Saturday, January 12, 2008

Cloistered Dominican Nuns

~An older article but if you didn't catch it the first time, here's an introduction to St. Dominic's Monastery, in Linden, Virginia which is due to be completed soon. From the Louden Times
The structure is being built in two phases, the first consisting of three sides of a quadrangle that will surround an inner courtyard. Historically, a monastery's courtyard is important because it provides a place to appreciate nature and God's presence.

On the outside of the quadrangle, there will be a library, a refectory, an infirmary, administrative offices, a common space and a temporary chapel. The floor above these areas will contain bedrooms, or cells, for up to 24 nuns.

Corridors, or cloisters, will separate these outer areas from the courtyard. Arched windows and doors will line both sides of the cloisters. In traditional monasteries, strict silence is observed in these pathways.

The fourth side of the quadrangle will be built during phase two of the project, which will include the construction of the monastic church, where the nuns will take daily communion. The church will face east, in orientation to the rising sun, and a side chapel for visitors and a resident chaplain's quarters will be built on this side of the quadrangle.

For monastery architect Jim O'Brien, the project is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "There are not many of these out there; it's a pretty unusual project," he says. "We have had to do a lot of unlearning about the way people live, because the nuns' life is very different from ours."

O'Brien has been working with the nuns on the design since 2003. "In a monastery, you have to take into consideration that many people are living and working together. Things must be the appropriate size."

The dishwashing room, for example, had to be designed so that two people have room to wash dishes by hand and not get in each other's way, said O'Brien.


The finished building will have a brick exterior. Contractors will install stained-glass windows that were saved from the house on 16th Street. The interior of the monastery will be built with concrete masonry unit, commonly referred to as cinderblock. "It will be very austere," O'Brien said, "not inconsistent with their life."

This particular group of Dominicans is even more removed from society than most nuns because they are cloistered, meaning they spend their lives within the walls of the monastery. There is a reason for their seclusion.

"Cloistered nuns do not stand with their faces turned toward the world to teach or correct," explained Granitto. "Rather, they stand, faces upturned to God, speaking words of praise and adoration. They must be hidden and unavailable because they are engrossed in a work that is unseeable."

In other words, this group feels that their purpose is to intercede for the needs of the world. They believe they are a symbol to the Church of their total commitment to God, praying seven times a day between the hours of 3:30 a.m. and 8:00 p.m.

"It is pretty radical...To live apart from the world," admitted Sister Mary Paul.

Sister Mary Paul said she grew up wanting to be a nun. After attending a Catholic high school in Rochester, N.Y., she joined the Sisters of Mercy, an active congregation. Most of the nuns in the Sisters of Mercy were teachers.

"I was an active sister for a while, but I decided I didn't want to teach," said Sister Mary Paul. She left the congregation and got a job in a bank and later, a job at a psychiatric hospital. She also entered into a relationship with a man. "But my desire to be a nun was always there."

When Sister Mary Paul was 25 years old she returned to religious life. At a monastery in Elmira, NY, she began the process of becoming a professed nun.

In order to do so, a woman spends about seven years in "formation," during which she orients herself with the members of the religious community and prepares to become a religious within that community. Afterwards, she takes her solemn vows.

According to Sister Mary Paul, most women choose to become nuns somewhere between the ages of 21 and 40. "After age 40, it is hard to adjust," she said.

Despite living in a cloistered monastery, the nuns will not be completely isolated. "We have visiting," Sister Mary Paul explained. "Especially the new sisters, they certainly have family come."

The Dominicans will also have a car and a telephone.

One of the nuns, called an "extern sister" is not bound by the cloisters. She handles most of the communications with the outside world. If another nun has a need to leave the monastery, the extern sister does the driving.

The nuns will likely have a vegetable garden at their Linden home, and they hope to keep some apple trees from the orchard. A food service company, such as Sysco, will bring food to the monastery on a regular basis.
Construction photos from the builder

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