Part I: The Beginnings
Westward the train chugged, westward toward Detroit! Detroit, the goal of seven white-clad Cloistered Dominican Nuns. Detroit, soon to be the locus of their contemplative living and apostolic love.
As the Annals tell us: “Their itinerary lay on the upper side of the Niagara river which flows in rapid currents from Lake Erie to Ontario, and which possesses the most beautiful cataracts in the world. With the eyes of contemplative souls they viewed this stupendous work of the Creator. Through the years of cloistered seclusion which lay ahead they would return in prayer and conversation to this marvel of marvels, again hear the roar of the of the falls above the sound of the train, and compare the Creator with the creature: the Creator making Himself so humble, so insignificant in the Sacrament of His love for their sake.” God’s greatness, God’s humility, the two concepts were always united in their thoughts. And with the riches of the Dominican monastic life, they were bringing their privilege of Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament to the city they already claimed as their own.
Who were these foundresses who had left the Monastery of St. Dominic, Newark, New Jersey, on the evening of April 1st, 1906? Each of them would leave her special cachet on the community in the motor city.
Mother Mary Emmanuel, the Prioress, was one of four nuns who first brought Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament to the United States in 1880. Love for Jesus, zeal for Adoration, kindness and cheerfulness marked her leadership. Mother Mary Theresa, Sub-Prioress, brought an ardent temperament along with her Spanish zest for rigor of observance and of penance (perhaps a bit too much at times, the Prioress thought!).
Capable Mother Mary of the Visitation was a mature religious. The others were promising beginners. Gentle Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart who was just 24 was a fine musician. Impetuous Sister Mary of the Infant Jesus, who had celebrated her 20th birthday in the train, was filled with energy and enthusiasm. Prayerful Sister Mary Joseph, a saintly lay-sister, was still a novice. Each had her own special gift of nature and grace to bequeath to the Community now and in the years to come, as we shall learn in subsequent chapters of this history. Sister Mary of the Nativity, a mature Lay-sister loved by all, was soon compelled by illness to return to Newark.
As they detrained in Windsor, they were met by Father Francis Van Antwerp. Through God’s loving Providence it was he who was present with Bishop John S. Foley when Mother’s offer of a foundation arrived. Perpetual Adoration? A good thing for Detroit to be sure, but...”What shall I do with them, Van?” the Bishop mused. “Let them come,” replied the capable and popular Pastor. “I’ll take care of them.” That spontaneous promise he kept with outstanding distinction for the next 25 years!
A suitable house had not yet been found, he informed the Nuns. In the meantime they would lodge with the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and the Religious of the Sacred Heart. Moreover, Father was determined that the good Nuns would ride in one of the new automobiles before cloister was established. After all, this was Detroit! Mother Mary Theresa’s Cuban accent exploded in exclamations “Oh, Oh!” “My goodness!” “ And they say they can go up to 30 miles an hour!” Mother Mary Emmanuel tried to calm her, but to no avail. Mother Mary of the Visitation, a former school teacher, retained her composure. The delighted young nuns giggled at the fun. Mischievous Father Van was amused.
But Father was not neglecting his search. In just a day, the Murphy Mansion at 1189 Woodward Avenue was procured. Carpeting and draperies were removed, cleaning and partitioning began immediately. There were dozens and dozens of windows to be washed as Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart could testify. The new confessional needed to be stained. It was, by Sister Mary of the Infant Jesus who neglected to pin up her white habit..... the hem!! The offended garment-edge was tied up in a butter bag, the best remedy someone said. Discreetly the other nuns made no comment; but during the evening “Salve Regina” procession, they could not subdue some tittering over the rattling bag.
The sacred vessels and sacristy supplies promised by a devout friend had not yet arrived. Father Van provided all from his Holy Rosary Church, even his own chalice. He brought a sturdy but rather scruffy used altar with platform and steps, and also two paint brushes, along with cans of white enamel paint and gold for the trimming. How handsome it was. This altar was used until the permanent chapel was built in 1912.
“I’ll take care of them.” Father Van was there with welcome advice on matters both great and small, even to such as “Now look here, you Sisters can’t burn that red sanctuary lamp in the front window. There is wickedness in this city; people will not understand.” The following morning a man exclaimed to the Prioress: “Mother, you have a beautiful new statue of St. Anthony in the front window, I saw it last evening. And Mother,” he confided, “the saint raised his arm and blessed me.” Mother had to inform the devout man that it was young Sister Mary of the Infant Jesus standing in the bay window hanging a curtain there. The nuns were not about to deprive the dear Eucharistic Lord of a single thing - not even a vigil light.
