On June 10, 1947, Mary Louise Orr of Nashville stepped through the doors of the Dominican Monastery of St. Jude in Marbury, Alabama, and she hasn’t looked back in 75 years.
“It means everything to me (to celebrate 75 years). This has been wonderful,” said Sister Mary Joseph, OP, the name given her upon becoming a novice on June 4, 1948. “I’m so appreciative that God chose me to be one of his, you might say, handmaids; one of those people who he depends on to help him by our prayers.”
Sister Mary Joseph celebrated the auspicious occasion during a special Mass on Friday, July 22, at the monastery, which was attended by her sister Lois Winston, her niece Stephanie Orr, and celebrated by her cousin, Bishop Joseph Perry, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
“Sister Mary Joseph (also recently) celebrated her 93rd birthday … and is such a blessing to have for our community, especially for the young sisters to see,” said the Mother Superior, Mother Mary of the Precious Blood, OP.
“I am just ecstatic,” added Winston, who is currently a parishioner of St. Joseph Church in Madison. “Every time I tell someone or mention it to someone, I’m so proud.”
Early years in Nashville
Mary Louise Orr was born on July 13, 1929, the second of the four children of James Orr and Mamie Stephens.
While Mamie grew up in a Baptist family, upon meeting and marrying James, a Catholic, the couple vowed to raise their children in the Church. They were parishioners of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Nashville and sent the children to St. Vincent de Paul School for first through eighth grade.
It was during her time at St. Vincent de Paul, which was established to serve African-American Catholics in Nashville, that Mary Louise first became interested in religious life, having been taught by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the order founded by St. Katharine Drexel.
“They were a great inspiration to me, and I always wanted to be like the sisters,” Sister Mary Joseph said. “Ever since that time, I used to gather with the other little girls around me, and we would put our coats on our head and play sister. We just had a great time.”
Her interest in becoming a sister only continued in high school when she attended Immaculate Mother Academy in Nashville, which was also staffed by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. But it was during that time that she also started to formulate what kind of sister she wanted to be.
“I was in the library with one of the sisters, and I was telling her that I always wanted to be a sister, but ‘I didn’t want to be like you, what you are doing in your work,’” Sister Mary Joseph recalled. “I just felt in my heart that I didn’t want to teach. I wanted something more. God was it. I didn’t have to serve him through others. I could just serve him directly by my prayers and in life.”
She knew that was possible once that same sister presented her with a book on the life of St. Therese of the Child Jesus.
“I read it, and it just resonated in my heart,” Sister Mary Joseph said. “I said, ‘That is exactly what I want.’”
And it would only be a few more years before she found the place she would call home.
History of the Monastery
The Dominican Monastery of St. Jude was founded on Aug. 17, 1944, by Mother Mary Dominic, OP, and Mother Mary of the Child Jesus, OP, and was the first interracial cloister in the United States.
“The purpose of this foundation was to provide a place where those who aspired to the contemplative life could enter regardless of race. Many bishops were contacted and asked if such a community would be welcome, however, the replies were not too encouraging,” according to the monastery’s website. “Many thought it a noble idea, but unsuitable to their area or the time or to the people of their diocese. In 1944, our foundresses were finally welcomed by Archbishop Thomas Toolen of Mobile, Alabama. With the cooperation of Father Harold Purcell, founder of the City of St. Jude, a place was found in the (then) Diocese of Mobile.”
The monastery had a small start, establishing themselves in rural Marbury in a renovated small frame farmhouse, in which they resided for the first 10 years. That small farmhouse now serves as a guesthouse with the new, larger monastery just up the hill.
“You could see the dreams coming true and from then on it’s blossomed and flowered,” said Sister Mary Joseph. “There were obstacles and trials, but the priests in the diocese were very wonderful to our mothers.”
And it was that first monastery that Mary Louise visited while returning to Nashville on spring break from Xavier University in Louisiana, where she was a freshman.
Mother Mary Dominic “was just like a ray of sunshine. She was so beautiful. She was a fine-looking woman as it was, but I think the fact that she was a nun made her even more a beauty in her holiness,” Sister Mary Joseph said. “It just shone through, and I loved her the first minute I saw her.”
After that visit, it all became clear. She couldn’t wait any longer. College life was pulling her away from God and she didn’t want that. So, after her freshman year of college, at the age of 17, Mary Louise walked through the cloister door for the first time, officially beginning her formation process on June 10, 1947.
And after her year in postulancy, she officially entered the novitiate when she received her habit and was bestowed with her new name by the bishop.
“He said, ‘In the world, you were called Mary Louise. In the monastery, you will be called Sister Mary Joseph of the Infant Jesus,’” Sister Mary Joseph said. “I almost fainted with joy because that’s the name I really wanted.”
A life of prayer
Proudly donning her habit and new name, Sister Mary Joseph continued on her journey, making her final profession of vows on June 4, 1952. And ever since, she’s lived the life she’s always hoped, keeping that deep connection to God through prayer, study and service in his name.
“We do not do any active work like the sisters in hospitals or schools. We concentrate ourselves solely on God by prayer and other works,” Sister Mary Joseph said. “We stay in our monastery and we’re devoted solely to God and praying for the world and our diocese, praying for vocations to the other orders, to the Church, praying for our Holy Father the pope, praying for … special intentions.
“We like to be available to God,” she continued. “We want to give him time.”
Knowing the prayer life her sister leads at the monastery, Winston said, she feels special.
“I kind of feel like I have a quicker pass to God through Sister Mary Joseph because we just think of her prayers as being special,” Winston said. “We know that she keeps us in her prayers all the time, and we always let her know when we need special prayers.
“(The monastery) is such a beautiful place and once you enter that space you feel God’s presence all around you,” Winston added. “And Sister Mary Joseph is just a beautiful person, and I love her.”
75 years of peace
As Sister Mary Joseph reflected back on her 75 years with the Dominicans, one word came to mind: peace.
“By serving God faithfully, you have peace, peace of mind and heart, and you won’t have thoughts bouncing around wondering, ‘what should I do?’” Sister Mary Joseph said. “Just keep on that straight line going to God … and ask God for the strength not to give into these things that you know are not pleasing to him like fashion or beautiful homes. Try to be simple. I don’t want to have to take a lot of baggage with me when I go to God.
“Show Jesus you want to be with him some day and thank him for shedding his blood for you, for redeeming you. He created you. You are his,” she said. “He redeemed you because you had been taken away by sin. He wanted you back. To get you back he suffered the cross. He went to the extreme, and he hung on that cross for three hours, but that’s how much he loves us.
“God loves me, and he wants me for his own.”
To learn more about the Dominican Monastery of St. Jude or for vocation information, visit https://www.marburydominicannuns.org/.