Conversation with a Cloistered Nun

Sister Mary Catharine Tells It Like It Is

In this fascinating, candid interview, Sister Mary Catharine, OP, takes Regina Magazine on an intimate journey through the life of a thriving cloistered community of Dominican nuns.

Q. Where is your Order? How long has it been there?

Our Monastery of our Lady of the Rosary is in Summit, New Jersey, a bedroom community of New York City and a quick 52 minute train ride from the city.

Summit is a very Catholic city with a small town feel. We began our monastery 94 years ago in 1919. Summit was considered a healthy place to live away from New York. It was touted as the “Denver of the East” for its high altitude!

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We began our monastery 94 years ago in 1919.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about its founding? About the Dominicans in general — brief history?

The Nuns of the Order of Preachers were founded by St. Dominic and his bishop, Bishop Diego in 1206, ten years before the friars. So, we are their elder sisters!

Actually, St. Dominic never planned to found anything. Stunned by the Albigensian heresy rampant in southern France he began preaching to bring the people back to the truth.

The Albigensian hersey was based on a dualist god: the god of spirit (the “good” god) and the god matter (the “evil” god). Because of their austere way of life the heretics attracted many people. Converting these people back to the Catholic Faith was not easy.

A group of women, used to living the austere life of the heretics, converted to the Faith through the preaching of St. Dominic.  A man of great compassion, St. Dominic saw that he now needed to take care of their physical needs.

Many of these women were disowned by their heretic families and had no place to live. So, he gathered them together at a little abandoned church, Notre Dame du Prouilhe and gave them a habit, rule of life, etc. They were desperately poor and St. Dominic would beg for them. 

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From the very beginning these first moniales were associated with the Order through their prayer and penance. In fact, the first monastery itself was called “the Holy Preaching” which is a powerful testimony to the witness of monastic-cloistered life.

The early nuns were called the Sister Preacheresses although they were cloistered and never went out to preach! The vocation of a Nun of the Order of Preachers is unique because we are fully monastic and contemplative but part of an evangelical and apostolic Order. One has to have a deeply apostolic heart yet find its expression not in the apostolate but in a life of hidden prayer.

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Many of the first Dominican nuns were disowned by their heretic families and had no place to live. So, he gathered them together at a little abandoned church, Notre Dame du Prouilhe, and gave them a habit, rule of life, etc. They were desperately poor and St. Dominic would beg for them. 

Q. Tell us about the famous St. Dominic.

For the first 10 years St. Dominic preached almost entirely alone in southern France. He had companions for a while but then they left. I’m sure he received great comfort in having the monastery as his “home base.”

St. Dominic would preach all day and pray all night. We know from the testimonies of the early friars that he wasn’t a quiet person when he prayed! He would groan and shed copious tears. He would cry out, “O Lord, what will become of sinners!”

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His life of prayer and preaching is lived out in the Order by the Friars and Nuns in a complementary way: the friars go out to preach while the nuns carry within the innermost sanctuary of their compassion all sinners, the downtrodden and the afflicted. Like Esther, they go before the King pleading for the salvation of all. Like Moses, they raise their arms in prayer while the battle rages below.

What is commonly not known is that the friars and the nuns are united not just spiritually but juridically through our profession of obedience to the Master of the Order. Together we form the Order of Preachers. We have distinct but complimentary ways of expressing the Order’s mission to “preach for the salvation of souls”.

Q. What is a contemplative’s life like?

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To answer this question fully would take several books and at the same time it can’t really be expressed!

I think the first word that comes to mind is JOY. Not that there aren’t hardships as in any vocation but through it all there is a deep abiding joy because I am totally consecrated to God to love and praise Him. The contemplative vocation is a gift beyond words and one for which I will be thanking God for all eternity!

For Dominican contemplative nuns the Word of God is primary. Our constitutions state that the monastery is to be a place where “the Word of God can dwell abundantly in the monastery.”

So, first we ponder the word through lectio divina and through theological study, we sing Mass and the entire Divine Office; we listen to God’s Word as it is expressed through our sisters.

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To answer this question fully would take several books and at the same time it can’t really be expressed! I think the first word that comes to mind is JOY.

