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Benedictine Sister Natalia passes on Christmas Day

Benedictine Sister Natalia passes on Christmas Day - (26-12-2013)

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Benedictine Sister of Perpetual Adoration Mary Natalia Barela, 105, passed away in the early hours of Christmas at Our Lady of Rickenbach in Clyde, Mo. The date was also her name day, which seemed fitting to her family and monastic community. Sister Natalia, who holds the record for longevity in the congregation at 105 years, was in her 82nd year of monastic profession.

Sofia Elizabeth Barela was born on July 8, 1908, to Eugene and Soledad (Gonzales) Barela in Rancho de Albuquerque, New Mexico Territory (New Mexico wasn’t officially declared a state until 1912). She was one of five children - older siblings Horace and Alice and younger siblings John and Eugene. Her father died in an accident on the ranch in 1911 before Eugene was born. The family was very poor, and her mother moved them off the ranch into town to be near their grandmother and to get an education. Her mother prepared Alice and Sofia for their First Communion.

“I was 6 years old and actually did not understand what it was all about,” Sister Natalia recalled. “For me it was just something that I had to have because my sister had it.”

She started school before she knew a word of English. She went to public school from first through ninth grades then finished her last three years at St. Vincent Academy, where she graduated in 1926. She stayed at home, but her heart was already in the convent.

“I don’t remember where I heard about Clyde,” she once said. “The very name, ‘Benedictine Convent of Perpetual Adoration’ thrilled me. I just knew that is where I belonged.”

Her sister offered to pay for Sofia to go to business college, so she decided she would take a course, get a job, save her money and go to the convent. Her first job was at a furniture store until they went out of business. Then she worked for the Missouri State Life Insurance and Kansas City Life Insurance in Albuquerque, where both companies had branch offices.

She left for Clyde in September 1929. She’d had good spiritual directors (all Jesuits) since high school and felt she had learned a lot from them about the spiritual life. She felt right at home when she entered as a postulant on Sept. 25, 1929. 

“I enjoyed being a postulant; I wasn’t surprised at anything,” she said. “I did not know Latin, and the Divine Office was in Latin. I also didn’t know German, and many of the community prayers were in German, but this did not bother me. I was in love with God, and this is where he wanted me to be.”

Sofia entered the novitiate on Aug. 3, 1930, and made First Profession on Aug. 22, 1931, receiving the name Sister Mary Natalia. She made Final Profession on Aug. 29, 1936.

In May 1937 she transferred to the Tucson, Ariz., convent, hoping the fresh air and sunshine would benefit her somewhat frail health. There were 16 sisters there at that time, and she was the youngest in perpetual vows. This was still a pioneer stage for the Tucson sisters as they had just arrived there two years earlier. They occupied the Steinfeld mansion and were able to move to the newly constructed permanent monastery by December 1940. She was in Tucson for 21 years and then went to Clyde and Kansas City, Mo. She also lived in San Diego for a time.

In 1974 she was one of the group of five sisters who attempted to establish a small experimental community geared to a simpler form of monastic living in Payson, Ariz.  

Upon returning to Tucson, Sister Natalia became involved with a deeper experience of contemplative prayer. She joined the contemplative prayer group at the Tucson monastery and also attended meditation sessions with some inter-religious groups in the city. She became an avid reader of St. Teresa of Avila and impishly said, “Spanish mystics have to stick together.”  

During her final years in Tucson, she said, “I no longer have a set time for personal prayer. God is always with me, and I just enjoy his presence all the time.”

She celebrated her Golden Jubilee in 1981 and her Diamond Jubilee in 1991. A wake will be held Friday, Dec. 27, with a funeral mass on Saturday, Dec. 28, in the Adoration Chapel at Clyde. Burial will be in Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Clyde. Memorials can be sent in care of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, 31970 State Highway P, Clyde, MO 64432-8100 or online at www.BenedictineSisters.org.