Q & A On Our Renovation Project and the Vow of Poverty

Since we announced our capital campaign and renovation project some of you have raised questions either in the comment boxes or via email. We are grateful for your questions and thought that it would be helpful to you our faithful readers to have a post to address some of your concerns.

Why did you decide to begin this project now? Don't you know that there is a financial crisis and a recession if not a depression in the future? Is this responsible?

Talk of the need of an addition for a suitable infirmary and guest area for our monastery has been going on at least for 50 years. In our archives we have preliminary sketches of an addition. However, we have always been hesitant because we knew it would cost more than we could afford and we have always tried to be frugal which is a part of living evangelical poverty.

However, in the past 5 years or so we have come to see more and more that such an addition is a necessity if we want to continue having our older sisters with us for as long as possible. Not so long ago 70 years old was pretty old. Now, a 70 year old sister is just starting to be considered an older nun! So, our sisters, although they may have some limitations due to health, are much more active in the community than in past generations. A monastic community is family. We follow the Rule of St. Augustine which places great emphasis on the Trinitarian aspect of our life—we don't become holy alone but in the company of others. It is the community that is made holy and seeks to become an image of that Love that is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, having our sisters of all generations together is essential to who we are as Dominicans.

For nearly the last 3 years we have been making serious inquiry into whether such an addition is feasible. It just so happens that when the time finally came to share this with you our country's economic stability began to go haywire.

However, we are not discouraged. An essential part of living poverty is learning to become totally dependent on the Providential Care of our Heavenly Father. For 89 years He has not failed us and we know that if we trust Him, He will not fail us now. Perhaps in the end what WE planned will change radically as we become more aware of what HE has planned for us but that is just fine for Christ's brides! After all, in 1920 the founding sisters of our monastery planned a 15 altar basilica to our Lady of the Rosary. But this wasn't God's plan and something else came out of it—a small monastery rather oddly built but one where Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is literally the CENTER of our monastery.

You state that the projected cost of the renovations is $500,000 and the new addition $7 million! That's a lot of money! Why will it cost so much and how do you understand it since you make a vow of poverty?

St. Catherine of Siena likens the Church to a great ship in which many different charisms flourish. Each one lives the vow of Poverty in a slightly different way. So, Dominican poverty is not Franciscan poverty.

St. Augustine saw poverty primarily as living simply and holding all things in common just as the Apostles did with Jesus and just as the first Christian community did as described in the Acts of the Apostles. This is the type of poverty that Dominicans strive to live. Poverty is a means to an end not an end in itself. There is absolutely NOTHING praiseworthy about being poor just for itself. That is why Christians have an obligation to help the poor.

But poverty for the sake of the kingdom of God and in order to be free for God alone is a different thing. As contemplatives our end is nothing less than God Himself! Through His generous love, we have been called simply to love and praise Him for no other reason than He alone is worthy of our lives and our love. And because we are contemplatives in an apostolic Order, from our contemplation overflows a desire to "share the fruits of our contemplation" which is the desire that the Holy Preaching may flourish for the salvation of souls.

Evangelical Poverty frees us. It frees us from enslavement to worldly affairs and from anxiety about them. It frees us to bind ourselves to God and give ourselves more fully to Him. Poverty frees us for liberality so that we can freely share what we have for the sake of the kingdom of God.

This aspect of freedom is essential and important. If we own nothing but are avaricious and cling to the things that are given to us for our use, then it's a sign that we need to grow in our life of poverty. St. John of the Cross tells us that whether a bird is tied down by a thread or by a rope it is still tied down and can't fly!

So, why such an expensive project? We've explored many possibilities and this is really our only option. While our monastery may LOOK large it is in fact quite small and there is no give for renovation in order to create a suitable infirmary or guest area. The kitchen and refectory can and needs to be renovated but there is not much you can do with a hallway that is 31 inches wide and cells that are 6x9 which is the size of our monastic cells. Once you get a hospital bed in a room that size there isn't much room for anything else!

Why will it cost so much to build? There are several factors. First, in the end it may not cost this much if we build within the reasonable future. We are hoping for either gifts or reduction in price of building materials. Second, adding on to our existing structure presents some major challenges, the least being blasting through enormous Vermont granite blocks which were the foundation of the thought-to-be basilica. There are challenges in the grade of the land at this particular part of the building, also.

