The Church is sometimes described as the Mystical Body of Christ, with Jesus as the head and the faithful as his members. The term Body of Christ, Corpus Christi in Latin, applies especially to the Real Presence of Our Lord in the sacrament of the Eucharist. When the faithful come to pray before the Eucharist, you can see how that Body of Christ is adored within the Body of Christ, which is the Church. At Corpus Christi Monastery in the Bronx, this is a daily devotion of its cloistered Dominican nuns. The white-hot intensity of such a closeness and devotion to Jesus is evident in the history of this beautiful monastery and the holy sisters within it.
Roughly 125 years ago, it began as the first community of contemplative women religious in New York City. Today, the Corpus Christi Monastery endures as an ongoing powerhouse of contemplative prayer directly supporting the Archdiocese of New York, even after generating a daughter Corpus Christi Monastery in California as well.
A native daughter of New York, Mother Mary of Jesus (born Julia Crooks) founded the Corpus Christi Monastery in May of 1889. She had led the first community of Dominican nuns in the United States when she founded the Blessed Sacrament Monastery in Newark, New Jersey, in 1880 with three other nuns from France (where she herself had entered the order), as well as an applicant from America.
Many people had deemed America “not ready” for women contemplatives, but with less than a decade of their powerful prayer, her community of four had grown tenfold in Newark. In the eighteen months it took to build the permanent monastery building in Hunts Point, Mother Mary of Jesus and her five fellow “off-shoots” had attracted another fifteen! Together, these twenty-one women devoted themselves fully to the contemplative life in a setting which was, at that time, a quiet country retreat for Manhattan’s well-to-do citizens.
Given over wholly to prayer within their gray stone Gothic cloister, the nuns of Corpus Christi have watched as the city expanded, engulfed them, and rushed onward to become the sprawling metropolis we know today. As the concrete jungle spread, Hunts Point’s pastoral countryside dwindled, its lone remnant being the modest meadow protected by the time-warn walls of the monastery. There the nuns still tend a vegetable garden and fruit trees to supplement their needs, though their flocks have long since disappeared into the annals of history.
On the cusp of their 125th year, the life of its dedicated nuns has changed little. Brought there at the behest of New York’s Bishop Michael Corrigan in 1889, the sisters received the charge of praying for vocations in New York, particularly for the seminarians studying for the priesthood. This has been their daily bread: rising early to begin their meditation and morning office, they come together five times throughout the day for common prayer, with work, meals, study, and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament balancing out the rest of their waking hours.
In this ancient rhythm, they live out the life instituted by St. Dominic over eight hundred years ago. Then, before the genesis of the Friars Preachers, he founded a cloistered community of women in Prouille, France. Consisting of devout young women converts, these first Dominicans received spiritual food from St. Dominic’s preaching and instruction, and in return nourished his missionary efforts through their prayers.
The nuns at Corpus Christi continue this work of intense prayer, carrying in their hearts not only the seminarians of New York but also the brothers being formed as Dominicans in this province, the benefactors of the monastery, and the people in their neighborhood and beyond. When asked about those for whom she prays, Sr. Mary of the Sacred Heart explains that the prayers of the nuns extend to the whole world: “We pray for peace in our hearts, peace in the neighborhood, peace in the whole world. We pray for each person in the whole world. We pray that one day the whole human race will live in peace and harmony.”
Starting with the first community in Prouille at the dawn of the 1200s, Dominican nuns have steadfastly maintained their prayers through times of persecution, war, and great social upheaval. The nuns at Corpus Christi, true to their heritage, have clung faithfully to their total surrender to God through the difficulties of our own time, and they look ahead to continue their mission no matter what the future may hold. Let us join our own prayers to theirs—that the Holy Spirit move the hearts of many to offer their lives to God as priests and religious—from Hunts Point to the ends of the earth.
For more information on the nuns of Corpus Christi Monastery, visit their website.