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Life As Prayer: The Singing Nuns Of Ann Arbor

Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz (right), vicaress general and music director for Dominican Sisters of Mary. On the group's new album, she plays organ and composed three selections.
Courtesy of the artist
Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz (right), vicaress general and music director for Dominican Sisters of Mary. On the group's new album, she plays organ and composed three selections.

In the cloistered world of classical music recordings, there is great interest in choral music by Catholic nuns these days. In the past year, two separate albums by a group of monastic nuns shot to the top of the classical charts.

Now comes the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, a community of nuns outside of Ann Arbor, Mich., that is releasing its debut album Tuesday. It's titled Mater Eucharistiae.

For three carefully chaperoned hours last week, I was invited into the quiet confines of their community. For afternoon Vespers, the sisters — dressed in white habits with long rosaries — filed into the ornate chapel, stood in their individual choir stalls and opened their breviaries. The ethereal purity of their voices resonated inside the vaulted chapel space, seeming to make time come to a stop with the reprise of these ancient Latin chants.

"Usually when we're singing, it's just us and God," says Sister Maria Suso, 26, a native of Clearwater, Fla., who's studying to be a secondary teacher of English and biology. "But with the CD, we were able to bring other people into that space of prayer when we're singing. And that's something that is humbling and makes us a little vulnerable. These are our special songs."

'White Smoke!'

The 110 women who live inside the red-brick nunnery in the lush green countryside north of Ann Arbor love to sing. They sing these chants and hymns during morning, noon and evening prayers. And when they're cooking dinner, they're liable to break into The Sound of Music or Oklahoma.

Because song is embedded in their prayer life, they are very skilled singers. The album producers recorded all 15 tracks in only three days — not bad for first-time recording artists. And that included a momentous interruption.

"The second day when we were doing the recording was the day that Pope Francis was elected," says Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, the vicaress general and music director. "We were practicing the Te Deum — that's the big hymn the church sings on the election of a pope and other big events. How providential we were practicing the Te Deum when someone sticks her head in the chapel and she says, 'White smoke!' and we all go running and screaming because we know we have a pope."

At a time when the number of religious sisters is diminishing throughout the Catholic world, the rise of the Dominican Sisters of Mary is something of a phenomenon. The average age is 29. There are so many young women seeking to become novices, the community is planting a new convent in Central Texas.

"It's just booming like crazy," Sister Joseph Andrew says. "But young people are good, and they want the authentic, and if they're going to give their life to something, they really want what they would see as a sacrificial, joyful life."

Always In The Habit

The unique calling of the Dominicans is to teach. Most of the nuns will leave the convent and step out into the world to work at schools and colleges. This community is decidedly not monastic. They've appeared on Oprah and the American Bible Challenge quiz show.

During the first eight years spent in the convent, a period called "initial formation," life inside the mother house remains intensely private and filtered, without the distractions of TV, Internet or smartphones. But it's not without fun. In addition to praying for nearly four hours a day, the sisters have time to cook Mexican food and play ultimate Frisbee — in full habits.

"Honestly, I don't listen to very much music, and most of us don't listen to very much music that's recorded. Almost all of the music that we encounter on a day-to-day basis is music we make ourselves," says Sister Maria Suso, who is in her fourth year of religious life at a stage called "temporary professed."

The goal of any choir is to sing as one. To that end, Grammy-winning classical producer Blanton Alspaugh and director Scott Piper worked with the sisters to bring every voice into agreement, working with vowel color, mouth shaping and how to breathe. The acoustical beauty of the chapel provided an added benefit.

"It has a combination of clarity and warmth and a longer reverberation decay," Alspaugh says in an interview from his post-production studio in Boston. "It reinforces the sound after you've sung. There's a little something that keeps going after you've made your sound."

A Freedom To Listen To God

The project was the idea of DeMontfort Music, a young record company based in Florida that specializes in sacred music. The label's first two releases were recordings of the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of Apostles, inside their Missouri convent. The albums surprised everybody by jumping to the top of the classical charts and together selling about 80,000 copies.

And what do the Dominican Sisters of Ann Arbor want to accomplish with their album? The reportedly generous music royalty will definitely help pay expenses at the Mother House. On a spiritual level, this musical project furthers the countercultural mission of their community, Sister Joseph Andrew says. She plays the organ and composed three selections on Mater Eucharistiae.

"We bring people back where the culture, sad to say, is selling them short," Sister Joseph Andrew says. "The culture is not saying you need silence; you need to calm down; you need to meet God in however you might choose to worship him. And I think when you turn this music on, something interiorly starts to calm down. And there starts to be a freedom to be able to really listen to God within."

The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, hope the music on their debut can cut through the clatter and reach those listeners in need. Maybe Mater Eucharistiae will even hit the charts.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.