For a religious community, rapid growth is a good problem to have. These days, it's an unusual one, too. But make no mistake: It is a problem.
Just ask the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Mother Assumpta Long founded the order with three other Dominican nuns in 1997. Today their community numbers 37.
Ideally, in monastic life, each woman has her own room (traditionally called a cell because of the bare-bones accommodations). But the Ann Arbor Dominicans have to share cells in order to save space. Even rooms once used for storage are now storing sisters. The dining room and chapel are packed when used by the whole community at the same time.
The problem appears to be on its way to getting worse — or better, depending on your point of view.
“In August, we will have a good number of women coming to join us,” says Sister Joseph Andrew, the director of vocations and one of the foundresses. “The vocations are pouring in. Women today want a prayer life, a common apostolate, a family in which they find out who they are and who they are called to be. And they desire the wearing of an identifiable habit. The interest, dedication and sacrifice of the ‘John Paul II generation’ are sky high — like nothing we have seen in decades.”
That was part of Mother Assumpta's original vision. “When we started, I could see us reaching 100 sisters,” she says, “then sending some of them out to start a motherhouse elsewhere, have it reach 100, and eventually pepper the United States with houses.”
Fortunately, the building in Ann Arbor is on 20 acres of land, so there is room to expand. The immediate need is finances. Originally supported largely by Catholic philanthropist Tom Monaghan, the sisters are now in need of more benefactors. Though still a benefactor, Monaghan is allocating heavy resources to the launch of Ave Maria University near Naples, Fla.
Mother Assumpta says the need is $8-10 million for the motherhouse expansion and operating expenses, such as food, utilities, medical coverage and, especially, education.
“Being a Dominican order means education,” she says. “Our mission is to teach and to do that we need education degrees and teaching certificates. You know the cost of sending someone to college. Imagine sending 15 to 20 at once.”
Eventually, she adds, as more sisters get their degrees and begin teaching, they will be able to return support to the community. “In the meantime, we are in a unique position,” says Mother Assumpta. “Because we are so new, we have only three who are earning a stipend. Our hope is that, when people see a vibrant, thriving community of religious, they will want to support it. We are trusting that if God brings the young women, he will also take care of them.”
The Sisters of Mary order was started under Cardinal John O' Connor in New York, but soon the sisters were asked to go to the Diocese of Lansing, Mich., to administer and teach in the Spiritus Sanctus Academies begun by Monaghan. Some of the sisters serve as teachers or principals in these four schools, each with 80 to 100 students in multi-age classes, and an emphasis on integrating the Catholic faith with the curriculum. The sisters also do outreach at the local colleges and universities.
As for specific educational aims, Mother Assumpta says that “we are open to the Holy Spirit as to where we go and what areas of education we will be in.”
The women joining the order currently range in age from 17 to 40. Their backgrounds are as diverse as their ages; they hail from 27 states plus Canada and Taiwan.
Sister Dana Becker, from Lynbrook, N.Y., left her job of five years at a Park Avenue law firm in New York City. “My work as a commercial real estate lawyer was interesting, but the time pressure was unreal,” she says. “I was working 80 hours per week. I had lots of money and friends, was near my family, had access to cultural events in the city, and had a good Catholic life. But there was no peace.”
Sister Dana had always assumed she would get married and home school her kids, but when that wasn't happening, and when work hit a wall in July 2001, she decided to go on a 10-day Ignatian retreat. “During the retreat, I felt a call to live an undivided life for God in a religious community,” she recalls. “For the first time I felt a deep peace. I began looking for a convent and, when I came here to visit, I knew it was the right place. To me, nothing else was worth doing — and, at 38 years old, I had lived a lot. My parents were sad at my leaving, and surprised, but not really surprised.”
Her parents, Bob and Peggy Becker, both supported her decision. “She had been searching several years for the road God wanted for her, and this was the nudge she had been waiting for,” her father says. “Our firstborn was leaving. She gave up a six-figure income for a vow of poverty, but she was finding God's call.”
Her mother adds that “even if during the discernment period she finds that the life is not for her, the worst part will be that she had a couple years of prayer under her belt. It's a win-win situation.”
Sister Maximilian Marie Garretson from Bend, Ore., who worked as a youth coordinator in a nearby parish after college, says she was waiting to become a wife and mother. That began to change at World Youth Day 2000 in Rome when, in answer to her question about the requirements for a vocation, the group's chaplain said, in so many words: You need to have a huge capacity in your heart to be a mother or father, too.
Soon she began her search for a community and, once she came to Ann Arbor, knew that it was the place for her to become a saint — the path God clearly wanted her to take, but as a sister.
“My parents were clueless about religious life but happy for me,” she says. “Being a nun has been a blessing for my family. Now when I hear of needs that they have, I am in a situation where I can pray for them. And the fact that I am here is a challenge to them to go deeper in their faith.”
Sisters Dana and Maximilian Marie, like the others, were attracted to the devotion to Mary and to the Eucharist, and to community life, which combines challenge, fullness and, yes, fun. The sisters get up weekday mornings at five O' clock and begin with the Liturgy of the Hours and Mass. The day is interspersed with community and individual prayer, classes, recreation and time for study, work and reading.
To afford others a taste of this life, the sisters put on three weekend retreats a year. Recent offerings have drawn an average of 60 participants.
Few leave untouched by God's grace.
“I am a firm believer that God would not place a holy desire in a person's heart unless he had every intention of fulfilling it,” writes Sister May Bernadette on the community's Web site, sistersof mary .org. “So, my dear sisters and brothers in Christ, my vocation first presented itself as a lust for souls and has led to things far more glorious than I could have ever imagined.”
Small wonder the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist are faced with such a good problem as cramped living space.
Bob Horning writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.