Years ago, when I would visit my grandmother in Douglas, I would pass by this house where, if I waited long enough, I could see nuns walking from the backdoor to the garden in their long, black habits. They seemed barely human, like phantom beings in dark robes.
Later, at home, I'd ask my family about them, and all I'd get was, "They're nuns. That's where they live." This only furthered my curiosity, like it was some kind of secret that I was supposed to already know about, yet never speak about. Their modest demeanor and strange appearance fascinated me, and I wanted to know who they were and where they came from.
I visited the sisters at the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, because I have long been interested in recluses, and these are people who seclude themselves from the rest of the world in an effort to reach spiritual enlightenment. I couldn't understand why these women would want to put themselves in this position.
Speaking with the Benedictine Sisters was largely an excuse to see how they live: Did they ever doubt God? Do they ever get bored?
When I arrived at the monastery, I already had a number of assumptions about what the sisters were going to be like. On one hand, I was preparing myself for the stereotypical bitter, strict women I was taught to fear in my weekly catechism classes when I was 14. On the other hand, I was expecting them to be solemn and out of touch with reality.
Neither assumption proved to be true.
Some of the first nuns to appear in Tucson came in 1873, on a request from the Bishop Salpointe, to open a school near the San Xavier Mission. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet opened the school at San Xavier on Sept 2, 1873, for the children of the Tohono O'odham tribe.
Since then, a number of different orders have established themselves in Tucson. Historically, they have taught in schools and ministered in hospitals. According to Sister Rina Cappellazzo, O.P., vicar for religious in the Diocese of Tucson, there are currently 266 "vowed religious women" in the Tucson diocese, many of whom are in "active ministry," or in parishes working with people. Only a few are fully devoted to monastic or contemplative service. The Benedictine nuns are among those contemplative sisters.
The Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration monastery and chapel sits on a noisy section of Country Club Road, quietly resting behind a lawn of impeccably mowed grass and tall palm trees. The actual building holding the monastery is more modest; it's likely that the majority of people who pass by everyday do not even know it's there.
The chapel's grandeur—a carved wooden door, vaulted ceilings and an austere atmosphere—is an element of spirituality I thought had been largely forgotten, as churches modernize and often resemble structures that have more in common with empty warehouses and stadiums than places where individuals come to reflect on the mysteries of god.
After visiting with the sisters, I'm convinced that life in a monastery is one of the purest expressions of faith. Monasteries are where ambition and worldly passions are abandoned—and what is preached is practiced.
During Jacquelyn Enriquez's visit to the monastery, she had the opportunity to interview Sister Dolores Dowling, as well as Novice Nancy Gucwa, who visited the Tucson sisters for five weeks in order to complete her three years as a novitiate. Progressing through the novitiate stage is necessary for her to take her first vows at her home monastery in Clyde, Mo., and become a sister.
What do you enjoy most about being a sister?
Sr. Dolores: There are a number of things. One of them is the sense of God's love for me. It isn't just that I love God; I have a basic conviction that He loves me far more than I can imagine. Another thing is the community. We see each other like our mothers never did, so we can work together (and) live together, and I find community an important part of why I'm a nun.
When did you decide to join the monastery?
Sr. Dolores: I decided to join this community, because I thought they could help me in attaining my relationship with the Lord. I knew myself well enough to know that I didn't want to teach, so I was looking at contemplative life; the life was just centered on prayer and community. When I found this community here and thought, "This is where I might fit best," I wrote to (the sisters), and they sent me back letters. It was encouraging, and I thought, "This might work!"
Do you ever feel isolated from the (greater) community?
Sr. Dolores: I don't, because we have a great deal of interaction. People come to our Mass on Sunday (and) have pastries and coffee with us afterward. People come asking for prayer very often, and some sisters do spiritual direction, but I have never felt isolated. Our families come and see us, and we go and see them. It's not like we enter, and the door closes forever. That may have been (the case) in the past, but not now.
Do you think separating yourselves from other people is necessary?
Sr. Dolores: I think it is, because it would be very difficult to develop this personal and intense relationship with God and Christ if you were constantly meeting other people and constantly taking care of this and that. There are times set aside for prayer for personal reading, so you are assured that the relationship can grow.
