Inside the first interracial cloistered community in the US

The Dominican Monastery of St. Jude in Marbury, Alabama has been welcoming women of all ethnicities since the 1940s.

Sister Mary Jordan is a member of the Dominican Monastery of St. Jude in Marbury, Alabama. The cloistered community was founded in 1944 and welcomed women of all ethnic backgrounds, a practice not typical of the era. The community is today home to eight nuns, who devote five hours a day to praising God and praying for various intentions in the outside world. Sister Mary recently spoke with CWR about her vocation and about her unique community, the first interracial cloistered community in the United States.

CWR: Can you tell us about the founding of your monastery?

Sister Mary Jordan: The Dominican nuns were founded by St. Dominic in 1206. He wanted them to support the apostolic preaching of his friars by their lives of contemplation, prayer and penance. Our constitutions say that the friars, sisters, and laity of the order are called to preach the name of Jesus Christ throughout the world. The nuns are called to seek, ponder, and call upon Jesus in solitude so that the word proceeding from the mouth of God may not return to Him empty but may accomplish those things for which it was sent. We bear fruit in two ways: by our intercession, because our prayers call down grace for the salvation of souls, and by our example, because living a life totally dedicated to God is everyone’s goal in heaven. By living that now on earth, as much as we possibly can, we provide an example of what everyone is called to.

The Rosary plays an important role, because our particular branch of nuns was founded in France as the Dominican Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary in 1880. We keep the perpetual vigil to honor Mary and intercede for souls.

The idea of establishing our particular monastery in Marbury began in a Dominican sisters monastery in Catonsville, Maryland (near Baltimore). Mother Mary of Jesus, a sister living there, had a vision of a race riot. People of different races were engaged in a violent struggle. 

She then saw a Dominican friar with dark skin, whom she recognized as St. Martin de Porres, walking amongst the crowd. He was holding up a rosary as he walked. The weapons people held in their hands then turned to rosaries. St. Martin then pointed to the top of a hill, where Mother Mary of Jesus saw a monastery of Dominican nuns of all races praying the Rosary with their arms outstretched in the form of a cross.

To her, the message of the vision was clear, that prayer, especially the Rosary, obtains the reconciliation of all things in Christ. She wanted to found a monastery that accepted people of different races, something that did not exist at the time. 

Mother Mary of Jesus shared her vision with two other nuns in the community, Mother Mary Dominic and Mother Mary of the Child Jesus. They began writing bishops, requesting that they be allowed to establish a new monastery. The very last bishop they were allowed by their superiors to write, Archbishop Thomas J. Toolen of Mobile, Alabama (1886-1976), agreed. It was Divine Providence.

So our community had two foundresses, who began receiving vocations shortly after establishing the community. It received much attention in the media, as it was the first interracial cloistered community; it would accept qualified women of any race. Ours was a community where race didn’t matter. Our goal was to be nuns. We were not involved in the civil rights movement; we simply lived the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

CWR: What is the most number of sisters your community has had?

Sister Mary: Sixteen. Of the eight we have today, our youngest sister is 22, our oldest is 88. We have cells for up to 20 sisters, but that would be a tight fit.

CWR: What role does intercessory prayer have in your life?  One sister said you were a “powerhouse of prayer.”

Sister Mary: That’s right. St. Dominic founded the Dominican nuns to be at the heart of his holy preaching. We offer ourselves to God through our religious consecration; our intentions are those of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. People also send us prayer intentions. It gives us the opportunity in our hearts to feel the burden of spiritual motherhood. We also pray for those things we read about in the news.

CWR: What is the religious make-up of the surrounding community?

Sister Mary: We are in a rural area, about 30 miles north of Montgomery. We have about 100 acres, 80 of which are behind an enclosure. It is a great blessing to be in a peaceful area.

We’re in the Bible belt, and there are few Catholics here; maybe 3 or 4 percent are Catholic. But being a small community, the faith of our local Catholics can be intense.

CWR: Your community’s prayer schedule is posted on your website; what does it look like day-to-day?

