Early this year, Girard will welcome a group of new residents. The Dominican Nuns of the Monastery of Mary the Queen, founded in 1944 in Elmira, N.Y., have been residing at the Mother House of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield as they await the completion of their new home in Macoupin County. The 21,000-square-foot monastery, being built by O’Shea Builders, will be the first of its kind in the diocese of Springfield and the first Dominican Monastery in Illinois.
The construction company, based in Springfield, has worked with other faith-based organizations, including large-scale projects for Springfield’s Hope Church and West Side Church. The building plans for the monastery, which is located on Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative lines, consist of a living room, library, refectory (a room used for communal meals), a wing for the nuns’ living quarters, a separate wing for novices, the parlor, study, courtyard, and, of course, the chapel. The nuns also plan to open a gift shop on the grounds in the future.
The nuns follow a long tradition, which began in 1206 when Saint Dominic Guzman gathered a group of women to create the first community of Dominican nuns, whose lives were associated with his preaching mission and the salvation of souls by their dedication to intercessory prayer and contemplation, work, community and study. They wear a ring as a sign of their final commitment to God “and the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience,” says Sister Anna Marie Pierre, the prioress (head of the community or literally “first of among equals”).
This traditional lifestyle, established centuries ago, continues to be embraced by Sister Anna Marie and her fellow nuns. She explains that they live a contemplative monastic life, based on study, common life, penance, prayer and witness. Sister Miriam, the former prioress, describes their move from Elmira to Girard as a leap of faith. “It worked out. But we were ‘in the desert’ for seven years,” she says, describing the breadth of time they have faithfully waited for their new monastery to be built.
Sister Anna Marie explains there is a distinction between sisters and nuns. Sisters have more visible ministries, like teaching and nursing. Nuns are cloistered; they live in monasteries and have limited exposure to the outside world. This doesn’t mean they are unavailable to the public. Their work, or apostolate, is prayer. “[We] are called to prayer seven times a day in chapel for all people,” she says.
“We are not of, but in the world,” says Sister Anna Marie. “As a reminder of our special vocation, we maintain a certain division between ourselves and our guests when visiting in the parlor. In chapel, however, while remaining a distinct group, we form one worshipping community with those who join us for prayer.”
She emphasizes the importance of their witness both among themselves and to outsiders. Monasteries, like the one currently under construction, establish and foster the presence of God in our midst.
“The closing of many monasteries beginning in the 1950s reduced the outside world’s awareness of the importance of silence and prayer. This, alongside the lack of the visual presence of apostolic sisters in their habits, as well as increased opportunities for women, may have contributed to a dwindling appreciation of the value of a life given over to God,” Sister Anna Marie says. “We have lost generations of young people.”
The desire to reverse those trends became part of the inspiration for this leap of faith. “[It’s] about our coming here and the impact we hope to have on the wider community and that our monastic community would grow, too. And that people be invited to come get to know us.
“We do have our boundaries, our laws, our rules … that’s what keeps us from becoming too distracted. There is nothing wrong with people or activities, but we must pull apart, just as when you pray, you can pray best by going away by yourself. Our whole life is like that,” she says, adding that they do keep in touch with the outside world. “Sometimes people – nuns, too – want to know,” she laughs.
The nuns have limited access to the newspaper and the news, and they keep up with technology. But, as the prioress explains, “Our feet as Dominicans are planted firmly here, in this time and place, but we are reaching up for there, for the life that lasts forever; but not for ourselves alone. We want to take everyone with us. We limit ourselves based on our vows … because our lives are meant to be simple and holistic.”
The new monastery will house 20 nuns and five novices; currently there are 14 residing with the sisters in Springfield, along with one novice (or newcomer) and two others set to arrive at a later date. On the 30-plus acres they will soon occupy are woods, a lake, a pond and pasture that will be conducive to their contemplative way of life, as well as support the nuns’ holistic approach as they incorporate God’s creation into every aspect of everyday life. Installing solar panels, organic gardening and possibly raising chickens are all part of the plan to aid them in doing so.