“There is wickedness in this city,” Father Van had remarked. Yes, but there was much goodness, too. Goodness in family life, goodness in civic life. Then as now there was the innocent pleasure in music and sports. Detroit’s Remick was producing such hits as “Put on Your Old Grey Bonnet” and “Moonlight Bay.” And although the Tigers came out in sixth place that year, Frank Navin was predicting larger parks and larger crowds. And from its Bishop to its simple faithful, Detroit was good to its new Nuns. These, amid busy days were faithful to their times of prayer.
Soon a happy succession of ”First’s” was recorded for the new foundation. On April 6 the little group of five choir nuns chanted Matins and Lauds of the Compassion of our Lady - their first Office prayed in common, standing around the fireplace in the Murphy Mansion for all 15 psalms and nine readings from Sacred Scripture and the Fathers of the Church.
On April 8, Palm Sunday, the Chapel now ready, Father Van celebrated the first Mass in the new Monastery. A week later, April 15, Easter Sunday, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was inaugurated. It was but two weeks since they departed from Newark. The Adoration was only for the day hours at first, with the assistance of women and girls from Holy Rosary and other parishes. Soon there were 120 volunteers.
Three weeks later, May 7, Bishop Foley came to bless the Monastery and to establish the enclosure. When the nuns asked his blessing their Bishop replied: “Not I, but Jesus bless you and make your Order to grow. Work for the salvation of souls and the conversion of sinners by your prayers and good works.”
The following month, Bishop Foley formally presented in writing his vision of the role of Bishop and nuns. The Bishop would provide priestly ministry for Mass and sacraments. “The Sisters, on their side... promise the Right Reverend Bishop that they will persevere in the observance of their Rule and Constitutions and that they will, moreover, both by day and by night according as their numbers allow, attend to the Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament exposed in their chapel” (Letter of Bp Foley June 23, 1906).
How good to be in cloister with its silence. Silence invited to recollection and to that “devout and constant contemplation of Our Lord, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier” of which the rule spoke.
August brought another “first,” the arrival of two candidates. Theresa Barlow had had to wait until her 32nd year before a cloister came to Detroit. As Sister Mary of the Blessed Sacrament she served until a very old age in the life for which she had longed. Her companion, May Ritchie, found the life too rigorous; as Mrs. May Jarkow she remained until her death a dear friend of the Community. So it progressed: some candidates remained and some withdrew; this is the purpose of the Novitiate.
Thus life in the cloister proceeded. Good Father Van with his daily Mass and his gift of fresh bread for his nuns. The prayer petitioners, the gifters and the adorers, the comings and the goings, the prayer and work of the Nuns. But only for a year and a half! Then, alas, Mrs. Murphy sent word that her Mansion had been sold; the purchaser requested immediate occupancy! Another house need be located. Fortunately one was found at 1180 Cass Avenue within Father Van’s parish as he desired. But it was smaller. The whole round of cleaning, partitioning, adapting must be initiated again. They moved on November 21, 1907. Candidates continued to come; among them, on December 8, 1908 the Kalt girls arrived, volunteer adorers whom the Eucharistic Jesus called to Himself in the cloister. Both Bertha and Louise remained to bless the house for years to come. Within a few weeks Postulant Bertha was assigned a singing part in the Divine Office. Louise was the leader who, as Mother Mary of Jesus, built the Monastery in Farmington at the age of 78! But that is to rush ahead in our story. Now it was the pressing question of a first Monastery on Oakland Avenue in Detroit, or at least the first section of it. In the house on Cass Avenue crowding reached the point where one nun had her cell (monastic bedroom) on a stair landing! Mother Mary Emmanuel knew she would have to build.
God would provide..... and Detroit would help. His Providence paved the way.
Note: information drawn from the Annals of the Monastery of the Blessed Sacrament and from the biography of Mother Mary Emmanuel Noel by Sr. Mary of the Heart of Jesus, O.P.
Part II ~ 1908-1924
The year 1908. What might History record? Surely the appearance of the Ford Model T! But also the groundbreaking for the Monastery of the Blessed Sacrament on Sept 4 of the year. The events occur in different spheres; yet they are not entirely unrelated.
