When She Was 21, This Woman Joined A Monastery

In 2008, photographer Toni Greaves was asked to accompany a writer doing a piece on modern-day monasteries. The two traveled to the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary, a cloistered order of Dominican nuns in Summit, NJ. The writer finished the story and left, but Greaves found herself lingering, fascinated by the place and its inhabitants.

Greaves’ mother had recently died, and the experience, she says, had sparked a deeper interest in spirituality and spiritual communities. “I became very curious about who and what we are as human beings and how we exist beyond this physical realm,” she told us. “Spiritual communities are places where people may find greater connection with whatever is beyond themselves.”

Soon after that day at the monastery, Greaves wrote to the monastery's prioress and asked if she could spend more time with the nuns. That began a seven-year photographic project that soon found its focus in Sister Lauren, a 21-year-old woman who’d left her outside life to join the order just a few weeks previously.

“It’s a massive change,” Greaves says of the decision to join. “They’re leaving their entire life, moving out of their homes or selling their apartments.” And the lives the nuns lead in the monastery are markedly different than the rest of the modern world. Unlike other nuns that are active in their communities, the sisters of Our Lady of the Rosary are almost entirely secluded. The women rise every day before dawn, gather to pray seven times a day, and almost never leave the grounds.

Greaves returned to the monastery repeatedly from 2008 to 2014, spending time with the women there and photographing them. She watched as Sister Lauren embarked on the multi-year journey to taking her final vows, fully entering the order as Sister Maria Teresa of the Sacred Heart.

Despite all the solitude and ritual of the women’s lives, when Greaves reminisces, she doesn’t remember the monastery as a somber place.

“One of the things that was surprising on that first day — part of what was such a draw to the place — is the energy of all the nuns, and the young women in particular. It was like when you have a friend that is newly in love, and there is a joy and an effervescence and a happiness to them,” she says.

“And that is what it is. It is love. For them, it’s just with God.”

Greaves' book, Radical Love, will be published by Chronicle Books later this month. Buy it at your favorite bookstore or here.

Photographed by Toni Greaves.
February 2008: The five newest nuns all received their calling to monastic life via the internet. Novitiate sisters (from left) Sister Deepa, Sister Martha, and Sister Lauren sing and pray as part of their daily devotion (background, right, Sister Maria Agnes).
Photographed by Toni Greaves.
April 2008: The young nuns chat with 84-year-old Sister Mary Ellen Timothy (top left). Community is an important part of monastic life, and the young nuns learn continually from the older sisters.
Photographed by Toni Greaves.
March, 2008: Sister Lauren, age 22, praying. The nuns observe perpetual rosary, with someone praying in the choir room 24 hours per day.
Photographed by Toni Greaves.
March 2008: Community is an important part of monastic life. Sister Maria of the Cross (back, center), age 71, laughs during a celebratory community dinner.
Photographed by Toni Greaves.
April 2008: Monastery grounds blossom during spring.
Photographed by Toni Greaves.
November 2008: Sister Lauren, 22 years old, receives her white veil (fitted by Sister Mary Martin, prioress) in her Clothing Ceremony, which is similar to an engagement to God. Within this ceremony, she receives the Dominican habit and takes a new holy name of her choosing: Sister Maria Teresa of the Sacred Heart.
Photographed by Toni Greaves.
February 2009: Sister Maria Teresa and Sister Joseph Maria enjoy sledding during their half-hour recreation period. Sister Judith Miryam and Sister Mary Catharine watch on.
Photographed by Toni Greaves.
October 2010: Sister Maria Teresa rehearses prostrating in preparation for her First Profession ceremony the next morning. First Profession is part one of two ritual ceremonies that will seal her commitment to God. Her Final Profession will happen roughly three years later.
Photographed by Toni Greaves.
October 2010: Sister Maria Teresa enters the parlor to visit with guests who attended her First Profession ceremony. First Profession is part one of two ritual ceremonies that seal the young nuns commitment to God.
Photographed by Toni Greaves.
October 2010: Sister Maria Teresa (center) rehearses receiving her veil, in preparation for her First Profession ceremony the next morning. First Profession is one of two ritual ceremonies that will seal her commitment to God.
Photographed by Toni Greaves.
October 2010: Father John Vidmar conducts 24-year-old Sister Maria Teresa's First Profession ceremony. More than 80 guests, including Sister Maria Teresa's family, attend this first of two ritual ceremonies. Her Final Profession will happen about three years later.
Photographed by Toni Greaves.
November 2013: Sister Maria Teresa, now 27 year old, tends to her cleaning chores. Silent prayer is incorporated into every part of daily life, including chores.
Photographed by Toni Greaves.
July 2014: Sister Mary Magdalene (left) and Sister Maria Teresa sing "The Eagle Song" as Sabina the monastery dog watches on.
Photographed by Toni Greaves.
July 2014: Twenty-eight-year-old Sister Maria Teresa (formerly Sister Lauren) became a cloistered nun at the age of 21. She now leads a hidden life of prayer and ritual, removing herself from the outside world in order to focus on the spiritual realm and a higher calling — praying to save all souls.
Photographed by Toni Greaves.
September 2014: As part of her Solemn Profession ceremony, 28-year-old Sister Maria Teresa will receive a simple gold band, much like a wedding ring, as symbol of her vows and final commitment to God.
Photographed by Toni Greaves.
September 2014: As part of her Solemn Profession ceremony, 28-year-old Sister Maria Teresa’s black veil is replaced by Sister Mary Martin and Sister Mary Catharine. Afterward, she will receive a simple gold band, much like a wedding ring, as symbol of her vows and final commitment to God.