If these cloistered walls could talk 19th century Dominican chapel houses history, art, and hopes

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a series called “Neighborhood Notables” that will run once a month. The series is about locals who have defied the odds and made a lasting impression with deep-rooted ties to their community in North Hudson County.

Echoing the quiet, mostly residential area of 14th Street in Union City is the Monastery of the Perpetual Rosary. Tucked amid the brownstones that line the block are formidable stone walls encasing a Gothic-style building, which is commonly called the Blue Chapel and currently houses five cloistered Dominican nuns who have taken on St. Dominic’s strict practice of prayer.

Locals are grateful for the respite, for just a few blocks up on Central Avenue are coffee shops and businesses reflective of modern times.

Father Saintourens of the Order of Preachers (see sidebar), along with 12 sisters, originally came from France to Union City in 1891 to establish the Dominican Order in a small house on 14th Street. The monastery saw formal construction of its chapel in 1912. Thus, the first American Monastery of the Perpetual Rosary was born, from which 21 others throughout the nation would eventually stem.

There are many indications of the monastery’s ancient descent: stained glass images imported from Germany during the monastery’s construction, a Virgin Mary statue brought by the original 12 nuns on their trip from France, and its original pews from 1918.

The Blue Chapel also has a very rare first-class relic of St. Dominic – a fragment of the original saint’s bone.

Modern day

The Blue Chapel is run by the prioress Sister Mary Gemma who has held the position since being elected by her peers in 2001.

All of the sisters have taken a vow of chastity, poverty, and obedience. Although talk is held to a minimum, the sisters occasionally break for house chores and recreation, though their central focus is prayer, whether for the living or the dead.

Living a devoted life, the sisters seldom leave the chapel, allowing exceptions only for doctor visits, while other ventures outside require permission from the prioress. In addition, family visits are allowed on an appointment basis – their prayer for the outside (and spiritual) world is that rigorous.

After rising at 5:25 a.m. every morning, the sisters pray the rosary at different times during the day specifically for people who don’t pray.

In addition to praying and the daily chores, the sisters’ role in the community is minimal, yet it is something that residents of the block are grateful for.

Though the nuns live a very dedicated, difficult, and isolated life, they are surrounded by beauties unknown to most.

The artwork of one of America’s and England’s most renowned Catholic artists adorns the walls of this century-old monastery. Nearly a dozen paintings rest on the walls that housed the devoted former nun, Sister Mary of the Compassion. Perhaps her most revered work is the nebulous altar in the church constructed with gold. At the forefront of this lies a breathtaking gold mosaic behind the image of Christ.

History of Mary Rowe

The Blue Chapel’s most famous nun would also go by the name Constance Mary Rowe. Born Constance Dorothy on March 17, 1908, she was baptized at the Brompton Oratory in England, London’s second largest Roman Catholic Church.

Constance had special artistic abilities, having been formally trained at the Royal College of Art in London. She also studied in Rome after winning a major international art prize (the Prix de Rome) in 1932.

In 1935, Constance traveled to New York only to find her way to Union City, a place where she would remain for the rest of her life.

After joining the Dominican Sisters at the Blue Chapel in April 1937, she took on the name Sister Mary of the Compassion and embarked upon her Religious Profession, or rite to become a nun, which would follow in the next year.

Throughout her residence at the Blue Chapel, her artistic skills were honed, conditioned, and encouraged.

During this time, she painted one of her major works, a painting of Dominican saints surrounding a crucified Christ. The life-size painting (8 by 4 feet) is currently housed at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.

According to Sister Maria of the Cross of the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit; Sister Mary was commissioned by the House of Studies during the ’50s to paint an artwork there. The painting adorns the refectory of the house, regarded by some as the largest, most ambitious painting embarked on by Sister Mary.

Sister Mary also worked with other media types including textile, mosaic, and clothing. Her paintings include use of water colors, oil, and gold leaf (thinly hammered sheets of gold) on textures such as paper and wood. Echoing the style of Renaissance painters before her, Sister Mary painted portraits of the Madonna and important events such as Christ’s removal from the cross.

Sister Mary of the Compassion died in 1977 after a medical checkup a week prior deemed “nothing wrong” with her. She died at the age of 69.

A friend to the sisters

Ron Threm was 19-years-old when he remembered a humorous story on how he first came in contact with Sister Mary.

“There was a painting with St. Dominic and an angel dressed in red and I said ‘why did she paint St. Dominic with the devil,” said Threm. “I found out then it wasn’t the devil but an angel,” he laughed.

Threm has known the sisters and has been involved with the Monastery of the Perpetual Rosary since the 1953. As a member of Jersey City’s Third Order of St. Dominic, Threm helped the sisters maintain the gift shop. He fondly remembered Sister Mary and her paintings, holding the utmost praise for her.

Occasionally, Threm forwards prayer requests from locals throughout the community to the sisters and clerks the gift shop most famously known for its Mass cards once a week. Until four years ago, Threm would help out the sisters on a daily basis.

The monastery’s future

Despite some ignorance throughout the community regarding the monastery’s status, Threm invites locals to enjoy what it has to offer the community.

“We have a community Mass everyday at 6:30 a.m. open to the public,” said Threm.

Community participation is highest though during holidays such as Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, Christmas Eve and Day, and Holy Thursday.

The sisters humbleness and dedication to prayer is so devout that Threm recalled an instance in which members of the community from different religions requested prayers and Mass cards.

“I had Muslim and Jewish people come in for Mass cards and ask for prayers,” said Threm.

Funding for the monastery also comes from sales of vestments, rosary beads, and other religious articles.

Nicolas Millan can be reached NMillan@hudsonreporter.com.

SIDEBAR: DOMINICAN ORIGIN –The father of the Dominican fellowship, sometimes also referred to as the Order of the Preachers, is St. Dominic de Guzman (1170-1221), born in northern Spain. During a diplomatic mission to Denmark, Dominic traveled through southern France where a popular trend of heresy and Catharism – a religious sect adopting theological dualities – existed. Upon his return, Dominic sought to convert the ailing theological climate of southern France. In 1215, Dominic, together with six followers, established himself and his followers to follow the strict practice of prayer and penance. Around January 1217, Dominic was given official permission by Rome’s Pope Innocent III for his order to be named the Order of Preachers O.P., also known as the Dominican Order. In the O.P., the rosary also holds high esteem; legend tells of an apparition of the Virgin Mary appearing to St. Dominic when the Madonna gave him the Rosary. According to Sister Maria of the Cross of the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary located in Summit, the rosary isn’t the rigid type known among Catholics today, but rather the loose foundations for what would eventually develop into the rosary. The understanding of its vehicle for salvation is key to the Dominican Order and is something commonly practiced at the Blue Chapel. – NM


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