Farmington Hills — The occasion of a novice making her first vows at a cloistered monastery is uncommon enough in the 21st century, but to have the accompaniment of an African choir must be rare indeed.
But that was precisely what happened April 28 as Sr. Maria of Jesus, OP, made her first profession as an extern sister at the Monastery of the Blessed Sacrament, a community of Cloistered Dominican Nuns.
“At the end of my life, I would like my epitaph to read that I was a friend of God, a person who walked closely with God,” Sr. Maria of Jesus said in response to questions from The Michigan Catholic.
Through prayer and spiritual direction, she said she came to believe that the vowed religious life would be the surest way for her to achieve holiness: “Religious life eliminates some of the obstacles to growing in holiness,” she said.
Originally from Lagos, Nigeria, the former Maria-Carol Nwagwu now joins three other extern sisters, who serve as the “public face” of the monastery — at Middlebelt Road at 13 Mile Road in Farmington Hills.
As extern sisters, they greet visitors, run the bookstore, work with volunteers and otherwise conduct such business of the community as requires contact with the outside world, making it possible for the 32 cloistered nuns to live their life of prayer within the enclosure of the cloister.
“We are the ambassadors and protect the enclosure,” Sr. Maria of Jesus said in an interview.
Sr. Maria of Jesus’ family is of the Igbo (pronounced e-bo) tribe, and fellow Igbo Catholics from around the Metro area turned out for the ceremony, including the Igbo Mass Choir of the Igbo Catholic Organization at St. Cecilia Parish in Detroit.
They and the members of her own family, as well as fellow members of her parish — Our Lady of Victory in Northville — and people who have come to know her during her novitiate at the monastery, filled the public side of the monastery chapel (the cloistered nuns are separated by a screen).
Sr. Maria of Jesus, 47, came to the United States 28 years ago to study at Michigan State University, where she earned a Ph.D. in higher education finance.
She then had a highly successful secular career, during which she taught at South Carolina State University and then held a position in the central administration of the Lansing School District. Along with her work, she experienced a deepening of her faith life, as “God was always drawing me to Himself.”
But despite going to daily Mass and doing a lot of volunteer work, she said “it seemed I could never find enough time to worship God.”
Two books she read during that time had a great effect on her, Sr. Maria of Jesus said. She was particularly impressed by one of the principles Stephen R. Covey outlined in his “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” in which he advised to “Begin with the end in mind.”
The other book was “The Fulfillment of All Desire,” by Ralph Martin, a nationally known author and lecturer who also teaches at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.
After some searching, she decided upon the Monastery of the Blessed Sacrament, attracted by the Cloistered Dominicans’ life of prayer and by the joy she witnessed among the members of that community.
She opted for the extern sister route, she said, because she enjoys working with the public, and because “I was attracted to being able to welcome Christ in all who come through the doors of the monastery.
Being an extern sister or being a cloistered nun are “canonically two different vocations,” and extern sisters are “kind of a hybrid,” explained Sr. Mary Peter, OP, prioress of the monastery.
On the one hand, the extern sisters join with the cloistered nuns for daily Mass and some of the seven monastic “hours” — the seven periods of praying the Liturgy of the Hours — while on the other hand, their ministry with the public does not place them so much out in the world as does that of a Dominican sister in an congregation such as the Adrian Dominicans.
The monastery has several novices in formation to be cloistered nuns, and Sr. Mary Peter said she is heartened that the monastery has seen an increase in the number of inquiries from eligible young women.
For more information about the Cloistered Dominicans of the Monastery of the Blessed Sacrament, call (248) 626-8253.