The sisters’ daily schedule, which will continue at their new home, reflects the way of life they lead: a life of prayer and study, community building and witness. The Liturgy of the Hours, or the Divine Office (the canonical hours of prayer said daily) is based on Psalm 119:164: “Seven times a day do I praise thee because of thy righteous judgments.”
“The ‘Divine Office,’ as we call it, the psalms, hymns and daily readings, are prayed in the name of and for the church and all of humanity, lifting up the world to God and calling down God’s blessing. So that’s what our presence here is for, in this diocese,” says Sister Anna Marie.
Though it may appear to be a rigorous schedule, she says it’s not boring. Of course, there is work that must be done. “We have to do our own housekeeping, you know … our cooking, our cleaning. We have bills to pay. We are responsible for that. And we have to break for various activities. So sometimes people think we have all this time in the world. No, our life is very structured,” she says.
Despite time committed to work and worship, the nuns have time for recreation. They gather to chat and play games; some knit or crochet. Lately the sisters have been watching National Geographic videos about the planet Earth. “Of course, we have popcorn,” she laughs.
They also follow creative pursuits. Sister Anna Marie enjoys pottery and Sister Mary Grace creates works of religious art in different media, which can be found online at sistermarygrace.artspan.com. Some sisters enjoy weaving on the loom, and the youngest studies piano.
“This is all done for the person’s own self growth,” says Sister Anna Marie. “So that you become a better person. But the main goal is just to become all that we can be … and grow in God’s love.”
They are also excited to invite young women to consider devoting their lives to Christ. “We’re hoping that we would attract young women who feel called to make this singular vocation theirs,” she says. “Residence rooms for novices are an integral part of the building plans, a kind of nest where the young may be formed to an understanding of the full meaning of their vocation.”
Although there are many reasons behind their initial desire to take this leap of faith, she and her fellow nuns ultimately hope their journey will create a synergy of mission for the entire Dominican Family – Friars and Nuns, Apostolic Sisters and Laity, along with the diocese of Springfield and the entire church. She adds that this dream would never have come to fruition without the help and hospitality of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, whom Sister Anna Marie says cannot be thanked enough.
“How grateful we are to our Dominican Sisters, for taking good care of us and being so sisterly to us for this time that we were living on their property … we will never forget that act of generosity,” she says. “The Dominican Friars of the Chicago Province too have supported us all along the way.”
During the groundbreaking ceremony for the monastery, which took place in March 2021, she pointed out that it was not simply a literal breaking of ground for the first contemplative monastery in the diocese of Springfield. The event represented groundbreaking partnerships, a unique collaboration of the nuns with the larger community, the groundbreaking love and generosity of their Dominican sisters and support of their friars, and the groundbreaking stewardship of their benefactors, family and friends.
Architect Paul Wheeler of the Farnsworth Group echoes her sentiment. “This was more of a journey than just a business transaction,” he says.
To prepare himself for the project, he first studied the origins of the order: “St. Dominic – he was born on a hill overlooking a lake. That’s … exactly our situation,” he says, referring to the location of the new building on the grounds.
“This [project] was very personal. … It was so different from anything else we’ve ever done,” he says. “I think we were being guided through this whole thing very gently, and I feel very good with where we ended up. It feels right.”
Mike O’Shea, president of O’Shea Builders, believes this job is the epitome of the intersection of work and faith. “It evolved slowly,” he says, adding that while the advisory committee met over the course of two years, the nuns were behind the scenes, continually praying for God’s provision.
“Their vocation is to pray,” he says. Time and time again, he says those prayers were answered with God’s provision. “They prayed all of that into existence.”
To see a visualization of the completed structure and footage from the groundbreaking ceremony, as well as interviews with the architect and builder, visit opnunsil.org.