Sisters fill their convent to the seams

Within the walls of the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, New Jersey, rows of simple crosses mark the graves of sisters who have gone before. It’s a potent symbol of life in the monastery, where women enter cloistered life intending never to leave, even in death.

These Dominican nuns have been in this place of peace for almost 100 years, sustaining the Church every day through their prayer and devotion. And while many religious orders are facing an aging religious population and steady decline, these sisters have seen the opposite trend.

In the past 10 years, 12 new women have entered the life, seven have stayed, and a steady stream of new young women visits to discern whether or not this is the life for them.

‘A happy problem’

With more women visiting to discern whether or not they have a vocation to cloistered life, the Dominican sisters find themselves with a happy problem: The monastery has run out of room.

Every bit of available space is being used. Cells originally built for nuns are being used as workrooms and offices, reducing the number of new sisters they can bring into their community. People who come to visit are housed in cramped basement rooms.

A 10-by-10-foot windowless room houses their few pieces of exercise equipment, and nuns in need of physical therapy must use the refectory for their workouts. With that room located across the hall from a series of windows opening onto the chapel, the activity can lead to the disruption of prayer and adoration. There also is limited space to care for older sisters, and no elevator or access for the handicapped.

Though the sisters produce a popular line of soaps, lotions and other products to help defray their costs, the business is outgrowing the room allotted for it. There isn’t even space for a gift shop, so items are stacked on shelves and racks at the entrance to the chapel.

Tight quarters

Dominicans
The Dominican sisters make a popular line of soaps, lotions and other items that they sell both online and at their monastery. Courtesy photo

The problem is one with roots in history. Fifteen nuns, lead by Mother Mary Imelda Gauthier, founded the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in the Summit area beginning in 1919. But they soon outgrew their original space.

After the sisters arrived in Summit, women began making a pilgrimage to the site in honor of Our Lady of the Rosary. In the 1930s, this grew to encompass thousands of pilgrims arriving to pray at a fieldstone grotto.

The sisters began to plan for a new monastery and chapel in 1925, but the Depression delayed construction for 10 years. When they began again, the bishop said they had to build on the existing footprint. Unwilling to sacrifice a larger chapel, the nuns opted to make their living quarters smaller. Today, these quarters run around the outside of the chapel with two stories above ground and one below, and it’s a tight fit.

Mission of sacrifice

The novice mistress of the monastery, Sister Mary Catharine Perry, attributes the sisters’ growth to grace, but also to the fact that “(we) know who we are and have a strong sense of our identity.

“We help women respond so they learn if this is what they’re being chosen for,” she said. “If a person wants to pray all day, that’s not enough. We’re primarily called to nurture and bring souls to Christ. It’s a life that’s calling you out of yourself before others.”

Dominicans
The cloistered nuns in Summit, N.J., have seen their order grow as 12 new sisters have joined — seven of whom have stayed — in the past 10 years. They have plans to expand the monastery. Courtesy photo

The monastery is a remarkable place, full of young, joyful, spirit-filled women. They are attracting novices not merely to religious life, but to one of the most challenging forms of religious life: that of the cloistered contemplative.

“There is something about the Dominican charism that is responding to something young people are looking for today,” observed Sister Mary Catharine.

“We have one foot in an order established for preaching and the saving of souls, yet we are also fully monastic,” she said. “St. Dominic knew that the order had to have both.”

“We express our role in the holy preaching by standing before God, interceding for the preaching mission and for the salvation of souls,” Sister Mary Catharine added. “To be a Dominican is to have an apostolic thirst: this desire for the preaching of the Gospel, and yet you know that God is not calling you to do it yourself, but through prayer. The two expressions complement each other.”

Their mission is a vital one, and often misunderstood. Sister Judith Miryam Boneski tackled the main misconception about cloistered life:

“It’s not just about ‘me and Jesus,’” she said. “It can be tempting to think I want to go to a monastery because I want to pray all the time. You can do that anywhere. You don’t need a monastery for that. This is a calling to lay down your life for others.”

They do this through prayer, gathering for it seven times a day ­­— as well as Mass and adoration — amid a schedule of work and study that has them rising at 5:30 a.m. and not ceasing until Compline, sometimes known as Night Prayer, at 9:30 p.m.

Two “extern” sisters do any work taking place outside of the monastery, while the rest remain cloistered except for emergencies.

More space

A planned 5,500-foot addition to the property will give the women much-needed space to welcome those who are discerning or open their doors to other visitors.

“Both the Church and the order is telling us that the way we take part in the New Evangelization is by being here and making our life available to people to experience — for us to be a place for people to come and be with God,” Sister Mary Catherine said.

“We keep getting requests,” she added. “We just don’t have the space for that now.”

Thomas L. McDonald is a catechist in the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey. He blogs at the Patheos Catholic Channel under godandthemachine.com.

Plans for Expansion
The nuns want to build a 5,500-square-foot addition to their monastery, and they need $4 million to do it right. They plan to expand the existing monastery to include three more guest rooms for women who are discerning a vocation, as well as new a dining room, sitting room and other facilities. They’ll add visiting parlors and a decent gift shop, as well as new work rooms and offices. All of it will be attached to the existing structure with access to the chapel. This will free up space for more nuns and give women discerning a vocation a place to stay. It will also provide quarters for other visitors, including family of the nuns and retreatants.