they feel our Lord is asking them to give. He will reward them as only he can.


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