Q. How is your Order governed?

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Our manner of government is ordered so that our fraternal life can be “one mind and heart in God”.  This means we come together as a chapter to discuss things so we can make a decision that is truly centered in God and not just what I want. This isn’t always easy. It requires that we listen to our sisters and that we be willing to be changed. We have to allow grace to be operative in us. The goal is not majority rule but consensus.

Q. What is your work and daily life like?

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Our life is intensely liturgical. Holy Mass and the Office shape our day. Everything else is fitted in around it. So, with liturgical prayer, private prayer and our privileged hours of the “adoring Rosary, which is praying the Rosary before the Blessed Sacrament exposed in the monstrance we have about 5 to 6 hours of prayer each day.

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Our work is simple, like that of Our Lady at Nazareth. We do the cooking, cleaning, sacristy, laundry, answer the mail, pay the bills, the garden, soap department, etc. Young women are always surprised at how full our days are. You go to bed tired at night!

During recreation times we like to just be together to talk, play games, go for a walk. There is a lot of laughter. Someone once said that our recreations are “high energy!”

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We like to just be together to talk, play games, go for a walk. There is a lot of laughter. Someone once said that our recreations are “high energy!”

Q. Many people, if asked, would probably guess that living in a cloister is very limiting. Is this true? 

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The cloister frees us immensely! One of the biggest fears in those discerning a contemplative vocation is that the cloister is seen as squashing freedom but it is just the opposite.

The cloister broadens us. It frees us from so many cares and concerns, even something as simple as not minding a stain on my scapular! This freedom isn’t from things so much as for something, really for Someone!

The enclosure is the ‘Garden Enclosed’ of the Song of Songs. Our life is entirely centered on Christ our Spouse alone.  Papal enclosure is a great gift of the Church that allows us to live our contemplative life well.

When I have to leave the enclosure for something necessary I am always so glad to be back. The world is so noisy, both audibly and visually. I really don’t understand how people stay sane!

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The cloister frees us immensely! One of the biggest fears in those discerning a contemplative vocation is that the cloister is seen as squashing freedom but it is just the opposite.

Q. Your Order never gave up their habits. Do you think this has affected your stability, as compared to other orders that did?

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I entered long after the upheavals of the 60’s but I have never heard either the nuns or the friars even question whether we should give up the habit. The habit is our Blessed Mother’s gift to us and we treasure it dearly.

Actually Dominicans consider only the scapular as the habit and is the only part blessed. Well, the cloistered nuns also have their veil blessed during a beautiful part of the Solemn Profession rite called the Blessing and Imposition of the Veil. The veil is blessed and then the prioress solemnly veils the newly professed. It’s very beautiful.

Every nun in the world wears the habit! There might be slight variations of hem height, sleeve width, veil style but we all wear the habit. Get a group of nuns together at a meeting and eventually we’ll be asking each other the important question: “Where do you get your fabric from?” The habit is a non-issue.

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I entered long after the upheavals of the 60’s but I have never heard either the nuns or the friars even question whether we should give up the habit. The habit is our Blessed Mother’s gift to us and we treasure it dearly.

Q. So where does the stability come from?

I think our Order’s stability comes first from a tremendous gift of God. We are nearly 800 years old and we have never had a division. We’ve come close but it hasn’t happened.  There is only one Order of Preachers. One constitution for the friars: one constitution for the nuns.

Do you realize what a gift of God’s love this is? In his address to the Poor Clare nuns at Assisi, Pope Francis emphasized that the devil wants to destroy a community by causing division. The Order of Preachers from the very beginning has had a great devotion to our Lady and I think it is her protection that has kept us united.

Although St. Dominic died just five years after the Order was founded he left us with such a remarkable charism and form of government that it has shaped the Order these 800 years. Our manner of government is crucial to our stability. And most of all the preaching mission of the Order is perennial for each generation and time. One of the wonderful things about being such an old Order is that we’ve made every mistake in the book but we trust in God’s mercy and that of our sisters and brothers.

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One of the wonderful things about being such an old Order is that we’ve made every mistake in the book but we trust in God’s mercy and that of our sisters and brothers.

Q. How are your vocations doing?

In the past eight years we’ve had twelve postulants enter and seven have persevered so far. This is such a blessing. Our young sisters come from several countries and all over the USA. Each sister is so different!

