Nuns on the March
The growth of the Sisters of Mary
Some might say miracles followed four Dominican nuns as they drove east from Chicago in July 1996.
"We were on our way to New York," recalls Mother Assumpta, the group's leader. "We were coming this way, and we stopped for gas and saw a piece on him in a newspaper with a picture." "Him" was Tom Monaghan, then the multimillionaire owner of Domino's Pizza, who'd begun donating serious money to Catholic philanthropic causes.
"I knew Tom," she remembers, her pale eyes warmed by the light of an electric fireplace in her office in the sisters' motherhouse on Warren Road. "I gave a talk at one of the big Masses and breakfasts he used to have at Domino's Farms on the first Friday of every month. And we said, 'Let's stop by and say hello.' And we did.
"God had this planned all along," the seventy-three-year-old nun continues quietly but firmly. "We didn't have this planned. We didn't know what we were doing. When Tom Monaghan heard us say we were forming a new community, God put it in his heart to help us. He wanted to build little schools, and he called me the next day and said, 'I will build these schools and give them to you!'
"I told him we didn't do this to teach in schools--we wanted to found a new religious community. He said he'd help us with the one if we'd help him with the other."
"I'd just got my hands on two or three hundred thousand dollars," Monaghan remembers, sitting in his Domino's Farms office lined with shelves of small statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary. "I told them I'd give them the school and build a few more for them--build them a motherhouse, give them twenty acres, which was what they really wanted."
The following February, in a chapel in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral, Mother Assumpta and sisters Joseph Andrew, Mary Samuel, and John Dominic became a separate, quasi-independent group within the Dominican order:
the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. "God put the idea in my heart someplace along the way," Mother Assumpta explains. "And the only way to see if it's blessed is to do it. If it doesn't work, it wasn't blessed. But we were blessed."
That August, the four nuns moved to Ann Arbor. "They lived in a house that my daughter [once] lived in, just a little ranch house," Monaghan recalls. "In no time at all, they had as many as sixteen women living in that little house."
That was only the beginning. Today, seventy-three nuns live in the motherhouse, with twenty-five more teaching around the country. While the average American nun is seventy-six years old, the Sisters of Mary's average age is twenty-six. Some might say that's a real miracle.
Mother Assumpta, seventy-three, was born, raised, and educated a Catholic. She loved the church and the nuns who taught her, so it seemed only natural that she joined the Sisters of St. Cecilia, a Dominican order in Nashville, right after high school.
The other founders, who range in age from forty-five to sixty-six, followed similar paths to becoming Sisters of St. Cecilia. But in recent generations such "vocations" grew rare, and in the 1960s, many women left religious orders. Since 1968, the number of American nuns has fallen by two thirds.
"Between '65 and '70, there was a great exodus across the United States," recalls Sister Mary Samuel. "The religious were experimenting. Many stopped wearing habits and said 'let's live modern in apartments, let's have our own spending money.' They weren't preserving the authentic religious life."
The Nashville Dominicans did not join the secularizing movement. "Mother Assumpta played an incredible role in holding down the essentials of religious life," recalls Sister Joseph Andrew. "All that time, Mother was very strong in saying exactly what the Church says, and she came to represent the wisdom of religious life to a whole lot of people out there."
The Sisters of Mary are very traditional. They take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They live communally, rising at 5 a.m. and devoting an hour to prayer and meditation before morning Mass. In the evening, they spend another hour in "eucharistic adoration"--praying in the chapel in the presence of the consecrated Host, believed to be the body of Christ.
The rest of the day is spent in study or teaching. Soon after they arrived, the founders turned what had been a Montessori preschool at Domino's Farms into the first Spiritus Sanctus Academy. Today there are two modern schools, one in Ann Arbor and the other in Plymouth, both built around a central chapel.
"The chapel is in the center of the school, so [the students] always go by the chapel," explains Sister John Dominic, Ann Arbor's smiling principal. "They always go by Christ, because Christ is at the center of the school."
The schools are so well known in the world of Catholic education that the sisters have a stack of 150 letters from bishops and others asking them to come to their towns. But "they have to agree to build the schools and provide housing for the sisters," explains Sister Mary Samuel, the Plymouth principal. "We have the program down and it's excellent, and we have the means to supply them with teachers. But a lot has to happen on the receiving end to make that happen."
The Sisters of Mary can supply teachers because they helped restart the flow of young women into religious life. They work tirelessly to attract new postulants and to watch over their spiritual "formation" once they join.
"It consumes my day working with young women," says Sister Joseph Andrew, the group's vocation director. "Originally, we had just the four founders here in February of 1997, then my blood sister came in June, and by the end of the first year we had eight members. After two years, we had nine, but the interest was picking up."
The sisters send direct mailings to Catholic families and parishes. In addition, Sister Joseph Andrew visits colleges--"Notre Dame and Harvard and Dartmouth and Franciscan and Texas A&M, which is one of my personal favorites"--to deliver their message. "Young people today are starving for chastity, and they want to be challenged to goodness," she says. "They have so much need to be good!
"By 2000 we had twelve enter, and we already had thirteen, so we doubled," she continues. "And we just kept growing. This year, we had seventeen enter, and it looks like a super-solid sixteen [will stay]. This next year we could have thirty enter." Last year the Nashville Dominicans' class of twenty-three postulants was the largest group of new nuns in the nation--but the Sisters of Mary are on track to surpass that.
