An American Enigma: Sister Nazarena

Updated on February 3, 2018
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Bede is an artist with a long time interest in the lives of the saints.

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In April of 1962, Time magazine featured an article about an American woman named Sister Nazarena, who had been living in a Camaldolese convent of Rome as a true anchoress for seventeen years. Just over fifty years later, Pope Francis visited this same monastery, and wished to see the cell of the American anchoress, who had died in February of 1990. She had lived in seclusion and great austerity for forty-five years. Was she crazy for living like an Egyptian hermit, or was she a new Moses with a divine commission?

Anchorites in the Egyptian Desert

Although Christian ascetics began living in the Egyptian desert as early as 250 AD, it was primarily after the Roman persecution of Christianity had ceased by the year 311, that desert monasticism began to especially flourish.

These ascetics sought a type of “white martyrdom” in lives of continual prayer and asceticism, as an alternative to a bloody martyrdom, which was considered to be the highest of spiritual achievements. It was indeed an arduous effort to evade worldly allurements, including wealth and bodily comforts, so as to find a transcendent way of life. Today, these ascetics are known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

The strictest form of this solitary life was the anchoritic. The anchorite was a type of hermit in general, but sought an even more radical form of detachment: to be entirely free of human contact so as to belong exclusively to God. St. Anthony the Great (c. 251-356), considered the father of these desert-dwelling anchorites, would one day be a patron for Sr. Nazarena as well.

Who is St. Anthony? What is an Anchorite?

Beginnings

Julia Crotta, who became Sister Nazarena of Jesus, was born in Glastonbury, Connecticut on October 15, 1907. She was the seventh child of Italian immigrant parents. She grew into a tall, athletic young woman, with many friends and was particularly gift in music.

She studied piano and violin at Yale, but later transferred to a small Catholic college, Albertus Magnus, where she graduated at the top of her class in 1935, majoring in comparative literature and French. When she decided to leave Yale, the dean of the music school called out to her as she walked away, “Miss Crotta, you have talent!” She kept walking, and the dean caught up to her, saying again, “You have talent!” He reminded her of a beautiful fugue that she had composed and performed publicly. Nonetheless, her eyes were set elsewhere.

A Call to the Desert

No one considered Julia to be an overly devout person when she was young. She went to Mass on Sundays and occasionally liked to pray in a chapel when it was quiet and dark. During her junior year of college, a Dominican nun invited her to a Holy Week retreat. She agreed somewhat reluctantly.

While on retreat, she was alone in the dark chapel on the evening of Good Friday. She suddenly heard a man’s voice calling her by name; she looked around but saw no one. Again, she heard the voice calling her, “Julia!” Then, as she quietly fingered her beads, a column of light emerged from the darkness before her and took the shape of a man. He was stripped and wounded. He stretched out his hands to her and said “Julia, I’m all alone…come with me to the desert! I will never leave you!”

There was no doubt in her mind who it was that was beckoning her to the desert; the difficult question that would take years to answer, was: “where is this desert?”

Julia's Call to the Desert

“Julia, I’m all alone…come with me to the desert! I will never leave you!”
“Julia, I’m all alone…come with me to the desert! I will never leave you!” | Source

A Thorny Search

Her first objective was to finish college and find a job. She eventually found work as a secretary in New York City. Her spiritual director at the time tried to understand her call to the desert, and advised her to join the Carmelites of Rhode Island. Unfortunately, she remained only a few months, as she felt out of place and misunderstood.

Her spiritual director acknowledged that for the first time in his life, he was completely in the dark. After praying, he told her to go to Rome and wait until God would manifest His plan for her. This she did. She tried life briefly in a Camaldolese monastery, but again felt restless. The Superior advised her to join the French Carmelites in Rome. She remained there during the Second World War, enduring very harsh trials for five years. On the day before she was to pronounce final vows, she decided to leave.

In July of 1944, she walked out into the streets of Rome, with her extremely gaunt, tall figure drawing much attention. She found employment first in a soup kitchen, then as a secretary with an American financial agency. This gave her space to assess her future.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
This photo shows Julia with her family in 1933. She is in the front row (see arrow), holding her nephew, David Crotta.Julia's parents in front of their Connecticut home.Julia, around 1934.
This photo shows Julia with her family in 1933. She is in the front row (see arrow), holding her nephew, David Crotta.
This photo shows Julia with her family in 1933. She is in the front row (see arrow), holding her nephew, David Crotta. | Source
Julia's parents in front of their Connecticut home.
Julia's parents in front of their Connecticut home. | Source
Julia, around 1934.
Julia, around 1934. | Source

A Meeting with the Pope

Through the acquaintance of a priest, a private audience with Pope Pius XII was arranged. Her Capuchin spiritual director, Padre Giovanni, had the thought that she could join the Camaldolese once again, not as a novice, but as a “private recluse.”