What was your most spiritual experience?
Sr. Dolores: I was really upset at another sister, and I really didn't understand what she's about. I thought, "I should consult with the Lord." I just went to chapel, where the presence is more acute than some places, and I almost felt Him say, "I've given you so many chances, so much help; can't you give this other person some?" That was a great lesson for me.
How do you feel that spirituality has changed you?
Sr. Dolores: When you have this glowing awareness of your relationship with God and the community, it's always the faith and the goodness with those you live with that shores you up. I couldn't do it on my own, but I have a community of faith and goodness that supports me. Take the inauguration, the political campaign of Obama—what people are willing to do, the millions watching, hoping he would make it, that there would be a possibility of change, and multiply that with my faith. ... See what I mean?
Are the sisters political?
Novice Nancy: We watched the inauguration ceremony! Being people of the world who have relatives and family members, we need to be in touch with the world. Part of being good Christians is to be aware of the world's needs so we can pray for peace and for stopping violence and pray that our country can be brought together in a constructive way so we can make progress.
What was the process of becoming a sister like?
Sr. Dolores: I was 22, had finished college, worked a year, then entered. It was hard, because I had a loving, close family: father, mother, brother and sister. I remember when I left, my father gathered me up in his arms, and I could feel his tears falling on my hair. It was difficult to leave this type of love. I took a plane from Toronto to Kansas City.
What's the difference between your order and other orders of nuns?
Novice Nancy: I think the main difference in flavors is (between) active and contemplative (orders). Active orders are teaching, nursing, social work and acting with the general public. Contemplative orders would be ones that devote their life to prayer. We are that of the contemplative order.
How did you decide which to do?
Novice Nancy: I didn't know at first! I happen to be an extrovert, so I thought I might be good at teaching or something like that, because I had a corporate career in finance before I came here. I also had an Army career, so my mind was used to thinking along active lines. But the priest who agreed to be my mentor for the process of figuring out where to go, he and I met once a month for about nine months, and he made me read different kinds of books and religious material. He questioned me; he had me visit different types of religious orders, and through that process of questioning and thinking and conversing with him, I came to understand what really called in my heart was a contemplative community. When I came to visit Clyde, where my monastery is, there were other sisters there who happen to be extroverts like me. I needed to see for myself that everyone who is contemplative isn't all introverted, and anyone who does active ministry isn't all extroverted. When I visited the community at Clyde, I felt most at home; it felt most like family. In my heart, this was where I was called to be.
What was it like when you thought, "This is what I want to do!"?
Novice Nancy: I was on a religious retreat around 2004, and I was talking to a priest at the retreat center. I was filling him in on my life and my journey, and he asked me point-blank, "Have you ever thought about becoming a nun?" And at that point, believe it or not, I had not. And yet, I was searching all my life. I had a successful career in finance, but I always felt there was something else, and the minute he said that, I knew instinctively in my heart that this was what I was searching for all the time.
What did your family and friends think?
Novice Nancy: Most of my family was supportive, except for my dad, who was a widower. He was sad I had to move so far away and couldn't visit him as much. He was kinda negative until he visited, (but he) had such a wonderful experience with the sisters. He said, "I can see why you wanted to come here."
What's special about the Tucson monastery?
Sr. Dolores: We are the part of the Benediction, which is worldwide, and then there are other religious orders like the Sisters of Mercy or the St. Joseph's sisters. Clyde (Nancy's home monastery in Missouri) is very old. We came from Switzerland to Clyde, Mo., in 1874. We came to Tucson in 1935 and built the monastery in 1941. So we have been here 70 years, and there are about 24 of us here. The training of the novices goes on at Clyde, then they send them out every now and then to see our (other) houses. The basic elements are the same.
Was there any period when you doubted becoming a sister, or didn't feel prepared?
Novice Nancy: So far, I've been at the monastery for 2 1/2 years, and I can say I haven't doubted if I made the right choice. (But) I lived by myself before I came, and now I'm around people 24/7. It can almost make you go crazy! I was an avid jogger, and that was one of my coping mechanisms, to go out for a jog and get it out of my physical system. I knew that it would be an adjustment.