We’ve received more vocations in the past 8 years than in the past 50!

Can you tell us some recent vocation stories?

Our Sr. Mary Magdalene of the Immaculate Conception, O.P. is a native of Kansas and in college was part of the party scene. One night she lay in bed and realized that if she continued along this path she would die. It was a moment of grace when she says she was given the opportunity to choose. Gradually, she began attending Mass at the Newman Center at college that had a holy and dynamic priest.

One day she told him she thought she had a religious vocation; an idea that terrified her. At his suggestion she visited a Carmelite monastery nearby to experience cloistered life which she didn’t even know existed. At the end of her weekend she said, “These nuns are crazy and I think I might be as crazy as they are!”

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At the end of her weekend she said, “These nuns are crazy and I think I might be as crazy as they are!”

She began a 54 day rosary novena and made the total consecration to Our Lady according to St. Louis de Monfort which was a source of great grace as well. She wrote to many monasteries and became attracted to the Dominican charism. About the same time the Newman Center at college received the total 10 tickets for the state of Kansas for the Papal Mass of Pope Emeritus Benedict at Yankee Stadium, NYC. This was in 2008. Because this was considered the official Mass of the Holy Father’s visit to the United States every diocese in the country received a certain number of tickets. As you can imagine the further west, the fewer tickets!

She wrote to our monastery asking if she could visit and in her less than 24 hour visit and on the 57th Day of her Rosary Novena she knew that this was the place God was calling her. She is now preparing for Solemn Profession next year.

Another of our new sisters is Sr. Mary Cecilia of the Annunciation, O.P. She is an extern sister. The extern sisters have what you might call a vocation within a vocation. Externs are contemplatives but they are not bound by papal enclosure because their vocation is to serve the needs of the monastery in a way that makes it easier for the nuns to live their cloistered vocation. So, externs do the shopping, go to vocation events, represent the community at functions such as funerals or special Masses, fundraisers, etc. In many ways it is a demanding vocation. As much as possible the extern sisters live the same life as the nuns do but still fulfilling their responsibilities.

Sr. Mary Cecilia is from Saskatchewan, Canada and was a lay missionary with Catholic Christian Outreach in Ottawa. She attended some theology classes taught by Dominicans and learned of our monastery. She began emailing intrigued by what seemed a contradiction: fully contemplative yet belonging to an Order whose mission is to preach the Gospel! I had a hunch Janlyn had a vocation and perhaps even to contemplative life.

At one point I contacted her with the excuse that I needed her new address to send our newsletter and she responded telling me that she would be attending two vocation retreats in New York. I immediately invited her to come for a visit since we are a convenient 52 minute train ride from the city. She accepted because she thought it would be nice to meet me and because between retreats she had an extra day and needed a place to stay!

As she shared her lay missionary work with me, Janlyn tried to explain the value of her part of it which was in administration, working behind the scenes and not on campus working directly with students. I kept agreeing, nodding my head affirmatively.

Suddenly she looked at me, burst into tears and said, “Oh, no! I think I have a contemplative vocation!” She left us the next morning wondering why she was even going to the retreat with the Sisters of Life.

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Suddenly she looked at me, burst into tears and said, “Oh, no! I think I have a contemplative vocation!”

A few months she was unexpectedly called into the office of the president of Catholic Christian Outreach who invited her to be part of a missionary group going to China during the summer Olympics. She loved everything about that trip but it also confirmed that her part was to be a hidden life of prayer. She has a special love for the Chinese people because of that trip.

 Q. How do you sustain your life, financially?

We are mendicant and dependent on Divine Providence. God always provides and we have many wonderful friends and benefactors. Whenever there is a needed repair the Lord provides with unexpected resources and it can be done! God is so good to His spouses!

We also have a small business selling the soaps, creams, lip balms, room sprays, candles, woodcraft we make and books we publish. Mostly this is through the internet and the monastery’s tiny gift shop although we have some wholesale customers as well, mostly Catholic gift shops, retreat centers, etc.

Click Image to Visit Our Shop

Click Image to Visit Our Shop

We also have a small business selling the soaps, creams, lip balms, room sprays, candles, woodcraft we make and books we publish.

