The idyllic setting of rural New England, far from the bustle of the cities and college towns, is a fitting location for contemplative religious. Near the small town of North Guilford, Connecticut, about a half-hour drive from the Dominican priory of St. Mary in New Haven, stands the Monastery of Our Lady of Grace. This place, rich with colonial tradition, is enriched by an even older tradition—that of the cloistered nuns of the Dominican Order. Here, thirty nuns, comprising one of the Order’s largest contemplative communities in the nation, live a life of intimate prayer and varied labor in the heart of the Order of Preachers, on their 125-acre property nestled among several small farms along Race Hill Road (according to local legend, the sisters tried to change the name to “Grace Hill Road”).
Yet their life in the area was not always so peaceful, or so certain. When fifteen nuns from the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, New Jersey started a new foundation in 1947, they traveled by bus and arrived in North Guilford in the early hours of the morning. As the sisters left the bus and saw for the first time the farm house which would serve as their monastery, the driver sat and waited, expecting them to change their minds and get back on the bus to New Jersey. Nor was he alone—the previous caretaker of the house was still living there, sitting in the kitchen as the nuns arrived, much to the surprise of all. Yet, the nuns did remain— until tragedy struck the new community in their first decade.
In 1955, just two days before Christmas, some of the electric wires for the nuns’ Christmas decorations caught fire, and quickly, the cloister burst into flame. One of the nuns, trying to put out the fire, was caught in the blaze, and in desperation, she called out to two of her sisters nearby for help. They tried with all their might to free her, but to no avail, and all three nuns perished in the conflagration. Today, the nuns look to this act of charity for inspiration as the exemplar of unconditional love among the sisters, and a monument to the brave nuns stands across the street from the monastery. After the whole structure burned to the ground, a page from the chapel’s missal was recovered from the wreckage. The charred page bore the words “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,” and this same acclamation from the Mass is now inscribed above the doorway to the chapel.
After the monastery was destroyed in the inferno, the surviving nuns searched for a place to live. Their temporary solution was to occupy one of the dormitories at Albertus Magnus College, run by the active Dominican Sisters in New Haven, as their new monastery was being constructed. Yet when the Christmas break ended and the students returned to the college, the nuns had to find shelter at the Walter House, an abandoned home which the county had used to house wayward girls in West Haven. The new monastery was finished as quickly (and cheaply) as possible in 1958, and the nuns have remained in the same building to this day. Despite these hardships in their early years, the community flourished in their second decade, growing so large that in 1965, a dozen of the nuns branched off to begin another foundation in Nairobi, Kenya, a short drive from the studentate of our province’s East African Vicariate. The founders have returned, but the community of African nuns, the Monastery of Corpus Christi, is thriving today.
And the same can be said of the community back home at Our Lady of Grace. The nuns today remain in close collaboration with the Friars, not only in prayer, but also in editing, typesetting, and translating scholarly texts. They also support themselves by producing candles and fudge, and operating a print shop, all from within the cloister.
So despite their unlikely start and the fiery calamity that befell them early on, the nuns of the Monastery of Our Lady of Grace have persevered. These true spiritual daughters of St. Dominic have risen from the ashes and have overcome the flames of devastation with the even stronger fire of love for one another and for Jesus Christ.
Br. Humbert Kilanowski, O.P.