In the visit to the Pope, Padre Giovanni explained her life as a “life of prayer, penitence and solitude”, in isolation from the rest of the community. The Pope looked over the one page document that described her future life; “Isn’t it a bit too rigid?” he asked, “I wish it were even more so!” Julia responded. The Pope smiled and said, “If this is the rule by which you wish to live, then take it as it is.” The desert had opened its arms to her at last.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Camadolese monastery of Sant' Antonio Abate in Rome, where Sr. Nazarena lived first as a novice and later as an anchoress.Julia is shown in a wedding gown on June 24th, 1938, shortly before becoming a Camaldolese novice. It was the custom in those days for the pre-novice to wear a wedding gown during the ceremony, as a symbol of her being wedded to Christ the BridegroomJulia as a Camaldolese novice, around 1938.Pope Pius XII.
The Camadolese monastery of Sant' Antonio Abate in Rome, where Sr. Nazarena lived first as a novice and later as an anchoress.
The Camadolese monastery of Sant' Antonio Abate in Rome, where Sr. Nazarena lived first as a novice and later as an anchoress. | Source
Julia is shown in a wedding gown on June 24th, 1938, shortly before becoming a Camaldolese novice. It was the custom in those days for the pre-novice to wear a wedding gown during the ceremony, as a symbol of her being wedded to Christ the Bridegroom
Julia is shown in a wedding gown on June 24th, 1938, shortly before becoming a Camaldolese novice. It was the custom in those days for the pre-novice to wear a wedding gown during the ceremony, as a symbol of her being wedded to Christ the Bridegroom | Source
Julia as a Camaldolese novice, around 1938.
Julia as a Camaldolese novice, around 1938. | Source
Pope Pius XII.
Pope Pius XII. | Source

Her Daily Schedule

As her life was modeled after the Desert Fathers, it would follow that her daily rhythm was essentially reduced to prayer, work and reading. Her day started with meditation and prayer when she rose at one-thirty in the morning. The Liturgy of the Hours formed the skeleton of her day, around which she spent time in manual labor and meditation.

The nuns of Sant’ Antonio wove special palm branch crosses to be used at the Vatican Palm Sunday procession. This same work Sr. Nazarena would do year round in her cell. Concerning work, she wrote the following in a small Rule for an Anchoress: “She shall make a special commitment never to allow herself a single idle moment nor to waste a minute of time.” Indeed, Sr. Nazarena perhaps overextended herself in work at times. The sisters in her community praised her, saying, "Sr. Nazarena does the work of two sisters!" In the weeks preceding Palm Sunday, she worked up to twelve hours a day.

Like the medieval anchoresses of Europe, Sr. Nazarena would attend Mass each morning and receive the Eucharist through a grille. The remainder of her day was organized along simple terms until she retired around nine-thirty at night. She would sleep between three to four hours.

Understanding the Mystery

Sr. Nazarena was a highly gifted woman. She was an excellent student, musician, and seemed to be a born achiever. By all accounts, she was a very determined person, and destined for great things. Moreover, men were attracted to her, and she was briefly engaged to be married.

So, was her decision to be imprisoned in a small room and subsist on the barest minimum of sleep and nourishment, any sort of success story? From a human point of view, her life turned out to be a total waste of gifts…a tragedy of epic proportions.

Or was it? The mystic, St John of the Cross said that “One act of pure love is of more value to souls than all exterior activities.” In other words, intercessory prayer can effect more positive change in the world, than external activity. God called Julia Crotta to be as another Moses: to pray and fast in the desert for the benefit of humanity.

She faithfully answered this call, and was undaunted by the many obstacles in realizing it. In accord with her musical background, she wanted her life to be as a hidden “song of love,” expressed through a daily oblation for love of God and on behalf of souls. How many souls did she assist toward the Promised Land? God alone knows, but ultimately, it is in the light of eternity that sense may be made of her enigma.

Beautiful saguaro flowers of the desert.
Beautiful saguaro flowers of the desert. | Source

"In my end, is my Beginning."

Sometimes, the most beautiful flowers blossom in the desert.

Sr. Nazarena’s long time spiritual director, don Anselmo Giabbani, shared what he remembered of her: “You know what convinced me? The joy she radiated. Many times she said, ‘Father, I am never alone. Jesus told me he would never leave me alone, and he has kept his promise.’ ’’

The vision of the Bridegroom beheld in her youth, served as a lamp to guide her through the long desert journey. She yearned for the eternal vision.

