Precisely 107 years ago tomorrow, four Dominican Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary — two from Louvain, Belgium, and two from Rouen, France — stepped off the steamer Gascogne, which had left Calais, France, 11 days earlier.
They were met in New York by Father Damien Marie Saintourens, a French Dominican priest who had sent for them. Founder of their cloistered order in Calais in 1880, he was charged with preaching the rosary in North America. But New York, even then known for its costly real estate, was not the sisters’ final destination.
According to chronicles from the time, the sisters crossed the Hudson by ferry and ”had to hurry to the train which, supported as it was by a heavy rope, ascended an elevation (as one ascends the stairs) toward Hoboken.” They then walked to their new home in the European immigrant community of West Hoboken, now known as Union City.
In 1897, when Mother Mary of the Rosary, prioress of the convent, left to found another cloister in Milwaukee, 30 sisters remained. And having outgrown the home that Father Saintourens had secured for them, they got a loan from the Bank of New Jersey to build a larger structure with an adjoining chapel.
Blue Chapel, still stands. Within its seemingly impervious charcoal-colored bluestone walls, eight Domincan nuns rise by 5 A.M. to follow a disciplined routine of household chores and prayer based on a schedule known as the Liturgy of the Hours. ”They pray for those who don’t pray,” says Father Jean Salomon, a retired diocesan priest from nearby St. Anthony’s Church who ministers to them.
Although the nuns need permission to leave the grounds and must stay in prescribed areas, most of the grilles that separate their portion of the chapel, called the choir, from the public area were removed in the 1970’s. Only the oak partitions that once supported the grilles and small portions of the grillework remain to distance the sisters symbolically from those whom they call ”in the world.”
The rural landscape that once surrounded the monastery, now bounded by 13th and 14th Streets and Central and Morris Avenues, is dominated by two- and three-story walkups. Nearby are the retail stores and coffee shops of Summit and Bergenline Avenues, where the lively conversation and music are predominantly Latin American.
But all is quiet around the Blue Chapel. The silence that the sisters observe — speaking aloud only to pray or to discuss their work — seems to cascade over its 12-foot walls.
”It’s like an oasis, a buffer from the noise; it has saved the neighborhood,” said James A. Burns, who as the chapel’s musical director has led the sisters in English adaptations of Gregorian chants since the early 1960’s.
Despite its imposing size, the complex maintains a low profile. Historical records, which detail the founding of Union City’s many other religious institutions, make no mention of its existence. But longtime residents know that mass is at 6:45 every morning and that the sisters maintain a gift shop where they sell ribbon-bedecked mass cards, which they decorate themselves; liturgical vestments, which they sew; and small religious articles.
”We’re self-supporting,” said Mother Mary Clare, the convent’s 86-year-old prioress, of nearby West New York. ”We’re not endowed like some communities.”
With a twinkle, Mother Mary Clare — who has been prioress on and off since 1955 — explained: ”We’re very democratic here. The sisters vote.” Her current three-year term will end in 2001.
Although the Blue Chapel does not function like a parish church, it attracts a core of devoted worshippers. Many come on Holy Thursday and Rosary Sunday (the first Sunday
of October), when they are allowed to join the sisters in religious processions. Christmas, of course, is popular — particularly the 3:45 mass on Christmas Eve.
At the start of mass each day, the chapel’s stained-glass windows, made in France at the turn of the century, are dark. But within five minutes, the rising sun begins to illuminate the eastward-facing triptych of windows above the sanctuary’s vividly hued mosaic, designed by the convent’s late Sister Mary of the Compassion. The figures materialize as if in a vision, the folds of their robes gradually outlined as the vitreous azure surrounding them becomes more luminous with each passing second. The Sacred Heart is represented at center, flanked by Mary and St. Joseph. On either side are the great Dominican saints — Dominic and Catherine of Siena, Thomas Aquinas and Rose of Lima.