Q. How did the idea for a soap and candle business come about?
We have a guild of about 70 volunteers who help us by serving as receptionist, drivers, etc. and every year we make a little Christmas gift for them. For some reason, lost in time, it’s the novice mistress’s responsibility to take care of this and someone suggested soap to me. Seven years ago, one Sunday afternoon in August I spent time searching the internet about how to make soap and learned a lot!

At about the same time our daily offerings were really down—sometimes receiving no more than $5 a day—and we had just received 4 postulants so our healthcare insurance really went up! We began selling our soap in the gift shop. We were going to have only 5 varieties. That lasted about 6 weeks. We now make hand crème and lip balms using our own formula, room sprays and now candles.

We are a relatively young community. I think our average age is about 47, so that means we have a large healthcare insurance expense. Since, unlike the active sisters, we don’t teach or bring in a paycheck, the small income from our Seignadou Soaps has proved to be very helpful toward meeting those costs.

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At about the same time our daily offerings were really down—sometimes receiving no more than $5 a day—and we had just received 4 postulants so our healthcare insurance really went up!

Q. Who is your chief soap-maker?

Right now the novitiate sisters are assigned the work of the soap room. When a postulant enters she gradually learns all aspects of it. Although there may be sisters who are more “expert” than others, tomorrow another may be given the assignment of learning the craft while the “expert” is assigned to another job in the monastery.

It works out well because the soap room is only busy at certain times of the year. The sisters in the novitiate have formation classes and that is the priority.

Q. What kind of people come to pray at your chapel?

People from all walks of life come to our chapel. The doors are open from 6AM, when we pray Lauds, until about 7PM at night and everyone is welcome.  All day people come to be with our Lord. Some are regulars who come daily and spend hours. We have several “rosary groups” who use our chapel on certain days. For example, we have mother-daughter group that prays the Rosary every 1st Thursday of the month. Other groups schedule a time to visit our chapel.

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 Some people come to our monastery to purchase our Seignadou Soap products and find that we have a chapel open all day long. Amazed, they ask, “You mean I can come and pray here?” We never thought of soap as a means of evangelization!

Q. Why else do they come?

We’re not only a monastery but a shrine, the first shrine in the USA to our Lady of the Rosary. But we’re not a touristy type shrine. The focus is on spending time with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, which is exposed every day and three nights a week. 

We also have a replica of the Shroud of Turin that dates back to 1624. It was commissioned by the Duchess Maria Magdalena, the wife of Cosmo di Medici. It was laid on the real Shroud and the story goes that the stain on our shroud copy appeared when it was lifted up from the Shroud.

In 1988 a team of scientists did a “dry run” on our shroud copy in preparation for their testing on the real Shroud and they did some tests of the side wound stain on our copy. They said that the DNA was the same on both. Our shroud copy in our chapel is the source of much devotion for many people who visit and that is even more important.

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Our replica was laid on the real Shroud and the story goes that the stain on our shroud copy appeared when it was lifted up from the Shroud.

Q. I’ve heard that the beauty of your liturgy is quite a draw.

Our liturgy draws people to our monastery. It’s not unusual for someone to call up to ask the times for when “the nuns do the singing”. Often someone else has told them about the beauty of our chant.

We have a dear friend who is Jewish and an artist. One evening she was worried about some family problems. She decided to visit the chapel on the advice of a Catholic friend. She heard us singing Vespers behind the grille and was so taken by the beauty of the chanting that she contacted us and eventually did a trilogy of books featuring the monastery as seen through her artwork.

Often, at Rosary and Sext at 11:30 PM or Office of Readings and None at 3:00 PM, it’s not unusual to see 10-15 people in the extern chapel. We’re happy they join us for the Office as we believe that this is the most important gift we can give to people—the opportunity to simply BE with Jesus who is here for us 24/7!

Our monastery is situated on a hill in a city called Summit. Like our father, St. Dominic we are meant to radiate the light of Christ. Not in words but in with our life. Eight hundred years later, we are still Sister Preacheresses, still a Holy Preaching!

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Our liturgy draws people to our monastery. It’s not unusual for someone to call up to ask the times for when “the nuns do the singing”. Often someone else has told them about the beauty of our chant.

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