When the Camaldolese community became aware that she was dying, they came to her room, and Sister Nazarena welcomed them. As her forty-five year immolation gently ended on February 7th, 1990, the gathered nuns said, “We beheld the resurrection.”

The Bridegroom had returned.


A Final Note

Nazarena: An American Anchoress, by Thomas Matus, O.S.B. Cam., is the only book in English about Sister Nazarena at this date. Fr. Thomas gave an interview with the Vatican Radio about Sister Nazarena, and can be found here...

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    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 5 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      That is really funny for me. I was just pondering that what comes out of the mouth is the overflow of the heart. So we must endeavor to empty our hearts in giving. And then we relax (idle) because we have done so well. Who's playground is that?!

    • Bede le Venerable profile image
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      Bede 5 weeks ago from Minnesota

      It’s funny Eric, I was just speaking to my 86 year old Mom about that verse the other day. After all, “you are what you eat.” To fill the head with heavenly thoughts is to become heavenly. Then why is it so challenging at times?

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 5 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I just read again. Paul tells us clear to meditate on the good and true.

    • Bede le Venerable profile image
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      Bede 5 weeks ago from Minnesota

      O.k. Jay, I will add some more details about her manual labor, as long as it gets you off my back:)

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 5 weeks ago from Houston, TX USA

      Thank your for the explanation. It is good to know she did in fact work. You may add this to your article to avoid confusion.

    • Bede le Venerable profile image
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      Bede 5 weeks ago from Minnesota

      Jay, I will try to address some of your concerns as well as I can. Regarding work, Sr. Nazarena would sometimes work 12 hours a day weaving crosses for the Palm Sunday procession. The Sisters of her monastery did the same work, but said, “Sr. Nazarena does the work of two sisters!” She hardly relaxed…her bed was a board (no mattress).

      However, her work was to pray. If a Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto and Catholic monk could agree on one thing it would probably be this: “prayer is work.” To keep the mind attentive for 15 minutes let alone an hour is no small matter. To put things in context though, the Virgin Mary told the children of Fatima in 1917, “How many souls go to hell because there is no one to pray or offer sacrifice for them.” Sr. Nazarena’s whole life was one of prayer and sacrifice. Sr. Nazarena said, “My life does seem- yes! -sterile, wasted, egotistical, etcetera, in human eyes, which see only outward appearances…But in the eyes of God, who sees my desires and my little persevering efforts to do what I do with faithful, generous, and trusting love, who knows? - maybe my poor, hidden life, as sterile and wasted as it appears, has opened the gates of eternity for many souls who have lived their lives in mortal sin.”

      Finally, regarding writing, she wrote hundreds of letters of spiritual direction. I believe she helped many people.

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 5 weeks ago from Houston, TX USA

      Bede, an entire convent was moved from Vietnam to Houston because of the war. It was done, therefore it is possible.

      "The strictest form of this solitary life was the anchoritic. The anchorite was a type of hermit in general, but sought an even more radical form of detachment: to be entirely free of human contact so as to belong exclusively to God. St. Anthony the Great (c. 251-356), considered the father of these desert-dwelling anchorites, would one day be a patron for Sr. Nazarena as well."

      I recall the Book, "Madam Bovary" which concludes: work, to avoid poverty, vice and boredom. It seems Sister Nazarena controlled or manipulated her Mother Superior into letting her read and relax. What a life! No duties, no responsibilities, no labor, not even teaching!

      Is writing work? Is what we do on this page work? It is at least reaching out to others to share our thoughts and ideas. What precedent does Sister Nazarena set?

      My conclusion is, the Catholic Church shows a great lack of leadership is not moving their people from danger and letting their people avoid meaningful work.

    • Bede le Venerable profile image
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      Bede 5 weeks ago from Minnesota

      Hi Jay. As far as I'm aware, none were moved except another American priest stationed in Guatemala. He came back to the States. To move them all would have been impossible, since the country was at war.

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 5 weeks ago from Houston, TX USA

      What did the church do to help move the people?

    • Bede le Venerable profile image
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      Bede 5 weeks ago from Minnesota

      Thanks Eric, you deserve the “best encourager for Newbies.” award. I suppose that’s not a Hub Page award yet, but maybe someday.

      I would like to learn more about Cha Phanxico Truong Buu Diep. Yes, the saints are so varied and wonderful. Blessed be God in His gifts!

    • Bede le Venerable profile image
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      Bede 5 weeks ago from Minnesota

      Thank you for your input Jay. You make some very valid points and if it is feasible to do, fleeing from the danger is the wisest thing to do. However, regarding the “shepherd who didn’t run,” the people who constituted Blessed Stanley Rother’s “flock” were so extremely poor that to move them all would have been virtually impossible. He did the noble deed and for his heroism has been duly recognized.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 5 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I am so glad that this article has received at least part of the participation it deserves, good for all of us.