Sister John Dominic, the group's bursar, credits the phenomenal growth to both spiritual and financial factors. "It started with Tom's extraordinary faith and his desire to get as many souls to heaven as possible, and he saw the best way to do this was to educate children through religious formation," she says. "We believed in the same thing, but it was Tom's money that made it all happen in this extraordinarily short time.
"He paid for everything in the schools, from walls to furniture to books," she continues. "It cost a couple million apiece at least, and it was all essentially his money." Monaghan also paid for the entire first phase of their motherhouse--"say six or seven million altogether with furnishings," she says crisply.
Monaghan played a much smaller role in financing the building's second phase, in 2006. "Tom gave a donation of $50,000 towards the total cost of $11 million. The rest we got from fund-raising," Sister John Dominic says. For the third phase, a $6 million expansion completed last July, "we don't even ask Tom for money. He did his bit. We're doing a $25 million campaign now, and we won't ask him."
Starting in 2003, Monaghan also slowly and deliberately withdrew his support from the schools.
"It was OK," Sister John Dominic says with an easy laugh. "We knew it was coming. We worked with Paul [Roney, Monaghan's CFO] and Tom over a period of three years to make it happen."
With Monaghan no longer absorbing the deficits, tuition is increasingly important. Parents pay $5,000 a year, plus $900 in required fund-raising, with discounts for additional children. The Plymouth academy, with 200 students, is full, but Ann Arbor has about thirty vacancies. "We haven't had any new business [bringing in families] since Pfizer left," says Sister John Dominic. "We do what we can with fund-raising and development [to make up the shortfall]. We're fairly successful at that, plus we're very frugal. We do have a small deficit, but we can sustain that for a few more years."
Meanwhile, if thirty postulants arrive this fall, the motherhouse will once again be at capacity. Rather than adding on again, the nuns are looking at opening more houses around the country. "The Bishop of Austin has invited us down, and there are options in California," Sister John Dominic says. "We're discerning to see where the next place should be, trying to figure out how to prudently expand."
"When we start our daughter houses, they'll be pulling in huge numbers from all over the country," Sister Joseph Andrew predicts. "I say: let's sprinkle them everywhere! Monetarily it makes no sense. Only God can figure it out. I'm just doing what God wants me to do and trying to keep up. God's sending them, and we're going to grab them all!"
Three members of the sisters' new generation are gathered in a sitting room at the motherhouse. Like the founders, all grew up in Catholic families and were educated in Catholic schools. But each followed a different path to Ann Arbor.
"I heard about the sisters through direct mail," explains Sister Beth, who wears the postulant's white blouse with matching blue vest and knee-length skirt. She attended a retreat with her older sister. "I was only in the eighth grade, and I was among the youngest," she recalls. "I was very impressed by the sisters and by their habits. It's the first time I'd seen the full traditional habit." Her tone is still touched with yearning.
"I mentioned it to my parents my freshman year of high school, and they were in favor but wanted me to finish college first." But she decided not to wait: after completing her freshman year of college, she entered the convent last August.
Sister Catherine Thomas, twenty-seven and three-and-a-half years into her formation, wears a novice's white tunic and a close-fitting cap, or coif. A friend at St. Louis University "met Sister Joseph Andrew at Notre Dame," she recalls, "so we invited her to come and speak...by the end of that weekend, she was calling me 'sister,' and I was trying to hide it, but I was loving it!" After attending a retreat and talking again to Sister Joseph Andrew--"she could tell I was running from the Lord"--she set aside plans for law school and entered the convent in August 2007.
Sister Stephen Patrick, twenty-six, is five-and-a-half years into her formation. Though still a "temporary professed"--she can still back out if she wants to--she wears the full habit: floor-length white tunic plus a white coif and black veil.
"I was at the University of South Alabama when I was discerning my vocation," she recalls. "I went on a 'nun run' with five friends to decide if that's what I really wanted to do. We visited convents throughout spring break, and I was at a eucharistic adoration at a convent in Washington, D.C., when in my heart I heard [God] call me to really be his, and I said yes. As we were driving home, it just came out of my mouth--'I'm called to be a sister'--and suddenly I felt an immense joy.
"My friends said they knew already, but I was twenty-one and quite sure I always wanted children and a family." Yet when she talked to her mother, she said she'd always known: "She said she'd consecrated me to Our Lady when I was still in the womb!"
If the Sisters of Mary have any real doubts about their faith--real, dark-night-of-the-soul doubts--they're not letting on. Why should they? Our so-called "real" world is not quite real to them, and they don't owe us any explanations. To them, spiritual issues are much more urgent.
"Listen," says Mother Assumpta, "the devil doesn't stay outside the doors of the convent. We're not excused from temptation. We're all human, and we all have temptation."
"Satan would like to win the religious away from Christ," concurs Sister Mary Samuel. "He's very real, and sin is very real in our lives. But the Eucharist is our strength and our joy."
As for the world, she says, "we're not going to correct it. It is what it is: secular and hedonistic. But through our witness, we show [people] what they're really looking for: proof that God loves us and has a plan for us."
In their full habits, the sisters rarely pass unnoticed. "We always get questions," says Sister Stephen Patrick. "Ann Arbor is pretty friendly, though not always. Some days, people will take steps to avoid you. Other days, people will come up to me and say, 'Sister, could you pray for my husband or wife or mother?'"
Yet even some who've been inspired by the nuns, she adds, don't fully understand their role. "People try to be your friend, and we don't really have that relationship," she says. "We're a presence and a witness, and we don't do coffee and go to the movies."
[Originally published in April, 2010.]