ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Less hardy souls might have found the move from the tropics of central Mexico to the frigid environs of Anchorage more than they could bear. And even the most resolute of the faithful might find a life of constant prayer behind bars a trial of their faith.
But for the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration--a cloistered order of Catholic nuns who spend 10 hours a day, 365 days a year in prayer--the move to Alaska and their life in seclusion have not presented hardship. In fact, when asked if they ever tire of prayer and confinement, they seem taken aback.
"Oh no, on the contrary, we are here in seclusion, in a hidden kind of life, separated from the world so we can pray better," said Sister Maria Jesus, who entered the monastery at 14 and is now 53. "We have dedicated our lives to prayer. Our vacation will be in heaven."
The nuns live behind the walls of the Monastery of the Blessed Sacrament on three acres of land surrounded by a residential community. They came to Anchorage, Alaska's biggest city, four years ago, establishing their fourth cloister in the United States. The order was founded in Rome in 1807 and has 70 cloisters throughout the world, 40 of them in Mexico.
Sister Josefina, 70, has been a member of the contemplative order for 53 years, which comes to about 22 years worth of praying, all told. The oldest nun in the monastery, Sister Marta, 72, has been a member of the order 48 years. And Sister Maria Victorias, the mother superior, is 59 and has been in the community 37 years.
Regardless of their tenure in the order, the nuns are in accord on one topic: They have no regrets.
"I joined the order in Guadalajara when I was 22," Sister Maria said. "I had been working as an accountant in a business with my two brothers. I have never regretted my decision to leave the secular world for the monastery. I feel much closer to God."
Sister Mary Margaret, 67, has spent 45 years as one of the praying nuns. She also is emphatic that this is her proper calling.
"I believe I am doing the best I can for humanity by spending my life in prayer," she said.
Although 10 hours a day may seem like a lot of praying to some, the sisters are not at a loss for things to pray about.
"We pray for all the interests of the church, for the Pope, for the special needs of the archbishop, for the people in Alaska, whatever is important for the world, for all the regular things people pray for," Sister Maria said.
It was Archbishop Francis Hurley of Anchorage who brought the nuns from their cloister in Guadalajara to the new Monastery of the Blessed Sacrament.
Kim Syren, an Anchorage widow, suggested to the archbishop five years ago that the city have a monastery of either monks or nuns. She offered to donate the land for the building.
Hurley immediately thought of the contemplative order he has known since he was a boy.
"I have known the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration since I was a young altar boy at their monastery in San Francisco in the 1930s," the archbishop explained.
The archbishop contacted the nuns in San Francisco and they told him that the Guadalajara cloister was running out of room and looking for a place to establish a new community. Catholics in Anchorage staged fund-raisers. Paul Lariviere, a carpenter and the monastery cloister project manager, architect Jim Hill and contractor Tom Gittins all volunteered their time, as did hundreds of others. The building, which includes living quarters, a chapel, kitchen and reception area, "cost roughly $500,000 in donated money but the building is easily worth $1.2 million," the archbishop said.
The seven Guadalajara nuns moved to Anchorage four years ago. The woman who donated the land moved out of her home and let the nuns use it for two years, until the cloister was finished. The nuns, who have begun to learn English and applied for U.S. citizenship, are now supported by private donations.
The nuns cook their own meals in the kitchen and each has her own room with a simple bed. In the chapel monastery, where Mass is said every day, bars run down the middle of the chapel and across the front, separating the nuns from other parishioners. The reception area is also separated from the nuns' living space by bars.
"The bars are symbolic of their separation from the world, beyond which they do not come and beyond which people do not go," Archbishop Hurley said.
Despite their isolation, the nuns are cheerful and not particularly shy. When they're not praying or attending to their daily needs, they spend free time in a spacious, walled-in area behind the cloister, out of view any onlookers.
"That is the time for our lighter moments," explained Sister Carmen, 29, a member of the order for 12 years. "The younger nuns jog around the track. All of us play volleyball. In winter, we ride sleds down a snow-covered hill. In summer some of us roller-skate, ride bicycles."
Despite the apparently carefree attitude during recreation periods, the sense of decorum and isolation is never far removed their lives. They wear their red-and-white habits when they exercise and never leave the premises. Others shop for them. The mother superior reads the daily newspaper and decides what news to pass on to the other nuns, who do not have the privilege of reading the paper.
Although it might appear to some as a sacrifice of personal freedom, the nuns make the trade-off willingly.
"When I was on the outside I wanted material things. Now, I feel much richer than when I was outside. And yet, I own nothing, not even the clothes on my back," said Sister Carmen, 22, the eighth and newest member of the group. She arrived in Anchorage eight months ago from her home in Zacatecas, Mexico.
"Many cannot understand our life style, not even many of our families," she continued. "But for us, this has brought us very close to God, and fulfills our potential."