Dominican Sister Mary Catharine Perry is the novice mistress of The Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, N.J. (a congregation of cloistered nuns ranging in age from 24-95, with a blog at monialesop.org).
A Massachusetts native, she is also the author of a work of fiction set in a monastery. In an interview to mark the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, she provided a deeper window into the cloistered life in the New York metropolitan area and does what Dominicans do so well: teach about the Rosary to those of us outside monastery walls.
You and your sisters celebrated Rosary Sunday this past weekend. What was that all about, and why is it a different day than the feast this Friday on my Catholic calendar?
The feast of Our Lady of the Rosary was instituted by our Dominican brother Pope Pius V in 1571 in thanksgiving for the victory of the Battle of Lepanto, which pushed back the Muslim invaders. St. Pius V had called on all Catholics to intercede for victory through the prayer of the Rosary. Incidentally, until that time, the Hail Mary was only the first half of what we pray now. The rest was added about that time.
Pius V instituted the feast, first called Our Lady of Victories, on the first Sunday of October. Dominicans always kept it on that day in our calendar, even when the Church celebrated it on the 7th. Now, we celebrate Our Lady of the Rosary on the 7th. It’s the patronal feast of our monastery.
Shortly after we were founded in 1919, a group of lay women from Paterson, N.J., came on pilgrimage to honor Our Lady of the Rosary, and thus began the “Rosary Pilgrimages.” They grew and grew and, before World War II, there were as many as 30,000 who came for the big May pilgrimage. There were special buses and trains.
It’s really amazing because we were in a temporary monastery, not in the beautiful monastery we live in today. Nothing happened here, yet people came. We have a round stone chapel that was a shrine to Our Lady. People even experienced cures and left their crutches there. This grotto is now within the enclosure. Unfortunately, it needs a lot of repair, but the expenses are too great right now for us to be able to do it. Perhaps before our 100th anniversary it will be possible.
The October pilgrimage was instituted during World War II to pray for the end of the war and for peace.
What’s so special about the Rosary that you have a whole shrine there in Summit?
The Rosary is about contemplating the mysteries of our salvation. Blessed John Paul II called it a compendium of the Gospels. Over and over, when Our Lady has appeared, she comes with the Rosary. The Rosary is all about Our Lady leading us to Christ. It a prayer that is really fundamental to what it means to be not only a Catholic, but a Christian. It’s good to see that more and more Anglicans and Protestants are discovering the Rosary.
Do you worry we have lost our devotion to the Rosary? Do you pray that you can help that?
I don’t think we’ve lost devotion to the Rosary. There is a whole new generation that loves Our Lady and the Rosary. Yes, in the ’70s it seemed devotion to the Rosary could be lost, but God didn’t allow that.
How did you wind up in a cloistered convent in New Jersey?
Twenty-one years later I still ask myself that question. I’m a native of Massachusetts, and New Jersey wasn’t exactly on my top-10-favorite-places-to-live list. I had been a novice for two years in an active community, but felt God was calling me to something else.
While with my former community, I had the privilege of going to Rome. We were at St. Sabina’s, the headquarters of the Dominican order, and there I got the grace of “meeting” St. Dominic. That was the first grace of a Dominican vocation. Later, I visited the Nashville Dominican sisters and was astounded to realize that God was calling me to contemplative life. I later found out that, basically, I was the last one to figure this out. My spiritual director had been praying for two years that I would see this.
A friend, who is now a Cistercian nun, gave me our vocation booklet. I came to visit, made an aspirancy (live-in), and I entered. It was really only after a few years that I could look back and articulate what attracted me to this monastery. God gives a vocation to a particular monastery. He knows where we can best flourish and grow in holiness. Ultimately, it was because I fell in love with God and wanted to give myself completely to him. The grace of the vocation is him saying, “This is how you can best do that.”
Most of us know Dominican sisters as teachers. Maybe we had them in school. How do you fit into the whole Dominican picture?
The nuns are the “firstborn” of St. Dominic. In 1206 in Prouilhe, France, he gathered together nine women who had been converted from the Albigensian heresy, and they became the first monastery. You might say that they were “Dominican” before they were the Order of Preachers. It was 10 years before the friars came together.
From the very beginning, St. Dominic understood the nuns as integral to the preaching mission of the order. The nuns not only pray for the success of the holy preaching, but our life in community is itself a preaching because we witness to what the brethren preach … the reconciliation of all things in Christ.
The nuns ponder the Word, so that, as the prophet Isaiah says, “The word of God may not return empty but may still bear fruit.” Our role in the order is very feminine. We receive the Word, and the Word becomes mysteriously fruitful.
How many of you are there, and what do you do besides pray — and make soap?
There are 20 sisters in the community, ranging from age 24 to 95. Eight sisters are in formation — one sister is preparing to make first profession in December and another to make solemn profession early next year. The amazing thing is that there are more discerning with us and preparing to enter. We haven’t had so many vocations in over 50 years.