Sister Mary: We have three hours of liturgical prayer, and two hours of private prayer. We also have time for study, household work, and recreation together. Our monastic life is arranged in such a way that our nuns can be mindful of God throughout the day. 

CWR: Is it difficult to keep up your schedule?

Sister Mary: I would describe it as regular. It is one thing that astonished me when I was a postulant. The same thing happens the same time every day, whether it be Vespers or recreation. Unexpected things pop up and we have to adjust our schedule—a delivery truck arrives, someone knocks on the door, a water pipe breaks—but otherwise our life here is very consistent.

CWR: Many of your prayers are in Latin.  Why is that?

Sister Mary: The liturgical tradition of the Western Church is Latin. The Dominican Order standardized its liturgy in the mid-1200s, and has had a pretty consistent tradition of Dominican chant. So, after the Second Vatican Council when the liturgy changed, our Marbury community decided that it was important that we continue our Dominican tradition. We sing Lauds (morning prayer), Vespers (evening prayer), and Compline (night prayer) in Latin using our traditional Dominican chant.  

CWR: Do you have Mass in the Extraordinary Form?

Sister Mary: We do not have it regularly, but celebrate it whenever we have the chance. It happens several times a year.

CWR: Tell us about the your habit.

Sister Mary: We wear a white tunic and white scapular. The scapular was given to our order by the Blessed Virgin Mary. It represents her protection that surrounds us. It is a long strip of cloth that extends down the front and back.

We wear a black veil, which represents our consecration to Christ. For novices who have not yet made vows, the veil is white.

The white we wear represents purity of life; the black represents the penance necessary in a fallen world to maintain that purity.

We also wear a Rosary attached to our belt, where a knight would wear his sword. It’s our spiritual weapon for the salvation of souls.

CWR: You are separated from the outside world by a grille. What is its purpose?

Sister Mary: It is a symbol of our being set apart from the world and dedicated exclusively to God. In our chapel we have a grille, which separates us from the sanctuary and the peoples’ chapel. We have a grille in the parlor, which separates us from those who come to visit. Around our grounds there is a wall or fence, which marks out the sacred space in which the nuns live.

CWR: How aware are you of the outside world? Are you following, for example, the US presidential election?

Sister Mary: In order to have the tranquility of heart necessary for the contemplative life, it is important that we’re not too plugged in to all the details of what’s going on in the world. However, it is important that we are aware of the needs of the world so that we many bring them before God.

We vote by mail-in ballots. We receive local newspapers and Catholic publications. We follow the news of the Dominican Order, as well as the Archdiocese of Mobile, in which we are located. We also have many friends and benefactors from the outside world who write us with their needs.

CWR: When you read the news, what do you think is most pressing to pray about?

Sister Mary: Globally, there is intense violence and political upheaval which is very grave. As Our Lady of Fatima requested, we pray for peace and conversions.

On a human level, many people are alienated from God. They make choices that make them unhappy, so we bring them to God in our prayer.

We’re also always praying for our Dominican friars and for priests and others working in the active apostolate. As a powerhouse of prayer, it is our job to obtain grace. It is not the preaching that converts, but God’s action in the heart. Our prayers obtain the help these apostolates need to be fruitful. It is a beautiful relationship of working together.

CWR: How is your community funded?

Sister Mary: We rely on donations to supply our needs. Our Lord provides for us through our friends and benefactors.

We have a wonderful example of Divine Providence from the days we were building our monastery. A contractor came to the back door demanding payment, and the sisters didn’t have the money. Meanwhile, there was a knock on the front door, and it was Fulton Oursler, author of The Greatest Story Ever Told. He had a check in hand for the exact amount the contractor was demanding.

We’ve had benefactors who have supported us since the early days. We’ve been gratified when their descendants, the younger generation, step up to take their place as they pass away. 

When our temporal needs are provided for, we are free for God alone. We continually remember our benefactors in our prayers, and even have a day on the liturgical calendar in which Mass is offered for our deceased benefactors. We will pray for them as long as we are here.

CWR: How often do your sisters leave the cloister?

