Soap-making nuns of New Jersey monastery combine the practical with the prophetic -- and a mystery

On any given morning, noon and evening, the dulcet tones of the Dominican Sisters waft through the corridors of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, N.J., as the nuns attend their daily devotions in chapel. It's an example of their devout higher calling.

For a few morning hours during the week, the hum of the sisters' soap-making operation shows a commitment to an earthly vocation.

"It's become a business for us," says Sister Mary Catharine Perry. "Of course it doesn't totally support us, but it does help toward supporting us in our life, and it's also compatible with our contemplative life."

What began as gifts of soap for church volunteers became so popular the product line expanded. Now the sisters offer lip balm, hand lotion, room sprays and more. They're all available online and at the monastery's modest gift shop, Cloister Shoppe.

The business helps cover health insurance, utilities and other basic necessities.

But behind the monastery's cloistered walls is not only the sisters' soap-making business, but a mysterious object that's part of their greater mission. An object that one researcher called the common denominator between science and religion.

A nearly 400-year-old replica of the Shroud of Turin, Jesus’ burial cloth, long stowed away, is now on public display in the monastery's sanctuary. The shroud was a gift to the sisters from the Monastery of Monte Mario in Rome, as gratitude for their support during World War I.

The shroud replica was one of two commissioned in 1624 by Maria Maddalena of Austria, the wife of Cosimo de Medici. The replica was placed on the original shroud and as such is now treasured and venerated.

In 1987, scientists preparing to study the Shroud in Turin used the Summit replica for a dry run to test their equipment. What they discovered could be considered a miracle.

Sister Perry says, "What's special about this one (Shroud replica) is when it was laid on the actual shroud, and they lifted it up where the stain of the side wound is on the actual shroud showed up on the replica.

How that happened is a bit of a mystery, even more so because, according to published reports, the replica's 'stain' was never tested thoroughly. Sister Perry says she was told that the stain is human blood and that it matches the DNA of the original shroud.

How could this be? Sister Perry says, "I don't know. God provides."

Perry is more concerned about everyday matters of faith than the mystery of the shroud replica.

She's satisfied that it gives some people a deeper understanding of God.

So as Holy Week begins, the sisters continue to pray for the soul of the world, knowing that their soap business and the shroud combine the practical ....with their prophetic message.

Sister Perry says, "it helps people to think about the passion and to think of what Christ suffered for us, and it helps people in their life of prayer, and that's good."