In the shadow of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, across the highway from a motorcycle dealer and tucked away in a corner of the property of Holy Spirit Church, lies Caterina Benincasa Dominican Monastery of New Castle, Delaware. Upon visiting the monastery for the first time, you will not find some profound historic building that evokes visions of medieval France awaiting you, but a simple two-floor convent. From within these walls since 2007, Sisters Mary Grace, Mary Columba, and Emmanuella have struck a new spark to ignite the torch of St. Dominic Guzman’s Order of Preachers. That spark has indeed generated a bit of a fire. Shortly before the arrival of the nuns, the Dominican Friars of the Province of St. Joseph came to Delaware to staff the Oratory at the University of Delaware and run the campus ministry. St. Dominic wanted monasteries of nuns near their brothers, as the prayers of the nuns form an integral part of the friars’ preaching for the salvation of souls. Eight centuries later, his vision lives on in Delaware.
The story of the spark that has become Caterina Benincasa dates back to the summons of recent Masters of the Dominican Order to examine the nuns’ way of life and address the present situations in the monasteries. Three Dominican nuns from two recently closed convents found themselves together at the Corpus Christi Dominican Monastery in the Bronx, NY, as they attempted to discern where the Holy Spirit was calling them. A visit by Sr. Elizabeth McDunna, OP, who was appointed by the Master of the Order to make a canonical visitation, offered the occasion for these recently transplanted sisters to think and pray about how they wanted to live out their Dominican lives.
Sisters Mary Grace, Mary Columba, and Emmanuella wished to build on the four pillars of the Order: prayer, study, common life, and liturgy, with a special emphasis on study. There was also a desire to be more visibly part of the local church and the Order, all the while striving for simplicity of life in their daily schedule, work, and dwellings.
In the summer of 2006, a proposal was sent to the successor of St. Dominic, Fr. Carlos Azpiroz Costa, while he was attending the General Chapter of the Order at Bogota, Colombia. Under the guidance of the Promoter of the Nuns for the worldwide Dominican Order and the advice of the provincial of the Province of St. Joseph, the sisters searched for a home in the northeast. Providentially, with the friars’ newly established community in Delaware and through a longtime friendship with Fr. Ambrose Eckinger, OP (the superior of the new community), they were welcomed by the Bishop of Wilmington, Michael Saltarelli, who wished to have a contemplative monastery in his diocese. God led the sisters to Holy Spirit Parish in New Castle, where there was an empty convent. The sisters moved in on the Solemnity of Christ the King—November 25, 2007.
As this was happening, the sisters had transfiliated (transferred) to the Monastery of Mary the Queen in Elmira, NY. By the unanimous vote of the monastery, the Elmira community accepted Caterina Benincasa as an official foundation of their monastery, along with all the responsibilities of a new daughter house. Chief among these responsibilities was to formally petition Rome for canonical approbation of Caterina Benincasa as an official religious foundation, which was granted a short time later.
The desire of the sisters was to have the monastery under the patronage of St. Catherine of Siena, due to her deep contemplation of the Divine Truth and her apostolic zeal. So the name Benincasa, meaning “House of Welcome or Blessing,” was chosen after the name of the family home of St. Catherine. When visiting Benincasa, the sisters’ charism of hospitality is immediately apparent. When founding this monastery, the sisters chose to live a less radical form of enclosure to meet the desire to be closer to the people of the local church. This has helped to make St. Dominic and the Dominican life better known and understood among the laity; in turn, the sisters have experienced the deep appreciation from the people who come to visit for prayer or spiritual direction, or to appreciate the artistic works of Sr. Mary Grace and others in the monastery shop. One of the graces has been to be in a parish setting, sharing the ordinary life of the people, at once connected but set apart.
Upon visiting the sisters at Caternina Benincasa, you will see and experience that the monastery is truly within the hearts and souls of each sister. St. Catherine of Siena spoke of Christ as “the Bridge,” for as a bridge is a connector over an otherwise impassible way, so Christ is our way back to the Father. Caterina Benincasa fittingly sits in the shadow of an earthly bridge as its sisters follow the way of the Bridge to heaven.
Image: Br. John Devaney, O.P., Caterina Benincasa Monastery, New Castle, DE