ELMIRA — Perched above the hustle and bustle of West Church Street is a sprawling, enclosed complex. Despite its urban location, little is generally known about the property’s residents, who almost never venture beyond its fences.
The facility is home to 14 Dominican sisters in the Order of Preachers, a community devoted to prayer and work within a cloistered, or closed, setting.
According to one of the residents, Sister Miriam, “The contemplative life gives you a perspective on the world that can be truer than those who function in it. It’s a life of prayer, really, and deepening in that prayer. You come to a different perspective, which is God’s perspective.”
“You hope our life here makes some kind of statement. Possessions, entertainment, all that kind of thing — that’s not where true happiness is,” added Sister David Marie, who serves as prioress, or head, of the community. “People get addictions, and there’s an emptiness that they’re trying to fill with the addictions.”
“People keep searching for happiness in things — and we found happiness here,” said Sister Miriam, a former prioress at the monastery.
Although the Dominican sisters refrain from a secular lifestyle, they do emphasize maintaining contact with the public. For instance, all are invited to upcoming events celebrating the 60th anniversary of the monastery’s founding at 1310 W. Church St. On Aug. 15, Rochester Bishop Matthew H. Clark will preside at an anniversary Mass in the monastery chapel, followed by a buffet lunch. In addition, Father Romanus Cessario, a Dominican priest, will preach a Triduum on the new luminous mysteries of the rosary Aug. 10-12, from 7 to 8 p.m. each night.
Daily Mass at the chapel is also open to the public. It is held at 7:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, and 7:45 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. The liturgies are celebrated by Father Michael Trainor, a Dominican priest. Attendance usually runs between 20 to 30 people for weekday Masses, and slightly higher on the weekends.
People may also visit the on-site gift shop that opened in 1983. The shop, along with private donations, provide crucial funding for the community. “We’re self-supporting. People think the order and the diocese support us. They don’t,” Sister Miriam said.
The sisters were recently paid a visit by famed astronaut Eileen Collins, an Elmira native who is Catholic. They also get several prayer requests by telephone — yet a line must be drawn in order for residents to maintain their contemplative commitments. In fact, they prefer for prayer requests to be mailed, or left in a designated spot at the monastery entranceway.
This separation allows the sisters to focus on their vocation of daily prayer that includes Mass; Liturgy of the Hours; solitary prayer; the rosary; and Scripture study. Community members also utilize their individual skills in the areas of gardening, artwork and sewing for daily chores, as well as to produce food and crafts sold at the gift shop. The food is grown in the monastery’s beautifully landscaped gardens that are highlighted by a shrine to the Blessed Mother deep in the back yard.
Monastery of Mary the Queen is situated on four acres of land. The building formerly served as a country-club clubhouse and later as a senior-citizen residence. A community of eight sisters settled there in 1944 to carry on the tradition of the Dominican order, begun in 13th-century France by St. Dominic. The last founding sister, Sister Maria Consolata, died this past February at age 90.
The most recent sister to profess her final vows, Sister Jude Marie Thaddeus, went through the rite on June 26. She, Sister David Marie and Sister Miriam reside at the monastery along with Sister Genevieve; Sister Mary Agnes; Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart; Sister Ann; Sister Mary Dominic; Sister Ritamae; Sister Mary Catherine; Sister Mary Stephen; Sister Joan; Sister Mary of the Trinity; and Sister Mary Margaret.
Many community members are natives of the Rochester Diocese. In fact, Sisters Miriam, David Marie and Mary Stephen grew up in St. Charles Borromeo Parish near Rochester. They all entered the Order of Preachers in the early 1960s.
Sister David Marie said the sisters keep track of the outside world through television news and reading, but don’t leave the grounds except for “anything we really judge to be necessary that can’t be done within the enclosure.” Examples of this are medical appointments and attending occasional lectures at nearby Mount Savior Monastery. However, Sister David Marie said, the sisters must decline the occasional invitations to visit people’s homes.
Whereas the community has its own Web site (www.op.org/maryqueen), both Sister Miriam and Sister David Marie voiced concern about modern technology infiltrating the simple lives they try to maintain. “We can’t get sucked up into it, although we are human,” Sister David Marie said.
For those who feel the Dominican sisters don’t know what they’re missing on the outside, Sister Miriam and Sister David Marie see it the opposite way.
“Well, you know, happiness is really doing what God has put us on earth for,” Sister David Marie remarked. “It doesn’t mean that there aren’t struggles and pains, but that’s God’s way of letting us know that this world doesn’t give us complete happiness.”
She added that she’s fulfilled by the knowledge that “God loves us. That is the ultimate happiness.”