The monastery, a modern take on the Spanish Mission style, was founded in 1998 by the Sisters of St Benedict on land that was formerly a tree farm. The chapel is simple and austere – a bright room, with primitive stained glass clerestory windows. Icons and other pictures adorn the walls. Seating is arranged in a half-octagon around a simple altar with tabernacle behind. A large crucifix hangs over the altar. Choir seating is in a rear gallery. In 2017 the chapel caught fire due to faulty Christmas display wiring, but the sisters were quick to, erm, man the fire hoses and had things under control even before the fire department arrived. In 2008, and again in 2015, when Phoenix hosted football’s Super Bowl, the sisters made the retreat house’s dormitory rooms available for out-of-town fans who couldn’t find or couldn’t afford hotel accommodations. ‘No tobacco, alcohol or profanity,’ the sisters cautioned their guests, ‘and no feuding among rival fans!’
The monastery is home to a small community of Benedictine nuns and one Franciscan nun, as well as to several oblates, both men and women. Their primary activity is sponsoring retreats. The sisters also tend St Benedict’s Garden, whose ministry is (quoting from their website) ‘to restore the land and produce healthy all natural vegetables and fruits that sustain our children and families in the surrounding neighborhood.’ Additionally, they manage a thrift shop and a sewing circle, and sponsor a chapter of the Fellowship of Catholic Christian Women. There is one mass each Sunday and one on Friday evenings.
The monastery is located on West Pinchot Avenue north of Thomas Road and west of 83rd Avenue, in the Maryvale neighborhood of Phoenix, primarily an enclave of working-class Hispanic families. There is an elementary school nearby as well as several complexes of medical offices.
A Benedictine priest, in full eucharistic vestiture over his habit, celebrated. He was assisted by a crucifer and acolyte, both in alb, cincture, and hood lowered over the shoulder. The prioress, in her contemporary Benedictine habit of dark floor-length jumper over a white blouse, with pectoral cross and sandals – no veil, no wimple – made announcements. There were two lay readers.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Mass.
How full was the building?
It was almost completely full. I couldn’t count the chairs due to their irregular layout, but I counted about 100 people. Mostly a young adult to middle aged crowd, mostly women, some couples and a few young children.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Did they ever! A lady at the door said, ‘Hello. Welcome. Come in.’ Inside, almost everyone came up to me, shook my hand, introduced themselves and welcomed me. The prioress was working the room – she asked me if it was my first time there and how did I find them.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a padded chair – comfortable enough. Some folding metal chairs had been set out on the right and left far sides of the room. No kneelers – we stood for the eucharistic prayer.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lots of greeting, visiting, etc. among friends. Jovial. As mentioned above, almost everyone had something to say to me. The choir were rehearsing. One lady shot me a glare as if to say, ‘That’s my seat!’ – she and her husband looked rather confused as they searched for somewhere else to sit, although there were still plenty of empty seats at that time.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
By the prioress: ‘Good morning, everyone. From now it’s quiet time to prepare for the liturgy.’ At which everyone immediately fell silent and remained so until the mass began. It was good to see that the tradition I remember from my youth of nuns speaking with authority and being obeyed unquestioningly, was still alive.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The paperback bilingual missalette Unidos en Cristo/United in Christ was on each seat, but the prayers and words to the songs were projected.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano and guitar, up in the gallery. I couldn’t see the piano, but I’m pretty sure it was digital. There was a small mixed choir who led the singing but did not offer an anthem.
Did anything distract you?
One of the oblates who introduced herself to me had the same name as a girl I was at school with – she wasn’t the same one, though. The acolyte was wearing sneakers – while his brother, who remained in the congregation, was appropriately shod. Had I been their dresser, I would have made them swap shoes, assuming they were the same size (offhand, that looked to be the case).
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Typical Catholic liturgy, well celebrated. No bells or incense. The songs and mass setting were all of the contemporary easy listening variety – Dan Schutte, David Haas, Marty Haugen, etc. The choir sang well; some of the congregation joined in but most didn’t. We did, however, sing all verses of every song; nothing was cut short. In the Creed we said that we believe in ‘one holy, catholic [small ‘c’] and apostolic church.’ We held hands during the Lord’s Prayer – I don’t like to do it, but the lady sitting next to me held out her hand so insistently that I thought it rude to refuse, and so I yielded. I thought the exchange of piece was a tad more convivial than is usually seen in Catholic churches – people moved around more, including the altar party. Communion was under both species.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — The priest spoke clearly and without notes, but I thought his sermon could have been a bit more tightly organized.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His text was the gospel reading, Luke 14:7-14 (‘When you are invited, take the lowest place …’). What is humility? It’s acknowledging God’s goodness, that all we have comes from God. It is OK to take pride in your accomplishments, but don’t gloat! Never forget that they are gifts from God. Share your bounty with others. How can you apply the message of today’s gospel to your life? Reach out to others with your gifts, even if they are small – little things can mean a lot to someone in need. That is humility – that is love. That will prompt God to say to you, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
During announcements at the end, we heard that a certain gentleman was celebrating his 85th birthday; he was asked to come up to receive a blessing. The prioress said that when the monastery first opened, he and his family were the very first lay persons to attend mass. And there he still was. Heavenly. And the acolyte, bless his soul despite his poor taste in footwear, sang his head off during all of the songs.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Everyone seemed so into the service, I almost hate to say it – but readers of these reports know how I feel about ‘Singing Nun’ music. The songs selected for today’s mass were miles above the standard ditties you hear all too often in Catholic churches, but still a cut below the grand and glorious tradition of Western church music I so like to hear.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I didn’t hang around – I cut out just as the last song was finishing up.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None had been announced. I adjourned to my favorite local Chinese buffet for lunch.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — This is clearly a close-knit community who enjoy each other’s company and are used to worshipping together. If I were able still to embrace all the teachings of the Catholic church of my youth – which I can’t – I think I would enjoy worshipping here. It was very uplifting for a one-off visit, though.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Real honest-to-goodness Singing Nuns.