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God provides: a reflection on our former Tucson monastery

God provides: a reflection on our former Tucson monastery - (05-02-2019)

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PHOTO: “I played soccer with a little person who played with delight on your main corridor.”—Cecilia Valenzuela Gee after the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration’s former monastery in Tucson, Ariz., was temporarily opened to house asylum seekers being processed by the U.S. government.


“God provides” by Sister Joan Ridley, OSB

We Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration frequently say that “God provides” or that God is full of surprises. When we sold our beloved Tucson (Arizona) monastery in early 2018 to a local developer, little did we realize how God might surprise him and now us.

Developer Ross Rulney plans to build apartments on the vacant acres and to renovate the monastery structure, but planning and civic permissions take a long time. Because the building was empty and because there are asylum seekers being processed by our government at the Mexican border 60 miles away who need assistance, he offered free use of the building for six months.  

The Diocese of Tucson’s Catholic Community Services, already struggling to provide the refugees with shelter and help them to relocate to their sponsors in other parts of the country, runs their program at our former monastery. Organizing hundreds of volunteers with only one day notice, they began housing asylum-seeking refugees in what had been a completely empty building.  

Local media sources have highlighted this unusual use and interviewed refugee families. We wanted to also highlight the experience of volunteers in Tucson whom the Sisters know and the reactions of our own Sisters, now all located at our motherhouse in Clyde, Missouri.

“The multiplication of the chairs and other wonders”

Valarie Lee James is an Oblate of St. Benedict living in Tucson who helped the first day, Jan. 26. The American Red Cross donated cots and blankets; there were some tables to eat or work on but few chairs. Volunteers were invited to "bring a chair of any type" the next time they came.

Suddenly it was like the multiplication of the loaves - there were chairs enough for about 100 refugees and many volunteers. Food, supplies, clothing and many needed items came flying in through the door, so to speak. 

Medical personnel, though employed in regular jobs, have some time to give. One is Sister Eileen Mahony, CSA, a longtime friend who is a nurse. She wrote of that first Saturday, “What an emotional day. The first refugees who have applied for asylum status arrived at ‘your’ monastery this afternoon. Things were set up as we went along and 60+ were received. They were not expected for another week or two. All were of small stature, all from Guatemala. All have papers stating they have temporary asylum status. Most were frightened and cold. They could not get over the ‘big house’ and the warm reception. Upon completing the medical screening, they each received a bag with toiletries and a little towel. They were looking forward to showering and sleeping in a warm house.”

We Sisters in Clyde, many of whom lived in our Tucson monastery over the years, marveled at the action of God in the generosity of friends and neighbors. We learned that the medical director and many volunteers are from a Jewish congregation.  

“Learning of this partnership brought great joy and comfort to me,” Sister Patricia Vereb, OSB said. “Ross Rulney, the volunteers and Catholic Community Services are carrying on the gospel message of providing for those in need. It helps heal the sadness within me/us of having to close our monastery.”

Sister Ramona Varela, OSB added, “It is a consolation to know our former monastery is helping Central American asylum seekers in much need.”

Perhaps Sister Josetta Grant OSB summed it up perfectly, “It makes my heart rejoice. If we were still there, this would not be possible. So grateful!”

“New uses, new meanings”

A neighbor in Tucson is Cecilia Valenzuela Gee, who often visited the monastery to participate in Contemplative Prayer in the past.

She wrote of her experience this past week, “As I approached the east side of the monastery with its oleander fence, I could hear an unusual sound in the grounds of the old building. It was the sound of balls being played with by children and their accompanying joyful shouts! Soon another group of 40 refugees arrived. The rooms now have new uses, new meanings. Some are being used for registration, others for medical supplies, the nurse, clothing or transportation, which is where I helped. We have a phone provided by the Red Cross, which is available for calls to Central America or in the U.S. The guests need to call their loved ones to tell them that they are finally safe, at least for the time being.” 

God provides “a rich harvest, at the right time”

Cecilia continued, “In the inner patios and yard, we found the orchards of oranges. There was not a single child without an orange in their hands or mouths. The oranges are falling by hundreds, ripe and ready.”

Sister Dawn Vercellino, OSB, who served in leadership roles while living at the Tucson monastery, reflected, “I am overwhelmed with gratitude that Ross Rulney has opened our former Tucson monastery doors to immigrants in process of connecting with their families here in the USA. He has continued our Benedictine tradition of hospitality. Gratitude also to the many volunteers helping these immigrants.”

Mary Sheridan, a Tucson Oblate, was a full-time volunteer with the Sisters for the last seven years we lived in Tucson. She also is a volunteer. 

“They arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs,” she said. “I can't imagine what it has been like for these families to travel more than 2,200 miles under difficult conditions - with toddlers - then processed by ICE and brought to a building full of strangers. You would have to be desperate to do that. I had a few minutes yesterday of walking through the monastery and thinking about the way it used to be, but then I got to work and that passed. You Sisters would have enjoyed hearing the hallways echoing with children. Someone donated soccer balls, so, of course, the next thing that happened was children playing down the long south hallway. Everyone is so grateful for the availability of the monastery. Please do pray for these poor people.”

Sister Hope Rodenborn, OSB pondered, “God all along had plans for our monastery in Tucson, we just did not know how wonderful those plans were to be: housing men, women and children in a safe environment. There are sunny days for the children to play outside in the back yard with plenty of space and the fantastic response of the Tucson community with many volunteers to heal, feed and help them find their families in the United States. Our God is a God of surprises!”

Ross Rulney, owner of our former monastery, put his experience this way: “I’m grateful and honored to be in a position to help, watch and learn. When I first offered the use of the monastery, I immediately thought of you (Sisters) and what your reaction might be. That made my decision extremely easy and immediate.”

Cecilia Valenzuela Gee connected what is happening with the past prayer and hospitality of the Sisters in Tucson, “We are following on your steps, dear Sisters! The Sisters I knew were courageous, real and loving and willing to follow fully the path of Christ who said, ‘what you do for the least of these you do unto me.’”

Valarie James, Benedictine Oblate, commented that the Rule of St. Benedict is very strong on offering hospitality, a charism in the Church.

Over the years, the Sisters certainly offered hospitality in a spirit of peace. It was as if the bricks and walls of the monastery building absorbed that charism, which rises to the surface, even after we Sisters have gone.