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Hoping against hope for the Tucson Benedictine Monastery

My Aunt Florine lived her life in poverty, purity, and serenity. She was a sister of the Order of St. Joseph at a convent near Pittsburgh. In her 80s, stricken with Parkinson’s disease and possibly a touch of dementia, she wanted most what her brother, my father, wanted most at her age — to go for a ride in the car. She begged rides down to Pittsburgh from any number of unwitting visitors to the convent and then hopped a bus to get back home. Of course, in the way of sisters, she had no money. Of course, the bus drivers tried to oust her from the bus.

Perhaps the reason Aunt Flo, better known as Sister Bea, developed a reputation for dementia and was eventually put under a sort of house arrest by her mother superior was that she argued with the bus drivers. Loud and long in the manner of my father.

“I have dedicated my life to poverty for the forgiveness of sins, your sins. For sixty years I have been a prayer soldier for the people of Pittsburgh, for you and your children. You owe me a ride home on your bus.”

All praise to the bus drivers of Pittsburgh, who time after time, blanched and burned by her fiery brimstone, set my aunt down safely on her doorstep and faced the music from their own supervisors.

I’m wondering about the bus drivers in Tucson. And all the rest of us sinners. What assistance would we offer a nun?

There are nuns in Tucson who have been praying for us for 77 years. And they have provided a beautiful place of peace, open to all people of all faiths in all their desperation to find solace and mercy. A notebook in their sanctuary records the prayer intentions of the visitors — everything from heartfelt thanks for miraculous recoveries to heart-wrenching petitions like “Save my baby . . . Get rid of her cancer.”

I’m speaking of the Benedictine Monastery of the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration at 800 N. Country Club Rd.. The monastery was sold last month; the sale is scheduled to close in March 2018.

Everybody knows the place because it is a Tucson landmark, built in Spanish Renaissance style like the Pima County Courthouse, designed by famed Tucson architect Roy Place. The monastery is known as the Pink Rose of the Desert and is sometimes called the spiritual center of Tucson as it stands in Midtown.

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The building’s stone façade and inner sanctuary are a treasure house of Western religious symbolism — wheat and grapes, the wounded lamb, the ox and eagle, angels and cherubs, passion flowers and pomegranates. Poised on the canopy over the altar is a golden pelican, the feminine symbol of Eucharist. In ancient legend, as often depicted in art, a pelican mother in time of famine was believed to pierce her own breast with her long beak to feed her young with her own blood.

The monastery was named to the National Register of Historic Places in1994, but that designation does little to preserve the building. Unable to find a buyer with a continuing spiritual use in mind, the sisters have sold the property to a developer who has a reputation for preserving something of the façade and flavor of historic properties. He hasn’t released any specific design, but there could be some tax advantages for rehabilitating the present architecture. I’m sure it will be beautiful and stylish. It probably won’t have much to do with a vow of poverty. The county can rejoice with all the new property tax coming in from the seven-acre tract, currently exempt as church holdings.

Still, the sisters have said (tearfully) they do not really want to leave Tucson to return to their motherhouse in Missouri. It’s just that they are getting too old to maintain the monastery, and there simply aren’t enough new sisters to fill their places, Tucson superior Sister Joan Ridley has explained. The sisters are not complaining, of course. They have prayed about it and could find no other way. They are used to following God’s plan and not arguing.

The order was invited here from Clyde, Mo., in 1935 by then-Tucson Bishop Daniel Gercke. Twenty pioneering nuns answered the call and founded the monastery. They planted date palms, orange trees and avocadoes. Originally, they sold their agricultural wares to support the monastery, and they made vestments, altar clothes and altar breads. More recently they have turned to manufacturing soaps and lotions and prayerfully popped popcorn.

Of course, their main work all these years has been prayer — for the city of Tucson and the whole world. Not just any old prayer, but contemplative prayer and perpetual adoration.

Prior history of the Sisters dates back to St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine Order around 500 A.D. Benedict, despairing of the decadent culture around him, left Rome seeking a simple spiritual life in the countryside as a hermit. He wasn’t the only one who felt that way. He was soon followed by many others looking for a more meaningful life. With his simple rule of prayer, work, obedience, and community, Benedict introduced an alternative lifestyle, eventually known as Western Monasticism, which has thrived throughout the world to this day.

With the Benedictine monks now gone from the St. David monastery, and the Sisters of the Tucson monastery being directed back to Missouri, the Order is receding from the Arizona desert, even while the despair of the current world culture seems to be growing.

“People are exposed to a level of noise, words, violence and hyperactivity that is really demeaning and diminishing of our basic human spirit,” Sister Joan said in an interview with the Tucson Weekly a few years ago. “I think prayer and places of peacefulness are desperately needed today in a way that perhaps they haven't been before.”

Can anything be done to save the monastery? I asked around our Christmas dinner table last year, “What can our family do?” My 91-year-old mother was the first to pipe up. “I can address envelopes.”

I stuffed my mom’s envelopes with letters to a priest, a bishop and the pope, but perhaps it’s time for me to start looking for another place for quiet contemplation in Tucson. Unfortunately, DeGrazia’s Gallery of the Sun chapel, another of my peaceful places, burned up last May. My neighborhood church now locks its doors except during services. My usual hiking haunts are becoming more and more crowded, and hikers don’t seem to be going there for silent contemplation.

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We can always pray, of course. And hope against hope. The motto of the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, according to their brochure, appears to be, “With God, all things are possible.” Prayer is an important tool of resistance heavily utilized by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi in achieving social justice, and currently relied upon by the tribes at Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota as they attempt to preserve their sacred land.

Or perhaps a lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris curasoae), an endangered species, will be spotted in the monastery bell tower. The bells were never installed there, so it might possibly have become a sanctuary for the bats migrating from Mexico.

Or perhaps Tucson bus drivers (along with taxi drivers, airplane pilots and air traffic controllers) could refuse to aid the Sisters in their transport to Missouri. Because the Sisters don’t need a ride home. They are already home!

Betsy Bernfeld is a librarian, lawyer and writer in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. A native of Tucson, she is a frequent visitor to the city and the monastery.


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1 comment on this story

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Nov 14, 2017, 10:35 pm
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This article is well written and gets some things right. Yet I am troubled by the article’s individualism. Tucson’s Benedictine monastery always welcomed visitors, but it was never primarily intended as a place where non-monastic individuals could retreat for quiet contemplation. That was a fringe benefit to the city, not the monastery’s reason for being. The monastery never belonged to the city of Tucson, and Tucsonans can lay no claim to it. The monastery always belonged to God and to the community of vowed resident Sisters, whose needs and realities the article inadequately addresses.The tears that some Sisters may have shed over leaving Tucson do not mean that their departure is wrong. Nor does their grief necessarily mean that “they are already home.” Their home will be at their mother house in Clyde, Missouri, where they will be welcomed, embraced, and strengthened by their community. Tucson locals’ attempts to retain the monastery seem to disrespect the discernment and vision that the Sisters brought to their decision to sell the building and relocate. Disparaging insinuations about the purchasing developer imply that the Sisters sold out to an opportunist. References to a vow of poverty are simply out of place, given the fact that Benedictines do not take such a vow. Benedictines are faithful realists, which accounts in part for their longevity over many centuries. As the Rule of Benedict puts it, they “keep death ever before their eyes.” Ultimately, they practice non-attachment to the things of this world. We can best honor Tucson’s Benedictines by releasing them from our own attachments to them, and by celebrating the faithful courage with which they move on.      .

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The Benedictine Monastery of the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Tucson.

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