Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart, Nun

by Andrew Piccone

Tell me about yourself.
I used to live in Manhattan, I studied art growing up. When I received my call I spoke to the vocation director about the contemplative life. I wasn’t quite sure where God was calling me. I like children very much, at one point I was thinking of entering into an active order and working with children or orphans or doing missionary work. I prayed about it and after hearing about the contemplative life and coming here for the first time I walked in our chapel, and I knew in my heart that this was where God wanted me. A lot of the sisters and brothers in the active order will teach or do nursing or mission, but in the contemplative life our whole apostolate is prayer. We spend a lot of time in prayer. Prayer is very valuable. I’m very happy and I’ve lived this life for 29 years. We’re the only contemplative sisters in New York City. There were others but they all moved upstate, so this is the first and only contemplative monastery in the City. We have a lot of sisters come for retreat, and when they stay with us they always feel so renewed and refreshed because their ministries are so active. After spending time here in prayer it gives them the energy to continue with their ministries. Everything that we do here is in the monastery. God provides for us, this place is quite large. We have a lot of very generous benefactors though who are making our life possible here. We are very blessed.

What is it like being a sister in New York opposed to anywhere else?
We’re a great witness here, and we have people coming from all over the world to be here. I think the witness is what always strikes me. It has affected so many peoples lives that we’ve been here, if we were somewhere smaller the influence wouldn’t be as strong. I’m very happy here. I remember when I first came for visits to this area, Hunt’s Point, it was called Fort Apache, based on the film. A lot of the buildings were all burnt out, at night you could hear gun shots. I remember at the time when I was living in Manhattan with my family and I wanted to take a taxi here, the driver refused to take me. Of course, now they do because it has changed. So I took the subway, and when I got off at Hunt’s Point it was like being in the missions, it was a cultural shock. There was a lot of prostitutes, and they would come to our door and ask for food, and we would give them food, but not money. There was a priest, and we heard that his brother was with the mafia and he had renovated all of the buildings on Hunt’s Point and the whole neighborhood changed. And now a lot of artists have moved here, the building across the street used to be a bank notary, and now Congressman Serrano, I think, is living there. There is a big change happening here. When the monastery was founded in the 19th century this was all country! People would come up from Manhattan and have their summer homes up here! Now people are saying this is going to be like SoHo, like an artists community because the location is so convenient, close to Manhattan, the airport.

What are some of your other favorite places in the world?
I like France, I like Rome, I like Europe very much. I made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, in France, which is a very special place where many have received healings, many miracles. When our founder, Saint Dominic, founded the Dominican Order in the 13th century, the monastery was in France, so there is that connection there. The food too, I do like French food.

Do you cook?
We take turns cooking. We had a cook at one time but we are a much smaller community now, there are 11 of us. It’s like the United Nations, we have sisters from the Philippines, from Trinidad and Colombia and Italy. I think it’s very fun when the sisters prepare the meals. We have a vegetable garden with organic tomatoes, we don’t spray anything on them, and apples, and different types of vegetables. We get a lot of donations from other people in an abundance that we are able to share with people in the neighborhood, and soup kitchens as well.

Is your family still in Manhattan? Do you still keep in touch with friends from before you joined?
My family moved to California actually. There are a few friends whom I am still in touch with, some have moved to Europe or to the west coast, and if they’re in Manhattan visiting they’ll call me and come for a visit. But most of them are married and have children and careers.

How do you feel about the way nuns are portrayed in popular culture?
It’s interesting, I was at the doctors office recently and this lady approached and said for Halloween she was going to dress like me, she said every year she dresses like a nun. The movie Sister Act I thought was funny, wholesome, not offensive. But you have to be sensitive. If for Halloween someone dressed wearing a nun habit and smoking a cigar and drinking, I wouldn’t like that. If they do it tastefully, I don’t have a problem with it, but if they mock religion, I don’t like that. If they did that to a Buddhist I wouldn’t think that was right. I think it’s important for us to respect religions and traditions.

Should the non-religious pray?
A lot of people call us asking for prayers for family members who are sick, or going through difficulties or trials. There were a group of people in the hospital and these doctors had people pray for them, they weren’t even aware, and they all recovered and went home. There was a second group, and no one prayed for them, and they were getting worse. So scientifically, studies have shown the power of the prayer. It’s a call that God gives you and he gives you the grace to live this life. I think that the fact that a person has a thought to be casually religious, God is putting that thought in their mind. When you look at creation, there are so many miracles, it’s not by chance. I think that by having that thought God is pulling that person. He is drawing that person, inviting that person, it’s really a gift. Faith is a gift. The most important thing is that we pray for peace in our hearts, peace in the neighborhood, peace in the whole world. We pray for each person in the whole world. We pray that one day the whole human race will live in peace and harmony.

Andrew Piccone is a photographer in New York.