You have to drive slowly along the dirt road or you will miss the old-style country mailbox and red barn marking the driveway of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
A right turn up the driveway leads to a bundle of red-bricked, copper-roofed buildings topped with a dome and bell-tower reminiscent of a small Italian city. Under the dome sits one of the loveliest chapels to be found anywhere.
Dedicated the previous day (the chapel was brilliantly designed by Gus Pappas, a Greek orthodox architect) to my eyes and ears, the chapel succeeded in what chapels are meant to do - bring a bit of heaven to earth and inspire prayer in those who enter there.
The Sisters were celebrating a Mass of Thanksgiving, giving thanks for those who provided the resources for the buildings, not only the chapel, but also the adjacent structures. After my visit there, I found myself giving thanks for this remarkable flowering of women's religious life. (The other equally dynamic community of women's religious I've seen for myself is the Dominican Sisters in Nashville, Tennessee.)
The last time I visited the Sisters was nine years ago, the year of their founding. They were living, all four of them, in a ranch-style home converted for their use near Domino Farms, then the command center for the many apostolates funded by Tom Monaghan.
Founded by Cardinal O'Connor, invited to Michigan by Bishop Mengeling, and funded initially by Monaghan, the Dominican Sisters now number 59, a growth rate of 1400 percent. They are expected to be 70 in all by 2007. Sr. Joseph Andrew, speaking at the luncheon afterward, remarked that, "We are growing so fast we cannot assume a roof over our heads." She added that this was a "good problem" to have.
The average age of the professed Sisters is 28, and the average age of those in the novitiate is 24. Astoundingly, 173 young women attended their vocations retreat in February of this year. I'm sure I wasn't the only person in the room who compared this community to all of the religious orders that are dying because of a lack of vocations.
Mother Assumpta Long, the driving force behind the community, has a simple explanation for their success: "It all begins in the chapel. If it doesn't happen there, it's not going to happen. The most important thing is our religious life."
The Sisters are trained to be teachers. They already run two schools in Ann Arbor, but soon they will be sending two groups of four Sisters each to Hilton Head, SC and Phoenix, AR at the request of Bishops Baker and Olmstead.
The chapel's seating consists mainly of stalls, 87 of them, so you feel like a monk or nun of old, as you participate in the community's worship. Though the chapel's acoustics are rich, the singing of the sisters never lost its clarity. The words from Psalm 42 set among the four harmonic lines of Palestrina's most beautiful work, "Sicut Cervus," were easily heard. (The sisters sing so well they should be recorded.) Sr. Philip John, it should be noted, plays a very mean trumpet, and Sr. Maria Caritas an exceptionally sweet violin.
The Sisters receive a steady stream of requests from across the country for teachers. As they prepare to send their first groups to posts outside the Motherhouse in Ann Arbor, the Sisters are aware they have reached a milestone, in only nine short years.
The growth, vitality, and good work of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, embodies the ongoing revival of the Catholic faith in the U.S. since the election of John Paul II in 1978.
For more information you can reach the Sisters by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to their website, www.sistersofmary.org