Franciscan friar Juan Crespi, while on the first European land expedition through California in 1769, described in his journal a beautiful river that flowed into the Pacific. Because the entry is dated August 2, the Franciscan feast day of Perdono, the famed chapel restored by St. Francis that features a fresco of the Blessed Virgin Mary surrounded by angels, the town that was established by this river would eventually be called El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles. It was not until 155 years later, in 1924, that cloistered women’s monastic life would first come to the Los Angeles area with the founding of a Dominican monastery in Hollywood, fittingly called the Monastery of the Angels.
The inspiration to head west came to Sr. Mary of the Eucharist, who lived in the first Dominican monastery in the United States, St. Dominic’s, in Newark, New Jersey. The nuns of the Newark monastery contacted Archbishop John Joseph Cantwell, the archbishop of Los Angeles, about starting a new foundation. On St. Patrick’s Day in 1924, the Newark monastery received a reply from Archbishop Cantwell saying that, while many cloistered women’s religious groups were asking to come to the diocese, the Dominicans were to come immediately and be the first.
Sr. Mary of the Eucharist and four other sisters would be sent out to the City of Angels and taken in by the Sisters of St. Joseph. The five eventually settled into a temporary monastery on 28th Street until the current monastery was finished in 1949. While looking for property for the monastery in 1934, the prioress at the time, Mother Mary Gabriel, said, “Show me anywhere but Hollywood!” When they came across the place at the base of the Hollywood Hills where the monastery would eventually be built, she said, “It’s perfect!,” only later finding out that they were in Hollywood. Built with classic stucco white walls and red clay Spanish mission tiles, the monastery has in its backyard a significant hill where one could see—before the skyscrapers of Wilshire Boulevard were built—“all the way out to Catalina Island on a clear day,” recalled current prioress and archivist Sr. Mary St. Pius.
Now, almost ninety years after its founding, with daughter houses in the Philippines and Pakistan, the four pillars of Dominican life—prayer, common life, study, and preaching—continue to be the foundations for the life of this quiet monastery that sits in the midst of the current hustle and bustle of Hollywood. Forming the core of the prayer life of the monastery are the Mass and the chanting of the Divine Office, for which the nuns gather six times a day in the chapel beginning at 5:25 a.m. for Morning Prayer. True to their founding as a monastery of perpetual adoration, for over sixty years the Blessed Sacrament has been adored perpetually by the sisters, with the aid of dedicated members of the laity who come and keep watch as well.
The common life is an important key to sanctification in monastic life. At the Monastery of the Angels, it is lived out especially through silent, communal meals; recreation; and the sisters’ work, which includes a bakery and gift shop. Their life of study includes classes and conferences on theology and Scripture, given to them by Dominican friars and other priests. Sr. Mary St. Pius said that Scripture is probably the most important and common element of all the sisters’ study. “Study,” she says, “helps [us] delve more deeply in the life of the Lord and deepen our commitment to the Christian life every day.” Because Sacred Scripture permeates the Divine Office, study helps the nuns to grasp more profoundly the texts they are praying.
Preaching for the nuns is obviously not the same as it is for the friars, but their prayers are indispensable to the fruitfulness of the Order’s mission: the salvation of souls. Sr. Mary St. Pius speaks of praying for “those in the missions and the hardships they endure and the homeless of the city.” The sisters also meet and visit with those who come for prayer, guidance, and support. People bring their many hardships to the nuns—family members who have fallen away from the faith, illnesses, despair due to failed careers in Hollywood or lack of worldly success—who console them in their sorrows and offer prayer and penance on their behalf.
In the more than six decades of her Dominican monastic life, Sr. Mary St. Pius has literally watched Los Angeles grow around her and the monastery. While Hollywood has come to be known for the glitz and glamor of the entertainment industry, she says that she also encounters great devotion to God in the people she meets, “especially from the immigrants that open our eyes to the world that comes through Los Angeles: the transients, the homeless. We are here to help them, in a way, with our life and prayers.” Regarding the life of the monastery in general, she says, “The specialness of the cloistered life God has called us to, this sublime thing we are so grateful for and the obligations that come with it . . . it is a tremendous thing. As the Little Flower said it is the heart that keeps everything going to pump the body . . . and we in our life are the heart of the Church.”
For more information about the Monastery of the Angels, see their website.