On a recent snowy morning, Blessed Sacrament Monastery in Anchorage looked especially quiet. There were no cars in the parking lot, and only a small sign on the building gave evidence of the Catholic cloister. But inside the hushed monastery, live a handful of cloistered nuns who are about the work of saving the world.
They are members of the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, a cloistered religious order that was first established in 1807 in France by Blessed Mary Magdalene of the Incarnation. The order operates 85 monasteries worldwide — all are dedicated to the perpetual adoration of the Eucharistic Christ.
Focused on Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, each nun spends her life praying and sacrificing for the good of the church and the salvation of souls.
In a rare interview, the superior of the Alaska monastery Mother Maria de la Milagrosa spoke with the Catholic Anchor about the tremendous but largely unseen life inside a cloistered monastery.
Speaking in her native Spanish and with the aid of an interpreter, she gave the interview from behind a metal grille in a visiting room near the monastery’s chapel.
Living only for God
Motivated by the love of God, the nuns are “planting the seed for the good of souls,” Mother Maria explained. In that quiet work, rising like farmers before the rest of the world for long days, they trust God to yield a harvest which they might never see in their lifetimes.
“It is a life of faith,” in the sequestered world of the monastery, Mother Maria continued. “We don’t see the fruits, but we believe the Word of God that he will draw them out.”
Speaking of the nuns’ mostly hidden existence, Mother Maria called it a “testimony that God is here and we live only for him.”
“It is possible to live only for God,” she stressed.
Mother Maria, 67, has done just that. She entered the cloistered religious order more than 50 years ago, at age 15.
But with a sleight frame, lively, dark eyes and a generous smile that hints of some hidden, happy secret, Mother Maria radiates youthful joy.
Born in Guadalajara, Mexico to the Veytia family, she was the youngest of three children, all girls. Her parents named her, Paz, which means, “peace.”
But just years before her birth, Paz’s world had been anything but peaceful.
Beginning in the 1800s, when Mexico gained independence from Spain, anticlericalism was rampant in Mexican politics. Secular forces saw the Catholic Church’s property as a means of wealth. So in 1857, a constitution was adopted attacking the church’s property rights. And when anticlerical Freemasons took control of the country in 1917, other anticlerical edicts — similar to those pushed in the French Revolution — were instituted. The church was forbidden to teach and regulate its own church matters, priests were prohibited from voting, religious orders were outlawed and religious were not permitted to wear their habits in public. Priests were killed for celebrating the sacraments and altars were desecrated.
The Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Guadalajara were dispersed to their families’ homes and hidden. The monastery was robbed.
While the violence had waned by the early 1940s when Paz was born, the church still had no legal corporate existence, no schools and no monasteries, and members of religious orders were still prohibited from wearing their traditional clothing.
So separated from their floor-length, white habits, veils and red, pinafore-like scapulars, the un-cloistered nuns wore street clothes, all in black.
The monochrome was too somber for little Paz. “I didn’t like nuns,” Mother Maria recalled.
But she had an aunt in the order, part of the contingent that had moved to greater freedom in San Francisco. The two corresponded occasionally, and the young Paz asked for prayers to help her determine life’s path.
Her two sisters had joined the monastery as well.
And then in the mystery of a call from God, Mother Maria said she was drawn to the religious life.
“A vocation is a gift from God,” she said. “It is so great, one cannot explain it.”
The desire to “give your body and soul for the Lord. It’s very strong,” she added. “One tries to put it off, but the Lord insists.”
At 15, Paz needed her parents’ permission to enter the monastery. Her mother agreed more easily than her father. On her birthday, he asked Paz what she wanted as a present, even suggesting a nice trip.
“No, I want permission,” she responded with resolve.
He cried as he signed his consent for his last daughter to enter religious life, she recalled.
In 1960, Paz made her first profession in the reestablished monastery in Guadalajara. There, in 1963, she professed her final vows and spent the next 28 years.
Pumping for graces
In 1985, at the invitation of then Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley and the urging of a group of laity in Anchorage, Mother Maria traveled north with a small group of fellow nuns to establish a monastery in Alaska.
With her arms mimicking the motion of an oil pump, the cheerful Mother Maria explained that the congregation’s special mission in the resource-rich state is “to pump the grace for all the archdiocese” and “to testify to the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.”
The religious order locates its monasteries in cities in order to provide people access to the Blessed Sacrament for veneration. So, the Anchorage monastery’s chapel is open to the public every day, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., for Eucharistic adoration. Visitors kneel adoring Christ in the consecrated host, exposed in a large, bronze monstrance, while in another section of the chapel, the nuns take turns in adoration from behind the cloister grille.
But even while performing daily chores or praying elsewhere in the monastery the nuns strive to continually focus on the Blessed Sacrament.
“I like to always stay before the Blessed Sacrament in my mind or body,” explained Mother Maria.
That means constant communication with God every day — while she is waking at 5:15 a.m., reciting the Divine Office and rosary with the congregation, resting in her cell, and reading the pope’s statements in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper.
Mother Maria believes those outside the monastery walls can pray in a similar way.
“Think of God and want what he wants,” she urged. “God is center” at the monastery, she added, but “we all have the same center – God.”
The activity of prayer
The constant prayer of the cloistered nuns is critical activity for the church and the world, Mother Maria said.
She noted St. Paul’s teaching that each member of the Body of Christ has a mission.
“The function of the foot cannot be the hand’s,” Mother Maria said.
While the “active,” uncloistered religious have a mission to serve God’s people, she said, the “activity” of the cloistered religious is prayer and sacrifice for the church and the world.
However, she observed, that after the Second Vatican Council, which encouraged visible engagement with the world, the cloistered Sisters of the Perpetual Adoration were criticized by some for not broadening their mission outside the monastery.
But the nuns maintained their focus, Mother Maria explained, because, as Pope Paul VI stressed, prayer and sacrifice are the power behind all good action.
The current pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI has echoed that principle in recent days.
In a Feb. 2 homily during the 14th annual Day of Consecrated Life, he said, “In reality, the closer we come to God … the more useful one is to others.”
The Pope added: “Consecrated persons experience the grace, mercy and forgiveness of God not only for themselves, but also for their brothers, being called to carry in their heart and prayer the anxieties and expectations of men, especially of those who are far from God.”
Speaking in particular of those living in cloistered communities, the Pope said they live with God, “taking on themselves the sufferings and trials of others and offering everything with joy for the salvation of the world.
“It is not that we are rejecting the world,” explained Mother Maria of the separation the monastery grille represents. “We love the world.”
In the silence behind the grille, these cloistered nuns can continue their constant prayer for unknown persons they love so well — souls who themselves are distracted and rushing to work along busy Lake Otis Parkway, just around the corner.
Printed with permission from CatholicAnchor.org.