There’s something out of place about a monastery of contemplative nuns in the South Bronx. Sr. Maria Pia, of the Dominican Nuns of Perpetual Adoration on Lafayette Avenue, remembers a time when there were several such establishments. “All the contemplative communities have moved elsewhere over the years,” she says. “This is the poorest place in New York. But we decided to stay and continue our life of prayer here, as witness to the people around us.”
In this urban setting, the sisters’ life is one of constant prayer. “Basically, our life is adoration of the Eucharist. We also chant the liturgy of the hours. We recite and contemplate the rosary as a community. We study the Sacred Scriptures. And we have a procession every evening in honor of the blessed Virgin,” says Sr. Maria Pia, who has resided here for 40 years.
Back in March, when Covid-19 was a gathering storm on the horizon, the nuns received a visit from Fr. John Maria Devaney, OP, a Dominican priest and hospital chaplain in Manhattan. “He was really concerned about us,” recalls Sr. Maria Pia, the superior of the congregation. “He gave us guidelines to protect our monastery, because we have elderly sisters here.”
The first change they had to make was to close the monastery to the public. Contrary to the outsider’s notion of the cloistered life, this was a significant shift in practice. In ordinary times, Sr. Maria Pia says, “Our gate is always open for people to come for adoration.” Others come to the door to ask for food. “There is a shelter across the street from us, so there is always someone coming,” she says. “It’s the city. We are not a monastery in the country, where it’s very, very quiet. It’s absolutely different for us.”
The sisters also had to ask their small staff to stay home to prevent the risk of their bringing the virus into the cloister. “We continued to pay them for about two months, and now we cannot afford to hire them back,” Sr. Maria Pia says. From March 22 through April 8, there was no daily Mass and no Communion at the monastery. After that, the Dominicans sent a priest to live in isolation at the monastery every day for a month, then the archdiocese began sending in a celebrant who would say Mass while a nun would distribute Communion.
But perhaps the most unexpected change, during the height of the crisis, was the sudden silence of the city. “Now we are like a contemplative community in the mountains or in the country,” Sr. Maria Pia observed in June. “More silent, more away from the world, really. It’s positive and negative.” Looking west to the nearby Bruckner Expressway, the absence of traffic was magical; to the east, on the other hand, the sight of the deserted playground where neighborhood children used to play was heartbreaking.
What didn’t change was the sisters’ life of prayer. Sr. Maria Pia sees this as a solution for laypeople looking for relief in the isolation of social restrictions: “To have a relationship as a person with our Heavenly Father, and with the Son and the Holy Spirit – this time could be spent really paying attention to the intimate, to the invisible. We are not alone. God lives within us,” she says.
“And we have to pray for peace. Peace in families. This is the perfect time to ask the Lord to be present and bless all people, each person, because we are all precious in His eyes, and to also pray for those who lack the necessities of life, even in our own country. And I don’t mean only the temporal needs. I also mean people who live in darkness. In darkness, they don’t see the reason for suffering like this.”
Then there is what Sr. Maria Pia calls “the most beautiful prayer of all”: the Prayer of the Heart. “To adore, praise and thank Him for the gifts we receive each day and also tell Him about ourselves, about all our desires and needs, and to ask for help and His blessing. It’s like communicating heart to heart with God.”
Who knows? If you follow Sr. Maria Pia’s lead, you might just learn to stay better connected to God even after your life returns to normal.