Spiritual oasis

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By Anita Mabante Leach

Sister Lydia Armenta sings a hymn during a weekly practice at Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery. PHOTO: MIKE MAEZ

Family and cultural ties, with all the holiday hubbub they embody, seem very natural things for Latinos to seek out during this time of year. While we may take these ties for granted, there are people for whom family and culture are as strong a calling as their spiritual vocation.

Lydia Armenta, for example, had dreamed of becoming a Benedictine nun when she was just a child.

“My calling goes all the way to first grade,” she recalls, adding quickly that “actually I was going to join in 1966. When I graduated from high school, they weren’t ready for me. That really disappointed me.”

She was in Phoenix then, but when the order told her she had to wait, she got a job working for a local credit bureau.

“I just continued to stay here, because I loved Phoenix.”

Eventually that love of the American southwest, and her close connection to her Latino culture, would prove to be stronger than her desire to stay in Yankton, S.D., where she lived in the Benedictine Monastery. Founded in 1880, the monastery trains women religious, as nuns are now called.

Lydia, 59, is one of two Latina women religious who reside at Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery, 8502 W. Pinchot Ave. Lydia lives with Sister Olivia Vega and Sister Linda Campbell in the monastery’s West Valley neighborhood. Once the site of a nursery, theirs is an island of peace and quiet, a salve for souls burdened by the noise and emotional dirt of daily work life.

Appropriately, Sister Lydia tends to the monastery’s rose garden, a metaphor that holds true for the mission of the monastery as well.

In the Diocese of Phoenix, there are about 235 sisters and brothers religious (not including priests). Diocesan officials estimate a dozen are Latina. Additionally, national experts say many women now come to this religious life in their 30s and 40s, seeking a more spiritual life.

The trio of women sees after the monastery’s daily activities: community gatherings, birthday parties, weddings, and of course, spiritual retreats.

There is also Sunday Mass at 10 a.m. The women practice singing hymns during the week for the celebration, conducted by Crosiers, an order of Roman Catholic priests and brothers. The priests, however, live elsewhere, leaving the women in charge.

In late October Lydia was busy preparing for a more intense four-week spiritual instruction. This meant daily studying, a discipline that seems ingrained in her character, bound by faith and culture.

“I come from a Hispanic family – there were nine children. We grew up being very Catholic – my mom’s a devout Catholic. As we grew in the church, my faith really grew. I was the only one in my family to get a scholarship to go to Salpointe High School in Tucson. I’ve always been part of the church by joining youth groups and serving the community. I was never apart from my church.”

Her mother’s devotion to the church, manifested by her role as a Eucharistic minister at Tucson’s Santa Cruz Church, served as an example to Lydia. Personal commitment and an adherence to cultural ritual helped Lydia to form her daily life in a religious mold.

“We, as a family, participated in that culture in Tucson,” Lydia says. “Every Easter we would go to the ceremony at the Yaqui village. That became part of us. My grandmother insisted we all participate in those ceremonies.”

As one-eighth Yaqui, she is supported in her monastic life: her tribe pays for tuition and books while she finishes a bachelor’s degree in education at Arizona State University.

Vega, who goes by the playful name of Sister Wally, (“I’ve asked my dad that,” she says, chuckling, when asked about her nickname, “but ever since I was a child, that’s what they’ve called me”) answers the phone cheerfully, expertly fielding questions with the ease of a concierge.

“Our chapel is more southwest style. There are pictures by (late artist) Ted DeGrazia,” she says. “We have several stained-glass windows. We have one that looks like a sunrise. The chapel accommodates up to 85 people comfortably. It’s simple, but very nice.”

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