      You might be interested in someone my wife is joining in the push for beatification. Just of interest. Cha Phanxico Truong Buu Diep. (in Vietnamese) Died in 46. I am just now starting to anglicize about him. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tr%C6%B0%C6%A1ng_B%E...

      I love the living process of saints.

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 5 weeks ago from Houston, TX USA

      From link: "The shepherd cannot run in the face of danger."

      It is incumbent upon a shepherd to lead his flock away from danger. Those who refuse to go make individual decisions not to move. The shepherd who leads his flock To danger or remains in a violent situation is Not a good leader. The individuals still have free will to move even if the leader does not.

      An example is the Dale Llama who lead his people out of Tibet to northern India to escape the Chinese. That is good leadership.

      Another example is Gandhi, who lead his people peacefully.

      In the final analysis, we are all individuals with Free Will. We all may chose to move from danger or stay in it or go to it. Common sense tells me to move away from danger and Not to follow any leader who teaches to remain in danger.

      Now do you understand?

    • Bede le Venerable profile image
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      Bede 5 weeks ago from Minnesota

      Thank you Linda for your comment. You have a good point that Sr. Nazarena seems to have accomplished little for her neighbor. From a practical point of view, she was able to assist some people who sought her spiritual advice, but for the most part, that was not her vocation. She definitely had a unique call in life, that few are expected to follow. Her primary effort to help others was through prayer, the results of which are often impossible to see. I know I have been helped by the prayers of others.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is an interesting article, Bede. I'm glad I've learned about Sister Nazarena. The devotion that she showed to her chosen path in life is very impressive. Of course, she had the right to live her life as she wished. From a personal point of view, though, I find it very sad that she didn't combine her prayers and meditation with work outside her cell in order to help people in need. Thank you for creating a thought-provoking hub.

    • Bede le Venerable profile image
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      Bede 5 weeks ago from Minnesota

      Jay, I will start with your last question regarding terrorists. Terrorists commit suicide and very often homicide. According to the Bible, “No murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 Jn 3:15) The martyr has no such desire to hurt others, but dies for love of God. To move out of danger is the right thing to do, but sometimes it is impossible. An American priest was recently beatified, because he chose to remain with his flock and die, rather than run away. See this… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55y77RA3_eA

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 5 weeks ago from Houston, TX USA

      “blood martyrs” were put in situations where they had to make a decision…do I forsake the faith and live a bit longer on earth, or do I keep the faith, suffer the momentary consequences, but gain life eternal?

      What I am suggesting is that people take control of their life situation and move away from danger. Get smart, be alert and move as needed. There is a whole world out there in which to live.

      How does suffering and death gain life eternal?

      Do Terrorists, who martyr themselves for their cause also gain life eternal?

      Please explain.

    • Bede le Venerable profile image
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      Bede 5 weeks ago from Minnesota

      Thank you for your comment Jay. You bring up a good point, that life is valuable, and ought to be preserved. I agree, but it seems to me that the “blood martyrs” were put in situations where they had to make a decision…do I forsake the faith and live a bit longer on earth, or do I keep the faith, suffer the momentary consequences, but gain life eternal? The word “martyr” as you may know means “witness” in Greek. If martyrs have been honored through the ages, it is because they gave the ultimate witness to their faith in God, rather than renounce it.

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 5 weeks ago from Houston, TX USA

      "These ascetics sought a type of “white martyrdom” in lives of continual prayer and asceticism, as an alternative to a bloody martyrdom, which was considered to be the highest of spiritual achievements."

      I believe "white martyrdom" can be good if you work and do something useful with your time. I do Not believe in "bloody martyrdom" because it does not respect human life. Human life is supposed to be sacred, therefore do not take it, even of yourself. It is better to move out of harm's way or stand mute rather than martyr yourself by blood. Blood martyrs are bad examples.

    • Bede le Venerable profile image
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      Bede 5 weeks ago from Minnesota

      Yes Eric, devotion is a beautiful virtue that comes in many garments…the single mother, the dedicated fireman, the solitary hermit. Personally, I think Sr. Nazarena was a mother also, on a spiritual plane. Thanks for the comment.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 5 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Really cool. This for some reason reminds me of good single mother raising 3 children in the ghetto. Devotion is so wonderful of a gift.

    • Bede le Venerable profile image
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      Bede 5 weeks ago from Minnesota

      Thanks Mamerto for your comment. Yes, “mysterious” is a good description for her. Though she was quite radical, she had a human side to her that makes her interesting.

    • Mamerto profile image

      JR Mamerto 5 weeks ago from Cabuyao

      Nice read! So mysterious yet so enlightening!

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