Our life is very simple and ordinary. A monastery is a big house, and a community of 20 nuns is a big family. So we do the ordinary household tasks like cooking, cleaning, paying the bills. We sew all our own clothing. We do graphic design and a lot of printing for in-house needs like Christmas cards, answering all the prayer requests that come in, the newsletter, etc.
There is the care of the sacristy and chapel (our chapel seats 350 people), and we do limited vestment work. One sister makes votive candles from the altar-candle stubs. We have a small garden, too.
Pretty much, we fit in a full day’s work in the short periods of work in the morning and afternoon. Our first work is prayer — we sing the entire Divine Office, and each sister takes either a half hour or an hour for the adoring Rosary. We have the privilege of perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and to this we add the prayer of the Rosary. There is always someone in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.
So, how did you and your sisters come to make soap (which you, of course, sell on your website)?
We have a volunteer guild of about 70 members, and every year we try to come up with a little thing for Christmas to show our appreciation for all they do for us. We were tired of baking, and one Sunday afternoon about four years ago, I was trying to think of something we could do for that year. I remembered that once a friend suggested that a good source of income was to make soap. I hadn’t a clue what the process was, so, since I like to learn how to do things, I spent a pleasant afternoon learning that there was a world out there of people who make soap and love it. I got information together and said to the prioress, “We can do this.” So, we did. And one thing led to another. We initially were going to have five scents of soap, but that lasted about three weeks; and by Christmas, we had about 10.
People were very receptive, and we got great feedback on our soap. We eventually expanded into hand cream, lip balm and room sprays. I got a lot of help from soap experts online. We had a lot to learn, and made some rather wild mistakes. Eventually, we got too big for the small bakery in the basement; we had sort of just taken over. Now we have a nice size room, but it’s still too small. It’s still quite a small business and nowhere close to providing the income we need for the upkeep of our monastery and the support of the sisters. The blessing of new vocations has created a new challenge because this means increased costs for things like insurance and education. So, we have to trust, as we always have, that God will provide and care for us.
You’re vocations director — what kind of gal is attracted to the Summit Dominicans these days?
The young women who come to our monastery are women who are normal. They all seem to have wonderful gifts and are intelligent. Each one has that fire, that desire to give all to God. And they also have an apostolic spirit that can only be expressed in a contemplative life. They fall in love with the Dominican charism, but at the same time, find the teaching apostolate too “limited.”
Nearly every young woman who comes expresses an attraction to our observance of study. For Dominicans, study and the pursuit of wisdom isn’t seen as a hindrance to union with God, but a means. We can’t love what we don’t know. St. Thomas’ understanding of the human person responds to something they are looking for that the world can’t give them.
You’re a talented woman — I’ve read your book. Why live such a simple life?
Because God is everything to me. He gave me my life, and I can’t be satisfied until I give it back to him in a total and radical way. Nothing else really matters.
You’re a real, live nun. We usually call religious sisters “nuns” who really aren’t. Why is the distinction important to those of us on the outside of the convent?
Strictly speaking nuns (moniales) are those who are cloistered. Sisters are those who are in the active life. Until the Code of Canon Law in 1917 only moniales were considered religious.
In the Order of Preachers — the Dominicans — the distinction is important because the nuns have both a spiritual and juridical bond with the friars, and together they are the Order of Preachers. There is no such thing as first and second order like with the Franciscans and Poor Clares. We profess obedience to the master of the order just as the friars do. The sisters, however, while belonging to the Dominican family, have a different relationship. It’s not that they are less Dominican; it’s just the relationship is different.
What does the world and your bustling suburb look like from inside the walls of the Rosary shrine where you kneel?
A Dominican nun, by her very vocation, touches the heart of the world. The light and darkness and shadows of good and evil and indifference are probably seen more acutely — not because we sit on a pedestal looking down, but because in our life of contemplation I become more aware of my own sinfulness. Solitude and silence does that.
At each stage of belonging to the order (vestition, profession) the rite begins with a question: “What do you ask?” And the answer provides a very important clue to the reality of this life: “God’s mercy and yours.”
Our monastic life is for sinners. So, there is a certain realization that the pain and sinfulness of the world is first of all within myself and secondarily “out there.”
I think we are also more sensitive to the goodness of people, perhaps because we are so often the recipients.
What would you like to leave the New Jersey transit commuter reading this on his iPad with?
That God has created him (or her) to know, love and serve God. This is the vocation of every person and not the domain of the cloistered nun. Most people are not called to live the life I lead.
Everyone is called to become holy, to experience union with God, to share in Trinitarian communion. The means to that is different for each person, but no matter what ones does in life, it can become a means of holiness. I can only imagine how tiring it can be to ride the train day after day into NYC, but that ride can become an opportunity for prayer and contemplation.
Look how many people stick earbuds in their ears or glue their eyes to their smartphones. This 52-minute ride can be a moment of prayer. The thousand interactions of each day can be moments of “holy preaching,” just by a smile, a gentle word or a listening ear, no matter what one feels like.
It might be a little harder than in the monastery but one can develop the capacity with God’s grace to live in his presence.