Sister Mary: We leave as little as possible. Usually, it is for medical care. As one sister says, “You can’t send your teeth to the dentist.”

CWR: As a community dedicated to the Blessed Mother and the Rosary, of what significance do you place on the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of Mary at Fatima?

Sister Mary: This year, we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Dominican community. Next year, we’re looking forward to the 100th anniversary of Fatima.

We hope it will raise awareness of Fatima and Our Lady’s message there. There are good, practicing Catholics today who are unfamiliar with Fatima. People need to pray the Rosary for peace and make the five First Saturdays.

CWR: How did you come to join the Dominican Monastery of St. Jude?

Sister Mary: I grew up in Loveland, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati. I owe much of my vocation to my parents. The combination of my dad’s Catholicism and my mom’s seeking God led us to become an active Catholic family. We homeschooled. I was also blessed to attend a Dominican parish, and participate in Youth 2000 (a Eucharist-centered youth retreat) and the Legion of Mary.

I have long had a Dominican’s thirst for the truth. I was interested in studying philosophy and history. I had a Dominican zeal for souls. I saw the problems with the culture and that people needed help in figuring out how to live their faith.

That led me to Christendom College in Virginia. It offered a strong Catholic community, a solid liberal arts education with Thomistic philosophy and theology, and a beautiful liturgical formation. 

Upon my graduation, I had several good options available to me. I could enter into a beautiful Catholic marriage. I could teach. Or, I could enter religious life. I taught at a private Catholic school for a year.

When I met the sisters in this community in Marbury, it became clear to me that this was where God was drawing me to serve Him. I was impressed with the sisters’ joy and spirit. Our custom book says that the Perpetual Rosary Sisters should have a double spirit of joy and tender fraternal charity. That really came through to me. 

I also liked the emphasis the sisters placed on Eucharistic adoration. We’re at 12 hours a day now; we hope to get back to perpetual adoration once we get the sisters we need. I liked their devotion to Mary. I liked the Latin chant, to which I had been exposed at Christendom, and the Dominican emphasis on study. I liked the idea of spiritual motherhood; my zeal for souls would be realized in the contemplative life through a total outpouring of myself to God in the community on behalf of souls rather than through an external apostolate.

CWR: Do you see your family?

Sister Mary: Our families can come twice a year to visit. Mine does. We visit with them in the parlor, just like we would with anyone who shows up.

My family finds this a very special time when they can visit their daughter and sister who is a cloistered nun. It is a sacrifice, as we can’t visit every day, but our love has to go to a deeper level. They know we’re here praying for them. They can write letters.  They can also take home with them the peace of the monastery.

CWR: What did your parents think of your decision to enter the convent?

Sister Mary: They were supportive of my desire to become a religious sister. However, they weren’t sure that the cloister was right for my personality. They thought my talents would be better used in an active apostolate.  But, after visiting and seeing how this life is attractive to me, they’ve come to believe I made the right decision.

CWR: What kind of woman would be a right fit for your community?

Sister Mary: There is no particular type. We have sisters with many different personalities, and from all over the country. When women come to us interested in pursuing a religious vocation, however, we look for someone who is really seeking God in her life and earnestly living her Catholic faith. Usually, God has disposed her heart through circumstances in her life to embrace the countercultural vocation that is the cloistered life.

A young woman may be attracted to an aspect of our life, such as Eucharistic adoration, Marian devotion, Latin chant or study. To flourish in this vocation, she has to come to love all of these things.

We do have some other requirements. Our age for entry, for example, is 18-30.

CWR: Can people visit the monastery?

Sister Mary: They can come for Mass, and stay and pray with us in our chapel. 

They can send us prayer requests and sign up for our newsletter through our website. We also offer prayer enrollments.

CWR: What needs does your community have?

Sister Mary: We always have the need for material support. We need prayers, as we need divine help to persevere in our vocation. We also need people to spread the word about our community. While it is God who plants the seed of a vocation in a woman’s heart, if she is unaware we exist, she won’t be able to come to our community. Ours is a hidden life, but the monastery itself has to be a visible witness.

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About Jim Graves 235 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.