The Dominican Nuns: First American Foundations

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Here at Dominicana, we welcome you to the start of our series on our sisters in St. Dominic, the Dominican nuns in the United States. Throughout this year we will feature posts on individual American monasteries, and today we begin with a brief history of the very first of these foundations. The nuns were established in 1206 by St. Dominic in Prouille, France. From the beginning of their establishment, the prayers of the nuns have served as a treasury of grace to make the friar’s preaching ever more efficacious for the salvation of souls. Six and half centuries after their founding in Prouille, the daughters of St. Dominic and their hidden monastic life finally arrived in the United States of America.

It was the summer of 1880 in Newark, NJ when the first Dominican nuns in the U.S. began observing their cloistered life of perpetual adoration in the Monastery of St. Dominic. Eleven years later in 1891, another group of Dominican nuns traveled across the Atlantic to begin observing the cloistered life of perpetual rosary in Union City, NJ (then called West Hoboken). From these two monasteries in New Jersey, established around eight decades after Bishop Edward Dominic Fenwick founded the first American province of Dominican friars in 1805, the Dominican nuns would eventually spread from coast to coast and beyond. In the near future we will profile the history of the beginnings of the perpetual rosary monasteries and their first foundation in Union City, NJ, but for now we are happy to present the story of the Monastery of St. Dominic, the first American monastery of Dominican nuns.

It has been said that in New Jersey “only the strong survive,” so it was fitting that it was here the first American monastery of cloistered nuns would adore God truly present in the Blessed Sacrament twenty four hours a day, seven days a week! The story begins with two people: Bishop Michael Corrigan and Ms. Julia Crooks.  Michael Corrigan was born in 1839, the son of Irish immigrants, and in 1863 was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Newark at the age of 24. After serving as vicar general of the diocese, he was ordained the second Bishop of Newark on May 4th 1873 at the age of 34, becoming one of the youngest bishops in the U.S. at the time.

Ms. Julia Crooks was born into a well to do New York family in 1838. Of Scottish and French heritage, Julia’s father was the successor of John Jacob Astor (the first multi-millionaire of the U.S.) at the American Fur Company. But it was Julia’s pious mother Emilie who instilled in her the love of the Catholic faith. After the death of her parents, Julia lived with her sister and her sister’s French husband, helping to care for their children, and frequently journeying between New York and Lyons, France.

The then Fr. Corrigan and Ms. Julia Crooks met in the early 1870’s at the wedding of Julia’s niece to Fr. Corrigan’s brother. Presumably the two kept in touch, for after his episcopal ordination in May of 1873, Bishop Corrigan sent word to Ms. Crooks for prayers for his work, having heard that she would enter the Dominican monastery in Oullins, France the following month with the hope of returning one day to make a foundation in the United States.

The monastery at Oullins was built by the Countess De Villeneuve, who desired to found a monastery specifically devoted to perpetual adoration. At the time, perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was rare, and Dominican monastic life was just slowly rebuilding in France after being destroyed by the French Revolution. Initially, Carmelites tried to fulfill the wishes of the Countess, but it proved to be too much. So she approached the prioress of the Dominican monastery at Chinon, Mother Mary Dominique, to offer the monastery at Oullins to the Order. The establishment of the nuns at Oullins was soon approved by the Master General of the Order of Preachers, Alexandre Vincent Jandel, and Pope Pius IX. On September 8, 1868, the Nativity of our Lady, the Dominican monastery at Oullins was enclosed, and perpetual adoration began. Henceforth, all Dominican monasteries with lineage back to Oullins would have the privilege of perpetual adoration.

Julia was given the name Sister Mary of Jesus upon entering the monastery at Oullins and soon received a visit from Bishop Corrigan en route to Rome for an ad limina visit. There the Bishop reaffirmed the plans for Sr. Mary of Jesus to return to Newark and establish the first U.S. Dominican monastery. After a year of special preparations for Sister Mary of Jesus to become the prioress Mother Mary of Jesus, Mother Mary Dominique released her along with Sr. Mary Dominica of the Rosary, Sr. Mary Emmanuel (the niece of Julia) and the novice, Sr. Mary of Mercy. On June 24, 1880, these four Dominican nuns set sail for the United States, seven years after Ms. Julia Crooks begin her Dominican religious life.

Ironically, it was on the feast of St. Martha, July 29, 1880, that the nuns began their contemplative life at 122 Sussex Avenue in Newark with their first Mass and the locking of the enclosure. Six days later, on the Solemnity of St. Dominic, Bishop Corrigan celebrated Mass for the nuns and inaugurated the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and perpetual adoration (with the daytime help of a few devoted laity). By 1883, the community had grown to include 21 nuns and construction began on a permanent monastery. Finally, on April 14, 1884, the community moved into the Monastery of St. Dominic at 375 13th Avenue, Newark, New Jersey and prayed the choral office there for the first time. Bishop Corrigan, now the coadjutor for the Archdiocese of New York, consecrated the altar which he had donated to the monastery and locked the enclosure. Within 5 years, the monastery was filled with 47 nuns and four extern sisters.

God soon called both Bishop Corrigan and Mother Mary of Jesus to expand the Dominican contemplative life yet again. On May 26, 1889, at the request of now Archbishop Corrigan of New York, Mother Mary of Jesus and five nuns journeyed across the Hudson river to start the second Dominican monastery in the United States, the Corpus Christi Monastery at Hunts Point, which is known today as the Bronx.

The Monastery of St. Dominic, the first Dominican monastery in the U.S., closed its doors in September of 2003, 123 years after the arrival of the first Dominican nuns to America. For over a century, the nuns adored the most Blessed Sacrament day after day and night after night, lifting up their prayers and penances to God for the preaching of their brothers in St. Dominic and the Church throughout the United States. Throughout those 123 years, the Monastery of St. Dominic served as the origin of several new foundations in New York City and Albany, NY; Cincinnati, OH; Detroit and Farmington Hills, MI; Menlo Park and Hollywood CA; and Lufkin, TX. Most recently, Mother Henry from Lufkin founded a contemplative community in Lockport, LA, which is not recognized as a canonical monastery in the Order, but is considered to be of diocesan right.

Although the Dominican nuns now adore the Blessed Sacrament elsewhere in many other monasteries around the nation, the old Monastery of St. Dominic continues to serve the Church. Since March of 2004,  the monastery has become the home of the sons of St. Francis, serving today as the Blessed Sacrament Friary of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. The first Dominican Monastery on American soil continues to bear fruit as the Franciscan Friars serve the poor and carry out their mission of evangelization and renewal.

Image: The Blessed Sacrament Friary of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (formerly the Monastery of Saint Dominic)

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