“One of the Nuns in the Cage”

by Sr. Judith Miryam Boneski, O.P.

Sister Mary Daniel in the monastery garden in 1953.

Atop a hill at the busiest intersection in the suburban city of Summit, New Jersey, there stands a golden-hued brick building, the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary, home to the cloistered Dominican Nuns. The community has been here for nearly a hundred years. The nuns’ hidden life of prayer and intercession is shared through the open doors of their chapel, which welcome a steady stream of visitors who stop in throughout the day to pray and spend time with the Lord.

Sr. Mary Daniel of God (born Florence Sammartino on October 27, 1924) has the distinction of being both the oldest sister (in years and religious profession) and the longest in the community (over 70 years).  In 1935, eight-year old Florence, from nearby Millburn, visited the monastery’s chapel for the first time with her uncle. She was captivated upon hearing about “the praying nuns” barely visible through the screen behind the altar. From that point on, Flossie was adamant that she “would be one of the nuns in the cage.” The childhood desire and attraction to the Sisters’ life of prayer remained constant and grew through the years, with frequent visits to the monastery with her mother, including the monthly Holy Hours, and May and October Rosary Pilgrimages. She even got a preview of wearing the habit twice, when the pilgrimage processions would feature children dressed as Dominican Friars and Nuns.

Sister Mary Daniel in 1946 right before she entered the monastery. Her co-workers had taken her out to New York City for lunch (thus the corsage on her jacket).

After graduating high school, Florence attended the College of St. Elizabeth, Morristown, NJ, for a year. She then worked in the tax department for New Jersey Bell Telephone Company, Newark, while taking night classes at Seton Hall University (among the first group of women to do so). In her visits to the monastery, she had gotten to know the extern sisters, who dealt with the community’s outside business and contact with the public. The sisters were convinced that she had a vocation to the monastery, and encouraged her to set up an appointment to meet Mother Mary of Jesus Crucified, the prioress. After that meeting, Florence had definitively made up her mind. Her parents were not happy with her decision. And, the reaction of her twelve siblings? “They thought I was nuts!” She entered on April 30, 1946, and made her First Profession of Vows on December 9, 1947.

Sister has worn many “veils” during her seven decades at the monastery, a testament to her wide-ranging and versatile talents. Most of her ministry was spent in roles of important responsibility, serving as novice mistress, prioress (“That was my biggest challenge!”), treasurer, and monastery councilor. More recently, she has handled the community correspondence, answering prayer requests and acknowledging donations.

One of the challenges in recent years for Sr. Mary Daniel has been our building’s lack of handicap accessibility. Sister remarks, “When they built the monastery I don’t think they thought any of the sisters would grow old!” Fortunately, our new wing will correct that deficiency with an exterior ramp at the front of the wing, which will allow safe and easy access in and out of the building for Sr. Mary Daniel and our other elderly sisters. A grant from SOAR! will assist in covering costs of the ramp and its installation.

Sister Mary Daniel in 2016 with Archbishop Bernard Hebda, Archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.

Sr. Mary Daniel’s greatest joy in the monastery remains what first drew her to its doors, her time spent in choir before the Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, praying the Rosary and chanting the psalms of the Divine Office. When faced with the difficulties and limitations of her senior years, Sister has always responded with ready humor, repeating her trademark adage, “Don’t get old!” Although the passage of time cannot be stopped, minds and hearts can get old and stiff. Sister’s youthful and limber spirit offers an example of how to age gracefully and graciously.

In 2017, the Dominican Sisters at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary applied for a SOAR! grant to help build an accessible ramp to the monastery. The ramp will provide safe access to and egress from the front of the monastery building. Support our grants fund here.