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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

"Cheery nun lifts the veil on life in a monastery"

From Ventura County Star

By Eric Parsons
Sunday, March 23, 2008

I had expected to witness the culture clash of this new century at St. Mary Magdalen School last week.

It would be a spiritual smackdown between a woman of the old world and the children of a wired age.

I figured the pace of life Mother Maria Esperanza Jose de Sagrada Familia had chosen simply would not compute with children of an age in which instant gratification takes too long.

Mother Maria Esperanza not only is a nun but she is also a cloistered sister. Her job description: Pray. Her hobby: Pray. Her ambition: Pray some more. Mother Maria Esperanza has devoted the last 54 years to the contemplative life in a Dominican monastery in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The bishop granted her permission to leave the confines of the convent for 22 days so she can visit her 92-year-old mother, who is hospitalized in Los Angeles. It is the first time in more than a half century that the stoic nun has been away from the convent for Easter.

She came to the Camarillo parochial school for show and tell at the invitation of her niece Sophia Rodriguez, a second-grader at St. Mary Magdalen.

Once upon a time in a Catholic grade school, there would be a nun stationed at every chalkboard. But taking the veil has become far less of a habit for girls these days. In February the Vatican announced the number of nuns had fallen 10 percent in a single year of this new century. At the beginning of 2005, those living "the consecrated life," in the Vatican's words, numbered well over 1 million. By the end of 2006, their ranks had fallen to 945,210. The number of women entering the religious life is not keeping up with the number going to their reward or leaving under their own power.

Mother Maria Esperanza entered the Monasterio de Jesus Maria in 1954. For the first 20 years after she took the veil, she never left the monastery walls.

When she emerged, the world was a frightening place, she said. And it wasn't just those '70s disco fashions.

She saw poverty, starvation, deprivation. She saw stress in the faces of people trying to keep body and soul together.

"The convent is a little bubble of happiness," she told me in her native Spanish.

It's her Disneyland, her niece Petula Rodriguez explains. Mother Maria Esperanza, who speaks little English, nods in agreement. Note to Disneyland's marketeers: Ask boss for raise; even a cloistered sister knows about the amusement park.

And at least for Mother Maria Esperanza, her lifestyle appears better than Botox. She is 68 and her face carries little evidence of worry. And when her hands emerge from the pockets of her habit, they are strong and animated.

Last Wednesday, she was a nun on the run as she dashed from classroom to classroom.

Although she spends several hours in silence on a typical day at the convent, she was positively chatty.
(Photo at left: Rosa Placencia, left, watches as her sister, Mother Maria Esperanza, center, hugs her 7-year-old niece Sophia Rodriguez at Mary Magdalen School on Wednesday morning.)

Mother Maria Esperanza's calling, she told the students, came and went throughout her youth. At 15, and against her family's wishes, she entered the monastery. Today, she explains, a girl must be 18 to become a novitiate.

Mother Maria Esperanza had surprises up her wide, white sleeves. Thinking I knew the answer, I asked her if she had been on the Internet. She grabbed a pen and pad of paper to jot down her e-mail address. It seems as a mother superior she uses it to communicate with her peers at other monasteries. The order also provides her with online religious training videos.

And television? Sure, she watches it. But not for the reason most do — which is to second-guess the "American Idol" judges.

She watches only the news and then prays for all the people she sees on the screen, particularly the soldiers in Iraq and the politicians.

Mother Maria Esperanza volunteers if she had not become a nun she would have liked to go into politics.

I asked her if she knows Hillary Clinton.

Oh, yes, she nods. "I know her, and I pray for her."

That may be the best endorsement the presidential hopeful may ever get.

And me of little faith. Instead of zoning her out, the kids engaged. Hands shot up to ask her questions. In most cases, there were more questions than time to answer them.

And she connected so strongly, one little boy gave her Mexican coins so she could help the poor.

She wanted more, she confided. She hoped to plant the seeds so that even one girl would feel the pull of religious life.

To a Sister Maria Esperanza Jose de Sagrada Familia — a woman whose middle name is in fact hope — it is not out of the realm of possibility that the same hands that program digital devices also can pray the rosary.

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