Probably it was in the earlier Model “A” that Father Van provided that memorable first auto ride for the thrilled or terrified Dominican nuns upon their arrival in Detroit in 1906. But the immortal inventor, Henry Ford, had further plans with the Model T: “I believe that I have solved the problem of simple automobile construction. The five hundred dollar model is destined to revolutionize auto manufacture.” Ford wanted the auto for the ordinary family. The Model T won a cross country race in 1909, the year that phase I of the Monastery was completed.
Did the famous inventor become a generous donor for the nuns? Surely not. But the famous “Mr. Ford’s $5.00 Day” did attract streams of workers to his Highland Park plant. At the time, skilled labor had gone at $2.45 per 9 hour day, unskilled at $1.79. Now $5.00 for an 8 hour day! What an opportunity! Mr. Ford wanted his workers’ families to live above the subsistence level. Some of these modest new families joined those of French, German, Irish and Polish Catholic ancestry in Detroit who befriended the Cloister. Their number grew slowly.
The honor of first donor for the building of our new Monastery went to the Newark Community which took out a fifteen thousand dollar mortgage on the Monastery there to enable Mother M. Emmanuel to begin construction. Help came gradually, mostly in small gifts as is the case of cloisters which lack former school students or hospital patients to help. Friends gather more slowly, drawn by the labor of the “outside” or Extern Sisters or by word of mouth of those who had benefited from the prayers of the nuns. A second loan needed to be procured before the building was completed. For Mother, financial concerns lingered. She and Mr. Walsh, first architect, had a few disputes; both were right, and both wrong. Mr. Walsh who had visited European monasteries, had plans; Mother visited her slim pocketbook and her ideas of poverty. He did finish part one of the building with its granite stone on sills and coping. Cement sills on phase II were to crumble in later years. Other “economies” met corrections too. One of Mr. Walsh’s monastic windows survived to grace the cloister; its Gothic arch and granite coping were pleasing, but its small size and pale gold tinted glass panes would not have been sufficiently lightsome.
The Detroit nuns were able to occupy the first half of their building at 9704 Oakland Ave. in 1909. Oct. 27 and the following three “Opening Days” allowed the public to tour the cloister. One person remarked “I want to see the dungeons!” but there were none to be found. Sr. M. Joseph hid in a windowless store room to make her meditation, taking Spotty the dog with her. Mother M. Theresa took Daisy the cat which Newark had sent to discipline the bold rats back in the Murphy Mansion. Four days later, on October 30, the nuns were relieved when Bishop Foley came with Father Van Antwerp to bless the Monastery and enclose the nuns. Happily they wended their way toward the parlor, their temporary chapel, to sing a fervent “Te Deum”.
Mother decided to initiate Phase II in 1911. The cornerstone for the permanent chapel of Perpetual Adoration was blessed by Bishop Foley on June 25 of that year. However, when the completed Monastery was dedicated on March 25, 1912 the dear Bishop was too ill to be present. Auxiliary Bishop Edward Kelly officiated in the presence of Bishop Fallon of London, Ontario, and many priests and people.
During the construction and afterward, payments often worried the nuns who prayed and worked earnestly over their embroidery frames. On one occasion, after prayer, Mother gave the names of 4 friends for the Extern Sister to contact. The first patron gave a small offering, the 2nd and 3rd refused, but the fourth patron gave $10,000.00! One payment assured! But more would become due. From the time the first portion was occupied, Mother rose at 4:30 AM before the Community was up to offer her own procession with a statue of the Infant of Prague! She showed Him what yet needed be done in phase I and the place where phase II must be constructed. The Divine Infant did not fail. For many years the nuns held a monthly procession in His honor.
There were other aspects of the life to build as well. With construction in progress and other duties to concern her, Mother M. Emmanuel felt she could not do justice to the formation of the Novices. At her request Newark sent Mother M. Alphonsa of the Blessed Sacrament to assume the role. This competent religious had been Novice Mistress for many years among the Dominican Sisters of St Catherine’s, Kentucky before her transfer to the cloister in Newark. One Sister in Kentucky cautioned Mother Alphonsa, “Here you are somebody, respected by all. There you will be nobody.” But that was just what Sr. Alphonsa desired, to be hidden with God. Later, she was to assume formation duties in the cloister, and would succeed Mother M. Emmanuel as Prioress in Detroit as she had in Newark. Diminutive in stature and much beloved, she was always called “Little Mother”; the nomination would be some help for future generations to identify the various Sisters M. of the Blessed Sacrament to adorn the Monastery Chronicles!
