Each morning at 4:30 am, the nuns of the Benedictine Monastery of Our Lady in the Desert rise to say Vigils, the first of seven prayer periods they will say throughout the day. At this hour of the early morning at their home in the remote high desert of New Mexico, the nuns’ prayers often comingle with calls from a pack of coyotes. It is likely during one of these early mornings that the Benedictines said their 25,550th prayer in the chapel of the monastery, founded officially in the Diocese of Gallup in 2009.
Seven daily prayer periods, every day from before dawn to after dusk, for ten years.
“Our life is so simple, it’s hard,” Sr. Kateri Lovato says with a laugh. Sr. Kateri is the subprioress – the nun who serves under the prioress, or superior, of an abbey. She is one of 13 nuns who live at the monastery, which sits about a half hour drive from Blanco, NM to the west and from Dulce, NM in the east.
“Ora et Labora” – “Prayer and Work” is the motto of the Benedictine Order, founded nearly 1500 years ago in Subiaco, Italy by St. Benedict. His sister, St. Scholastica, would later establish the women’s branch of the order.
It is this dedication to prayer and work – especially prayer – that led Bishop James Wall to ask the nuns to settle in his diocese.
“He was so happy we arrived, because he said, ‘I would’ve had to go hunt some contemplatives to make sure there was somebody in the diocese praying for the needs of the church’”, Sr. Kateri recalls. “I was so blessed by that.”
The Monastery of Our Lady of the Desert was established in New Mexico in 1990, and shared land with the Christ in the Desert Monastery in Abiquiu, north of Santa Fe and Chimayo. According to the nuns’ website, they were given the deed to 40 acres of property near Gubernador, NM – the property now home to the monastery in its present form.
“On June 13, 2008, we moved to our temporary home in Blanco, NM, at the St. Rose of Lima Parish. Rev. Fr. Jim Walker, and all his staff at the time were and continue to support our efforts,” the website says. “In August 2009, the sisters started moving to the Gobernador property in a double-wide and two-single modular buildings. This has been a challenge but we are home, thanks to God.”
At the time, describing the work ahead as a “challenge” was fitting.
“We didn’t have – no electricity, nothing,” Sr. Kateri remembers. No utilities, either. But the nearby communities stepped in to make the land fit for a monastery. “Thanks to the community of Dulce and Farmington and Aztec and all the surrounding areas, they would always come and help. I think it’s God’s work. The superior kept saying ‘well, if God wants us to be here, He’ll make sure that He finds a way.’”
And from its humble beginnings with just a set of trailers, the monastery grew over the next decade. Anyone driving on Highway 64 past the monastery may be able to spot a large cross, placed at the top of the “mountain” – the prominent hill that towers next to the monastery.
“We’ve added more sisters. We’ve been able to add a few more buildings,” Sr. Kateri says. “We’ve had the bishop come and attend the vows – we’ve had three sisters make their vows.”
One nun just became an American citizen – in a small room in Cibola county, she raised her hand and took the Oath of Allegiance. She, along with the other nuns, are part of a growing monastic movement in the United States.
But the heart of the movement transcends national boundaries – the hearts of monks and nuns across the world belong to God.
“During the ten years, I think it’s been good to be established there for the community, to pray for the needs of the people, not only through the world, for the diocese, but through the surrounding area,” Sr. Kateri says.
Not just for Catholics, either – just recently, Sr. Kateri was stopped by a woman who asked if she was really a nun. When Sr. Kateri answered “yes”, the lady, a Baptist, recalled her years at Catholic school, and said she hadn’t seen a habit in a long time. She, and all the people in the Diocese of Gallup, regardless of religious affiliation, are prayed for by the nuns.
The Monastery formally celebrated its 10th anniversary on August 29, with about 100 guests and several priests from nearby parishes.
“The day was beautiful,” Sr. Kateri said. “The celebration, to me, was just a sign of unity with the people, that they support us.”
As Sr. Kateri speaks about the anniversary, she and another nun are on their way to Spain for a province meeting, where they will give a presentation about Our Lady of the Desert. The monastery is currently a “dependent daughter house” of the Jamberoo Abbey in Australia.
Jamberoo has been very supportive of the New Mexico nuns, who are currently working to become an independent community. “In other words, we would make our own canonical decisions, our own constitutions, and our own way of life,” Sr. Kateri said.
Part of this independence may someday include expanding the ways the nuns earn income. Many monastic communities are self-supported through their practices of creating and selling items – often food-based. The monks in Abiquiui brew beer. Others make cheese and holiday fruitcakes.
For now, the nuns at Our Lady of the Desert rely on donations, annual fundraisers, and selling their homemade rosaries, icons and crafts. They hope that visitors – solo or in groups – will visit as guests at the monastery. A larger guesthouse which can be used for conferences and larger groups is in the planning stages.
This is their work. But prayer, too, says Sr. Kateri, is vital as the monastery grows into its second decade in the diocese.
“We hope the sisters will still be here and be a part of the Gallup diocese and continue in the mission of prayer. That’s our main goal.”