The community of Dominican Nuns who departed from the Monastery of the Immaculate Heart of Mary on Lititz Pike in August returned to Lancaster last week for a special ceremony to honor and remember the members of their congregation who had gone before them.
Their brief sojourn back to the Diocese of Harrisburg also offered the nuns an opportunity to reconnect in-person with so many faithful friends with whom they forged special relationships during their years here, and reflect on the blessings that radiated from the monastery’s 55-year presence just a mile north of the city.
Following the suppression of the monastery last fall, the graves of 24 nuns previously buried on its grounds were relocated to St. Joseph New Catholic Cemetery on Charles Road. On June 3, Bishop Ronald Gainer presided over a blessing and dedication of the new Dominican Nuns’ section of the cemetery, attended by a gathering of the congregation’s friends, volunteers and supporters from over the years and the handful of nuns who left the monastery in August for their new home at Corpus Christi Monastery in the Bronx.
“It really is a bittersweet moment for us,” said Sister Mary Veronica, O.P., who served as the vicaress for many years while the order was in Lancaster. “It is good to remember our Sisters and see so many of our friends and volunteers. It was difficult to leave after so many years here, and we are grateful for the dedication of this part of the cemetery.”
Charles F. Snyder Funeral Home & Crematory oversaw the relocation of the graves. The project was paid for by the religious congregation.
The dedication and blessing, under cerulean skies, included hymns, Scripture readings, prayers and petitions, and the litany of the names of the deceased nuns. Among those buried in the newly-dedicated section of the cemetery are Mother Mary of the Immaculate Heart Ricco, O.P., the foundress, and Sister Marie Clare of the Eucharist Ricco, O.P., her niece and the last to be buried from the Lancaster monastery. Sister Marie Clare died on April 2 of this year, and had been living at St. Anne’s Home in Columbia.
Legacy in the Diocese
The history of the Dominican Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary in the Diocese of Harrisburg begins in 1925, when their Monastery of the Perpetual Rosary in south Enola was established from their congregation in Catonsville, Md.
In 1949, Mother Mary of the Immaculate Heart approached Bishop George Leech about the possibility of establishing a new location for the monastery, one which would be closer to a city. With the approval of the bishop, the property on Lititz Pike was purchased in 1952, and the nuns moved into their new monastery on May 9, 1955. Archbishop Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, the Apostolic Delegate, dedicated the monastery to the Immaculate Heart of Mary during its dedication and blessing on May 22, 1955.
The Dominican Nuns are dedicated to a cloistered life of perpetual prayer. Contemplative life focuses on communion with God through prayer and self denial. The religious sisters devote their days to prayer, contemplation and solitude for the salvation of the world. They live a strictly cloistered life, set apart from the world in order to dedicate themselves to God.
A schedule of Mass, prayers, meditation, the Liturgy of the Hours and recitation of the Rosary fills their days. There are prescribed times for meals, light duties and recreation, with the Sisters’ hearts and minds always turned to God.
Several years ago, facing dwindling numbers, increasing age and a lack of new vocations, the congregation in Lancaster began considering plans for its future. Last fall, the five nuns who remained in the nearly 40-room monastery – Sister Mary Veronica, Sister Maria Joseph, Sister Mary Pius, Sister Mary Albert and Sister Marta Marie – moved to the Bronx to join another convent of Dominican nuns. Sister Denise Marie, a Dominican nun from a monastery in New Jersey, was appointed vicaress to oversee the transition.
CHI St. Joseph’s Children’s Health has since purchased the monastery property for $3.5 million, and plans to open the Mary Francis Bachmann School in 2023.
“We were in this Diocese for 96 years, and we would have loved to stay for another 90 years, but when it comes to such a point, you have to ask for suppression,” said Sister Mary Veronica.
She came to the Monastery of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1960, not long after graduating from high school.
“The monastery had been my home for a long time. It was difficult to leave, even though the move was a few years in coming,” she said.
“We spent a lifetime there, when you think of it, so the monastery is very precious to us. We had many, many people who came to daily Mass, and a dedicated chaplain. There is something about a monastery chapel that attracts people,” Sister Mary Veronica said.
The nuns undoubtedly attracted people, too. Their steadfast presence, devotion to prayer, simplicity of life and joyful and welcoming dispositions endeared them to the surrounding community. It wasn’t long before the nuns enjoyed a company of daily Mass communicants, friends, volunteers and benefactors.
“Our relationship with the people of the Diocese has almost been like a family. There’s been a mutual support,” Sister Mary Veronica said. “They appreciated the prayer life that we have, and we appreciated all their help. We had so many wonderful volunteers and friends doing things for us, like shopping and taking us to doctor’s appointments. We were very fortunate to have such good Catholic friends and we enjoyed a mutual relationship. We have enriched each other, I’m sure.”
Prayer Life Continues
The past nine months have brought monumental change for the Dominican Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary. The beloved monastery will become a school. The remains of the nuns whose lives are etched in the history of the order and their former home on Lititz Pike have been lovingly reinterred in St. Joseph Cemetery. And the five remaining nuns who departed Lancaster in August now reside at a convent in the Bronx.
While there’s been much change, there’s also been one great constant, the one that is the most important of them all: the prayer life of the Dominican Nuns.
“We are still in a convent of Dominican Nuns, in perpetual prayer,” Sister Mary Veronica said. “We moved in to a convent where they have Perpetual Adoration, whereas we have Perpetual Rosary. We are the same order and we follow the same Constitutions, so it’s the same Dominican family. When we’re in Adoration, most of the time we say the Rosary. With Perpetual Adoration here, we’re very much at home with the Lord.”
“We are heartened that the new venture at the monastery building will remain useful, and that it won’t be demolished. It’s a comfort to us that the chapel will remain and continue to be a blessing,” she said.
“As for us, we continue, and we do it all in God’s Providence,” Sister Mary Veronica remarked. “We continue our ministry of prayer, which is so vital and necessary; without God and prayer, the world cannot exist. People continue to keep in touch with us for their prayer requests.”
Acknowledging that their brief return for the dedication and blessing of the cemetery might be their final visit to Lancaster, Sister Mary Veronica offered heartening words in the difficulty that comes with saying goodbye:
“Friends are forever, and we remain united in Christ. All we did was change our physical location, moving north a few hours. The people of the Diocese remain in our hearts and in our prayers. When you are united spiritually, you are not separated,” she said.
The Dominican Nuns continue to receive prayer requests, and can be reached at the Corpus Christi Monastery, 1230 Lafayette Avenue, Bronx, New York, 10474, via phone at 718-328-6996 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness