The six nuns who founded the Santa Rita Abbey in 1962 arrive in Tucson, accompanied by the Mother Superior of their motherhouse in Massachusetts.

I had never sat down to chat with a Mother Superior before, let alone a cloistered one. I didn’t quite know what to expect as I headed out to Santa Rita Abbey northwest of Sonoita to learn about its Golden Jubilee. I did not foresee a nonstop laughing session with Mother Vicki as she shared her stories.

Her Arizona saga started 51 years ago. Young Vicki Murray was part of a group of six eager-eyed nuns in their black veils and long dresses who stepped off the plane in Tucson and headed out into the desert. Their mission, given by their motherhouse in Massachusetts, was to bring the Cistercian way of life of contemplation and service to this area of the country. 

Mother Vicki chuckled when she remembered how, on that day, she had not made her vows yet. But for traveling and photos, she was, in her words, “Promoted for the day.” She got to wear a black instead of white scapular and veil. “It was short-lived,” she said. “After the photos, they said, ‘Okay, time to give back the black habit with leather belt!’”

The nuns arrived in the foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains to squeeze into a ranch house with black-and-green psychedelic curtains and a great room which served as dining room, library, and chapel. “Our visiting chaplain said, ‘This is the only place I know of where you can have one foot in the chapel and the other foot in the kitchen,’” Mother Vicki said. The nuns went to work, overseeing the construction of a dormitory and chapel, and then, over the years, as needs arose, a crafts building, bakery, and retreat house.

Most people in the area do not even know the abbey is there. That’s because the community is “cloistered,” a word which conjures images of a secluded and hidden life behind high walls. Sister Pam Fletcher gestured around her and laughed, “We have Forest Service on three sides. There is no need for walls here.” The nuns do not work in the community, but rather perform service from within the abbey. This includes baking altar breads for 300 churches across the country and hosting private retreats and a monthly prayer and sharing group.

The baking is a source of comic stories. They could be about grinding their own flour (“my brainchild,” M. Vicki groaned), or about hauling 100-lb bags of flour in her pickup and hearing a gigantic tin of lima beans on top bouncing around the back before the tailgate dropped open – on I-10!

There are also the reflective stories. “I fell in love with the desert immediately – the vastness, the silence,” said M. Vicki. “For me the desert has been a great teacher. It looks like nothing much is happening, so brown, everything looks dead. But there is so much life when you learn to see better. The plants and animals teach you.”

“There’s what I call a desert star flower that comes after the rain. A bulb sends up a tall stem. At the top are translucent white flowers, one appearing at a time, each like a star. One day, all the clay up on the mesa had turned into curled rectangles. Alligator skin. Barren, nothing growing. I saw in the middle of all that vastness one starflower backlit by the sun. In the midst of all that harshness, that flower was true to itself. Beautiful. That’s how I want to be. I don’t want to see only harshness and ugliness because life will give it. I want to be like the starflower, truly who I am, true to God. So it teaches me.”

She further explained, “Reading, prayer, work. . .all of these help teach us how to get to a place inside us and how to live from it. Whatever we are doing, we ask, Where’s God there? God’s right there. It helps us become a complete human being on all levels. It’s about love. God is the hub, the spokes are connected to the wheel. When you touch God, you touch everyone, you’re connected to everyone. We’re all connected; no one is separate, we all mean something to one another.”

Not surprisingly, “All the nuns there are full of joy,” said a neighbor. There are indeed no walls to experiencing the ever-present joy and ease of this community. You can see it for yourself at the Golden Jubilee celebration on April 22. 

Everyone is welcome to attend Santa Rita Abbey‘s 50th Anniversary Celebration – Mass, light lunch, and tours of monastery – on Saturday, April 22, 2023 at 10:30 a.m. The Abbey is located at 14200 E Fish Canyon Rd, Sonoita. Call 520-455-5595 for more information, or visit santaritaabbey.org