There was monastic observance for Mother M. Emmanuel to consider as well. In 1909 the “Verses of the Passion,” a Dominican Lenten ceremony composed by St Catharine de Ricci were sung for the first time in Detroit. In the same year new Graduales were received, heavy liturgical books with Gregorian Chant Mass Commons and Propers for the entire year! With enthusiasm, the Chronicler announces that choir practice was scheduled three times a week! Life proceeded, gardens grew, shrines were dedicated, candidates presented themselves for “Little Mother’s” novitiate, Father Van preached at reception and Profession Ceremonies. When a surprise celebration was arranged in 1914 for Mother’s 25 years as Prioress, 17 of them spent in Newark, Father Van Antwerp brought his Holy Rosary Choir and harmonium to sing the anthems. The ceremony completed, Father Van offered the harmonium as gift to the Monastery.
The Feast of Corpus Christi always had special meaning for the nuns. The “Holy Midnight” was the treasured time of prayer in Dominican Cloisters. In the depth of the silence they celebrated Matins and Lauds of the Divine Office. In Detroit the 14 psalms, 9 readings and a Canticle were sung before the Blessed Sacrament exposed. The time remaining before 2 AM was spent in silent prayer. On a solemn day, the Office might not conclude before 2:20 AM. Each night was holy, but for the Octave of Feast of Corpus Christi the nuns added a tender devotion special to those with the gift of Perpetual Adoration. During the singing of the “Te Deum” one Choir Nun and One Lay Sister took their places before the Altar, arms extended in the form of a cross, one arm behind the shoulder of the other, a lighted candle in the other hand. In this way they signified before God and each other, the unity of the Community gathered in the service of the Eucharistic Lord. The Choir nuns observed the Holy Midnight; the Lay Sisters kept vigil before the Blessed Sacrament during the other night Hours as well as at their daily times of prayer. All were bound together by love of Our Lord and zeal for souls. Here they found their purpose and their unity. In 1915, the Feast held special poignancy although only a few nuns were aware of it as yet. The first night’s ceremony was assigned the Prioress and the senior Lay sister: Mother M. Emmanuel and Sr. M. Rose. Sister had been the first candidate to join the Dominican nuns upon their arrival in America in 1880. Mother, then a young nun, was assigned charge of the Kitchen with Sr. M. Rose to direct. The choir Nun who had been raised in luxury knew little about cooking and housekeeping, the Lay Sister postulant knew little about Monastic living with its stress on poverty, humility and obedience. What adventures they had together. “Sister, did you ever cook spaghetti?” “Sure and I didn’t” came the answer in a delightful Irish brogue, “but I often ate it.” Well, that was a help. Indeed, proud of her first serving of macaroni and cheese, she looked forward to some words of appreciation from the nuns, at the recreation time. Nothing was said, not a word. Did she forget the salt, put in too much, were the good Sisters displeased? When she inquired, Mother held a finger to her lips. and whispered “Shhh, Sister, this is a Retreat day!”
Sr. M. Rose was one of that chosen class of lay sisters who have served in religious houses for centuries. Some, like Sister, had received no schooling in the “old country” to enable her to read the choir Office, some deliberately choose the more silent life, others did not wish to pray in Latin. Most were possessed of a singular purity of heart, some truly seem to have “seen God” as the beatitude promises. Each of the religious grew in her needed knowledge, and each grew to know and love the other. And now they must part.
Mother M. Emmanuel and Mother M. Theresa discussed it. The Detroit Monastery had indeed been blessed; was it not time to erect another Throne of Adoration for the Lord? Bishop Thomas F. Cusack of Albany was eager to receive them. November 21, 1915 was set as departure day. A special supper with delicious lemon pie was prepared for the seven nuns. But they were not to enjoy it after all. Father Van Antwerp, with his horror of being late, arrived quite early to take the travelers to the train. They must come and right Now! Each year on their Foundation date the Albany Community feasted on lemon pies in memory of those the Detroit nuns had lovingly prepared for them.
