Glance at most Tucson travel literature and you are sure to see St. Augustine Cathedral and "The White Dove of the Desert"—San Xavier del Bac. Both are featured prominently in Tucson: A Pictorial Guide.
Absent from the glossy pages is another place of worship worthy of mention. The Benedictine Monastery on Country Club Road—referred to as "The Pink Rose of the Desert"—is in its 70th year. This quiet, soothing sanctuary is a reminder that peace can be found in spiritual practice and also in the middle of town.
On a recent Friday morning, I toured the monastery with Sister Joan. The visit included stops in the chapel, gift shop, liturgical vestment department, assembly room and roof deck.
The tranquility, a nostalgic ride in Tucson's oldest working elevator (remember scissor gates?) and the aroma of what smelled like homemade bread made me want to stay for a while.
Sister Joan, one of the 23 Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who reside at the monastery, explained a typical day's events. "Our main work here is prayer, for the people of the city, and as we say, for people of all times, all places and all countries. We take that very seriously. ... People want to pray with us; they want to experience the peace and harmony they find here when they come pray."
The sisters pray five times a day, starting at 6:30 a.m. and ending at 7 p.m. The morning prayer involves reading of Psalms and silence, while other prayer times include singing prayers and reading of Scripture. Serving the church through contemplative prayer is a change from Sister Joan's start as a nun.
"I lived for 30 years in New Orleans as a Dominican sister in a community that did missionary work. ... I was a civil lawyer and worked among the poor doing legal services or legal aid work. In the mid-1990s, I felt a real call to change the type of religious community I was a part of. A contemplative monastic community such as this ... I found that really more in harmony with my inner search for God."
While other sisters work on Spirit & Life, a 105-year-old publication, make custom-sewn and hand-embroidered liturgical garb, or colorful religious icons mounted on solid walnut, Sister Joan coordinates the maintenance and restoration efforts of the 87,000 square-foot structure. Originally designed by architect Roy Place, the monastery is in need of significant renovation.
A fundraising campaign is underway to raise $1 million for three main areas: Spanish tile roof repairs, heating and cooling upgrades and electrical work. Sister Joan explained that when the monastery was built, six air handlers were placed in the attic. This system barely functioned in 2004. So far, three of the units have been taken out and roof repairs have followed.
Some eco-friendly work has been completed, including the installation of two solar panels, a greywater collection system and energy-efficient lighting. But more work is needed, and a benefit for repairs and preservation takes place at 3 and 7 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 21, at the monastery. The Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus and Danish pianist Torsten Juul-Borre will perform.
With its modern renovations underway, the past of the monastery is still in the hearts and minds of locals. "I've heard person after person say, 'I'm 65 years old and when I was 10, my dad used to bring me when he used to pray here.' (Tucsonans) got exposed to our presence a long time ago," said Sister Joan. The chapel is open each day and the community is welcome.
Since prayer is such an important activity at the monastery, I inquired about its true purpose. "The purpose of prayer is to open our awareness to the reality of God's presence and love. ... It's almost like opening your ears to a beautiful symphony," said Sister Joan. "Prayer by anyone anywhere has an influence of good in the world around us.
"People are exposed to a level of noise, words, violence and hyperactivity that is really demeaning and diminishing of our basic human spirit. I think prayer and places of peacefulness are desperately needed today in a way that perhaps they haven't been before."
With its tranquil atmosphere, hospitable nuns and their important work, this pink jewel in our city's center deserves its needed renovations and a permanent spot in Tucson's travel brochures. It's not often that one sees a rose blooming in the desert.
For more information, visit tucsonmonastery.com.