By Mary Frances McCarthy
Herald Staff Writer
(From the issue of 4/6/06)
Jim O’Brien, Arlington architect and parishioner at St. Agnes Parish, has never put so much work into building a home. But this project is more than just a home, it’s an entire community for the cloistered Dominican nuns of St. Dominic’s Monastery.Construction is scheduled to begin this month on the traditional monastery nestled in 200 acres of apple orchards straddling Warren and Fauquier Counties near Linden.The nine nuns of the La Crosse community were living at St. Dominic’s Monastery in Northwest D.C. until earlier this year when they moved to Massachusetts after selling their property. They will live there until the new monastery is habitable, hopefully 14 months after the groundbreaking. They will be the second cloistered order in the diocese. The Order of St. Clare has 14 nuns living at Mary, Mother of the Church Monastery in Alexandria.The Dominicans began looking for a new home in 2001. They began working with Greg Granitto of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld Attorneys to serve as their representative. With Granitto’s help, they searched out locations and architects. The Dominican sisters are living out a vocation of simply being with God through continual contemplative prayer.“The vocation of a nun is to give herself completely to God — to be a symbol to the Church of total commitment to God,” Sister Mary Paul Murphy, prioress, said. “We are set apart by the Church to perform this.“We really are happy to be bringing a classic contemplative life to the Diocese of Arlington and have been welcomed by Front Royal,” she said.By building a new monastery, Granitto said, the nuns are building new life for their community and reinforcing that the call to religious life is still being heard by young women. The new monastery will house up to 24 nuns.Friends in Front Royal let the nuns know of a tract of land for sale. “As soon as we saw it we knew this was it,” said Sister Mary Paul.Friends also suggested O’Brien to design the project. After interviewing him and others, they chose O’Brien because, “He had a concept and a commitment to what we wanted,” Sister Mary Paul said. “He really studied what a traditional monastery should be.”“The first step was undoing in my mind everything I thought about how people live their lives,” O’Brien said. With their entire adult lives being spent inside the structure of the monastery, O’Brien had to focus more on aspects he was not used to focusing on.“Usually, I put a lot of emphasis on entrance design,” he said. “The entrance doesn’t matter on this because you only go in one time.”However, he said, the courtyard holds a great amount of importance as does the orientation of the entire monastery on the east/west axis.“It’s really their design,” O’Brien said. “I’m really a tool for them.”In designing, O’Brien had to take into account the ergonomics of everyday tasks, such as washing dishes and passing in hallways.“If you’re going to live with 23 other women, you need some space so you can work together and not interfere with one another,” he said. O’Brien said this project has been very collaborative. The nuns are very aware of their order’s tradition and the history of monasteries and are not willing to compromise the integrity of their building for the sake of a smaller budget because “everything is the way it is for a reason,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine a better client. They have a really clear idea of what God plans for them and that’s crystal clear. Knowing what God has planned, they don’t have fear.”The community of nuns is not building only for themselves, but for future groups of their order. For this reason, they are using masonry for the bulk of the building.“Monasteries traditionally have been built of stone and we want it to last,” Sister Mary Paul said.Granitto said that their determination to build a lasting structure has made the nuns very patient. The monastery will be built in a phased approach — they will postpone what they can — instead of substituting quality materials for cheaper materials.The monastery will carry a mortgage. The new structure will be paid for with the proceeds from the sale of their previous monastery, judicious use of their resources and the support of small donations. “A lot of people are going to make this happen,” Granitto said. “They can have a part of this tradition.”The Ladies of St. John Parish in Front Royal are collecting donations for the Dominican Sisters. To help in their efforts call the parish at 540/635-3780 or Julie Cipriano Litterio at 540/631-9595.To contact the nuns write to St. Dominic’s Monastery, P.O. Box 539, West Springfield, Mass., 01090-0539March-Westin has been hired to build the monastery and will install a Web cam once building begins. Progress can be viewed at www.marchwestin.com/mw_projects.asp
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