When the letter arrived, the sisters at the Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary could hardly have been more surprised. Inside was an invitation from Archbishop Charles Chaput to supply handcrafted soaps for the Holy Father when he is in Philadelphia this month.
The small but growing community of 19 sisters was the subject of a recent New York Times piece, which also highlights a photography book about their monastery called Radical Lovedue out in a couple of weeks.
“Apparently, that story was read by just about everyone,” says Sister Mary Catharine, novice mistress and vocation directress. “Archbishop Chaput saw it and, despite all the many details he is dealing with preparing for the World Meeting of Families and the Holy Father’s visit, he thought it would be a nice gesture if our soaps were placed in the Holy Father’s rooms while he’s staying in Philadelphia.”
Rather than create something unique for Pope Francis, the sisters decided to send a sampling of the soaps they normally make, in a basket, along with some other items they handcraft at the monastery.
“As women consecrated to God, our work — no matter how simple and ordinary — has an extraordinary value because it is united to the saving and redeeming work of Christ, our Spouse, ” explains Sister Mary Catharine. “We strive to craft all our products as best as we can no matter who uses them.”
The products range from soaps, hand cream, and lip balm to candles and room spray, and are sold in the hallway of the vestibule at the monastery, and online — as well as in other gift stores and retreat houses.
“People are always writing in, telling us how much they like our products and how good they are for their skin,” says Sister Mary Catharine.
All of the soaps are made using the hot process method, and crafted from high quality ingredients. They come in 18 scented varieties — some made with synthetic fragrance and others with essential oils — and there is also an unscented line called “Simply Soap.”
In addition to their handicrafts, the sisters’ time at Our Lady of the Rosary is spent in prayer, study, and work in a deeply fraternal life. They are cloistered and contemplative and share in the preaching mission of the Order of Preachers through their lives of prayer. (The Order will celebrate its 800th anniversary in 2016.)
While the sisters are excited that the Holy Father will soon be so close, most of them will only catch a glimpse of him on TV.
“Papal events in the US tend to clash with our schedule of prayer so we often don’t get to even watch that much,” explains Sister Mary Catharine. “But one of our sisters will be attending Vespers at St. Patrick’s in Manhattan, along with the nuns of our sister-monastery in the Bronx.”
Sister Mary Catharine is quick to point out that the pope is their first superior and their profession of obedience extends to him.
“We do find it a little humorous that our first superior is a Jesuit! ” she says. “I think he is teaching us all to look at the gift of our faith with new eyes, with joy and simplicity.”
As for being the soap dealer for Francis when he’s in the City of Brotherly Love, Sister Mary Catharine says they’re thrilled and humbled by the opportunity.
“In some ways, providing something so simple as soaps for the Holy Father is a little like Martha and Mary providing for Jesus’ needs at Bethany.”
(Read the sisters’ blog post about their invitation here.)
Zoe Romanowsky is Lifestyle Editor and Video Content Producer for Aleteia.