Thirdly, if you live in this area you know that the cost of living is quite high. Gas is often 25 cents more expensive here than not too far west or north of us. When our founding sisters came here in 1919 it was a little country town that city folk from New York came to in the summer to escape the heat. Over time it's become quite a wealthy area as a bedroom community of New York.

Why can't you make your monthly bills each month?

Dominican nuns come from the mendicant tradition and we have always been dependent on Divine Providence for our needs. During the period of history we were founded—the middles ages—land was the resource for revenue for monastic communities along with a nun's dowry. One of St. Dominic's immediate concerns for the first community of Prouilhe was to sell and trade land in order that the nuns could have revenue to support their monastic life. This was pretty much the way most monasteries lived until the 20th century when such a system was no longer possible. A nun's dowry was no longer sufficent to support her.

The Church has always understood the particular place cloistered contemplatives have in the Body of Christ. We are called to live in the heart of the Church praising God and interceeding for His people. The medievil society understood this and knew that it was their responsibility to help provide for those who voluntarily become poor for Christ. Without the generosity of our many friends and benefactors our contemplative life simply would not be possible.

Living the monastic life becomes more of a challenge in today's society. There are requirements for institutions such as ours that we have never had in the past. Insurance, both for the property and for medical are expensive and we have no "employee benefits" but must provide as though we were a small business. Receiving new sisters brings a blessing but also the challenge of more people for whom we need to provide health insurance. Due to the community's current situation of having many older sisters and a number of sisters still in formation, we must employ a part-time cook, a day and night nurse and several handymen work part time. This requires that we pay them a just wage with appropriate benefits according to the region of the country we live in. In fact, paying our employees is a significant portion of our monthly expenses.

The state and our city require us to keep our building and especially our kitchen up to code. In recent years this has required that we install a new fire alarm system and rewiring of electrical wires which were very expensive but necessary projects! Now, attention must be given to our exhaust system in the kitchen and to the plumbing which is a nightmare waiting to happen.

As time passes we must be good stewards of our property and building and keep them in repair. Our monastery was built with the hard-earned dimes and quarters of many, many people and we owe it to them to do this. While the building itself is essentially rock-solid everything else falls apart over time. This is means regular maintenance projects. Our workmen are really good at this but there comes a time when something, like the stairs or plumbing or the retainer walls at the edge of our property on Springfield Ave. require major renovations.

Why not use part of your chapel for your space needs or why don't you sell the property and move somewhere else?

Taking part of our outside chapel for use for our project would cut off any access to the chapel by guests and in fact would give us very little space for our project. The space it would give us would be totally windowless, besides. Practically it is totally unrealistic.

While some monastic communities recently have opted to pick up and move to another location we do not feel that God is asking us to do this. In our mobile society where the family home is more an investment in a house and a temporary living place until the next job means picking up and moving clear across the country, the monastery points to stability, to the value of sacred space and to the fact that a monastery is more than just a roof over our heads. Our monastery is a gift to us through the generosity of many, many people and we feel it is important to take care of and pass on to the next generations this sacred place. A monastery is a foyer into heaven. For Dominican nuns simply being a community is a form of preaching. Our little monastery set on a hill in this city of Summit is called to be a light and beacon to all who pass by reminding them of the passing of things of this world and the permanence of heavenly things.

Day after day, from six in the morning until seven or even nine at night people from the area rely on our monastery to be a place where they can come and be in the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and where they can grow in intimate union with them. It's not usual for one of our friends to call us up and ask if there is something special going on at the monastery because there are so many cars in our driveway! In fact, it is "only" that many come to pray here. Some come to listen to us sing the Divine Office.

We see this as a gift that we offer all who come. The gift we are offering is Jesus Himself! We would love nothing more than to have even MORE people come to our chapel to pray.

Through much prayer and reflection we feel that God is continuing to ask us to be here on this hill in Summit, New Jersey. What the future will hold and whether or not our building project will come to fruition depends on both God's Will and our friends and benefactors. We do our part and trust that He will always care for us and our needs.

This is a long post but we hope it has helped answer question you may have about our our renovation and building project. Please feel free to email us at nunsopsummit@op.org if there are other questions you have.

Thank you and God bless you.