Dominican Sisters Keep Tradition Of Prayer And Service

The sisters whisper “Amen” before silently crossing themselves as morning Mass ends, beginning a daily routine of centuries-old customs.

It’s hard to believe, but history is playing out in the present.

From prayer to play, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia follow a rich tradition and what they consider a higher calling.

Understanding the sisters’ way of life requires looking 800 years or so into the past, when it all began with one Spanish priest.

In 1206, Dominic de Guzman founded what would be the first of many convents in his name. Inspired by a vision, Dominic established an order of priests and nuns to deliver the gospel to the people during a time when the Roman Catholic Church dealt with several different heresies.

After creating the Dominican Sisters, he went on to found a sect of priests who traveled far and wide for their cause. Dominican life requires members to follow a daily routine of prayer and service, which is carried on by Dominicans today.

The story of Nashville’s Dominican sisters began in 1860, when four sisters arrived with the goal of setting up a motherhouse and a school. One hundred fifty years later, the St. Cecelia motherhouse is now home to over 230 sisters, from those just entering the order to those who have spent decades in service to the Roman Catholic Church.

At 5:30 every morning, the bell at 800 Dominican Drive calls the sisters into the chapel for Angelus, morning offering, and 30 minutes of private meditation. Following this, the sisters begin the Holy Sacrament of Mass.

The quietness of the hour is absolute. No extraneous sounds distract the sisters, not even the noise of traffic outside, for there is none. Every face is turned reverently toward the altar, every head bowed in silent devotion before Mass begins.

Nothing disturbs this most sacred of hours, nothing can come between the sisters and their conversations with God.

The praying is soft, the day is new, and the slate is clean.

The glow of sunrise steadily brightens the chapel interior, bringing with it a promise of opportunity and hope for the day ahead. Perhaps this is why Mass is considered the high point of the day.

“It’s the fulcrum of our life,” said Sister Mary Ruth, who, like her sisters, believes the chapel to be a place of incubation.

“The Mass is the source of all we do, and we return to that summit each new day.”

Following Mass, a short, silent breakfast is eaten before the sisters disperse to fulfill their apostolate, or designated calling.

For the Sisters of St. Cecilia, the calling is teaching at one of seven schools in Nashville affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. Those remaining behind take turns praying in the chapel for the sisters going out to teach.

As with many of her sisters, Sister Amelia fulfills the convent’s apostolate by teaching Spanish at St. Cecilia Academy.

She navigates the modern, locker-lined halls with expertise against the maelstrom of sleepy students hurrying left and right to their classes.

Sister Amelia does not seem a bit out place, despite the contrast of her habit against the sweaters, hoodies, T-shirts, and leggings worn by her pupils. None of the girls swirling around the sisters finds it odd how women in traditional Dominican clothing are their teachers.

For them, it’s just another day at Catholic high school.

Christ solemnly watches from a large painting on the wall while Sister Amelia instructs her freshmen Spanish class.

Behind the students on a small table sits a statuette of the Virgin Mary. Clutched in her tiny hands is a rosary, and she lifts those hands in a fixed position of prayer permanently directed toward the students.

Sister Amelia moves about the room while her students work, eagerly checking their progress from over their shoulders. Sister Amelia’s enthusiasm for teaching is also an important part of her monastic duties.

“Teaching is our apostolate, and not only are we teaching academics, but we are also teaching about Christ’s love,” Sister Amelia said.

Her students said how attending the academy and being taught by the sisters is more than just regular schooling. Besides learning the subject matter, they experience the love and happiness of their instructors. They were also adamant about how their teachers are not at all the stereotypical strict, severe, ruler-toting nuns.

In fact, teaching at St. Cecilia brings out the complete opposite of that image. The sisters are not afraid to “throw down” and often cheer, with pom-poms, at sporting events, Sister Amelia’s students said.

Loosening up through recreation is just as important to the sisters as praying. Basketball, tennis, and Ultimate Frisbee are all popular sports at the motherhouse, said Sister Mary Ruth. Although all sports are played in full Dominican garb, Sister Mary Ruth said her sisters have no trouble moving around on the motherhouse’s courts and recreation fields.

“Recreation helps us to stay active in body as well as spirit, and it’s just really fun,” she said.

Each sister carries her own personal story of being called to monastic life.

Sister Amelia said she first experienced her calling during her college years. Raised in a nonreligious family, she always “wanted to know the why behind things” despite being a nonbeliever.

She majored in international health, and wanted to compete as an Olympic rower. Then everything changed when Sister Amelia participated in an exchange trip to South America. She began absorbing the predominantly Catholic culture of the region and started going to prayers more and more often. When she finally confided in a priest about what she was feeling, he told her, “God has done His part, now it’s up to you.”

So Sister Amelia decided to commit her life to the Dominican Sisters and to God.

“I came to know the invitation, not the mandate,” she said.

Like Sister Amelia, the other sisters say they did not choose to join the order, but rather experienced a calling to a life of monasticism.

Sister Elinor came to know her call thanks to her interactions with Benedictine monks teaching at college.

“I didn’t choose it, the Lord chose me,” she said. “It wasn’t my plan, but it became my plan when the Lord placed within me the desire to have a personal relationship with Him. God gradually draws you through human cords.”

And the human cords are vital to the sisters.

“It’s beautiful friendships that last all your life,” Sister Mary Ruth said. “You’re going to get self-knowledge, and that perception gets opened up to other parts of life.”

“We learn about ourselves through our interactions with each other and with God,” Sister Elinor said.

Each day in the motherhouse ends with profound silence, which is not broken until the bell rings the next morning. This time of quiet is meant to be used for personal prayer or study so the sisters may mentally prepare themselves for the day to come. Although silence is important in the lives of the sisters, Sister Elinor says laughter is just as meaningful to their community. A great sense of humor is a staple of living in the motherhouse, and she stressed how laughter and silence are both needed for a good balance in their lives.

“Silence helps you appreciate humor, and in turn you appreciate the little things more.”

By late afternoon, the main lights in the chapel are dimmed, creating a sublime atmosphere for meditation and reflection. The only sound is the organ softly playing hymns as old as the motherhouse itself.

The jingling of rosaries precedes the sisters as they file into the chapel for nighttime worship.

One or two elderly sisters enter in wheelchairs, refusing to let their bodies overcome their spirits.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, Holy Virgin of virgins, Mother of Christ, Mother of divine grace…Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be worthy of the promises of Christ.”

Softly speaking, the sisters pray for Mary to intercede in their lives so they might make a difference again tomorrow.