But disappointments deeper than missed pastry were to plague Mother in the new location. Detroit had been founded as an act of Thanksgiving; richly blessed, it seemed Mother’s crown. Albany was founded as an act of Reparation. It became Mother’s Cross. Only God knows which was more pleasing to Him. Both vocations and funds were very slow in coming. Within 2 years, Detroit had begun construction of phase I of its building; in Albany it would take 12 years to begin phase I. Mother M. Emmanuel did not live to see it. Phase II was never to be constructed.
It was in late November that Mother M. Emmanuel departed to Albany. Less than 2 months later, in early January, her beloved Sr. M. Rose took her journey to eternity after an illness of one day. An era had closed.
Death would come for several others of the Detroit Community as well. Most moving was that of two young nuns during the Flu epidemic. Sr. M. Gabriel died in 1919. She was 24 and but 3 years professed. Sister had shared her desire to cultivate the virtues as she cultivated the plants in the garden assigned to her. God must have found her spiritual work well done and called her home. She was the second Chichanski girl to pledge herself to God in the Monastery of the Blessed Sacrament. Her older sister, Dora, had gone on the Albany foundation while yet a novice. Upon the deaths of Mothers M. Emmanuel and Theresa, Dora was called to leadership for many years, a task the retiring nun found uncongenial. Yet she did well. Sr. M. of the Holy Ghost was the first Chichanski nun, Sr. M. Gabriel was second. But she was not to be the last. Through the double grille little Margie Chichanski gazed at the still body of her big sister, Sr. M. Gabriel, laid out in the Nuns’ choir. In due time she too would follow her sisters into the cloister. There as Sr. M. Therese she would serve for many years!
Both Viola Allor and her suitor had a decision to face; should they marry or should they enter religious life. They would make a novena. Viola offered her prayers kneeling on the upturned bristles of a sturdy scrubbing brush. The nine days complete, Viola entered the Monastery and her friend joined the Jesuits! Early in 1920 the flu claimed the life of Sr. Mary of the Angels. She was 26 years of age, 3 of religious Profession. “I want to be a Nun of a thousand years” the fervent young Sister had written. How God reckoned her years we do not know. Surely she had lived them with great earnestness.
The Monastery Chronicle has much more to record. In 1922, relief when the last mortgage payment was paid. Pleasure at vestment and banner orders received: local parishes, the Felician Sisters, the Cathedral in Toledo, the Visitandines of Georgetown and so on. Gratitude is often recorded for gifts of produce, gifts of time, of garden work, of new statues. 1923 brought the gift of electric lights in choir; neighbors had complained about the gas. 1924 brought lights for the first floor. Eventually the boon reached the second floor; monastic cells were illumined by 15 watt bulbs. The neighbors would not be dazzled!
The liturgy gained a number of firsts. 1919 St Dominic’s Invitatory was sung for the first time; in 1922 the entire Matins and Lauds with 9 ornate Gregorian responsories; December 8, Our Lady’s Matins sung, Easter 1924 etc. In 1923 new Breviaries were received. No, liturgical changes were not invented at Vatican II. This has been going on for centuries in the Church.
Candidates continued to come, some left. Among the latter talented LaVergne’s and unique and colorful Violet’s parents demanded they depart. Both returned in due time. We shall meet them again.
Faithful Father Van was still with them. Still with his dislike of delay. On confession days he continued to blare his auto horn for the final two blocks as he drove down Boston Boulevard. Quickly the Extern Sister summoned the cloister Sister Touriére (page) who promptly told Reverend Mother who promptly notified the nuns. When Father Van reached the confessional his first penitent was waiting! What a good friend and mentor he remained. No wonder they loved him.
Father Van preached for receptions and professions and rejoiced over them. The nuns rejoiced with him too as he became Monsignor Van Antwerp, Vicar for religious, and finally Vicar General of the Diocese. They shared his sorrow too when the tabernacle at Holy Rosary Church was desecrated. The nuns joined in the special novena and in the solemn day of Reparation.
Mother M. Emmanuel died in 1928, Mothers Mary of Jesus and Mary of Mercy in 1924. Now none of the American Foundresses was alive. An era had closed. But another was opening. On June 23, 1923, the Holy See published an Indult offering to the cloistered nuns of the Great Orders which had formerly enjoyed Solemn Vows the opportunity to resume them. What did “solemn” vows involve? What would they do for the enthusiastic nuns? This we shall explore in Chapter three of our History.
To be continued. Part III: Metamorphisms Times Two & Other Things New