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In Santorini, Greece, 13 cloistered nuns pray for the world

THIRA, Greece (AP) — Cruise ship tourists crowd souvenir shops and couples looking for the perfect sunset on Instagram crowd the alleyway outside St. Catherine’s Monastery, a short walk famous volcanic cliffs of Santorini.

Inside this convent on one of the trendiest islands in Greece, a predominantly Orthodox Christian country, 13 cloistered Catholic nuns dedicate their lives to praying for these visitors and for the world.

It is a crucial though often misunderstood mission within the church, where constant prayer is deemed necessary to support more committed outward ministries.


“In such a touristic island, the last thing you think about is praying – so we are the ones doing it,” Sister Lucía María de Fátima, the prioress, said recently.

She and other sisters were talking in the parlor of the convent, behind a widely spaced tin grating that delimits the cloistered space from the outside world. Ending more than two years of pandemic isolation, the sisters will once again welcome visitors to the public part of their church starting with a mass in early August for the convent’s 425th anniversary.

The rest of the convent is considered a sacred space, where the nuns live mostly in silence and contemplation, leaving only for medical reasons or government requirements.

“After passing the grille, you don’t miss a thing. When God gave us the vocation to be cloistered, he gave us the complete package,” said Sister María Esclava, originally from Puerto Rico.

Reverend Felix del Valle, a Spanish priest, has led periodic spiritual exercises at the convent for more than 10 years, part of the sisters’ rigorous religious training that begins with nine years of preparation before entering cloistered life.

“In a world of consumerism, of misappropriation, they testify that God alone suffices,” he said.

Many religious orders are active in teaching, health care and ministry to vulnerable groups such as migrants. But contemplative nuns carry on a tradition of complete devotion to prayer that has its origins in early desert hermits, who sought to draw closer to God by removing all earthly distractions.

“For these women, they find God in a life of prayer or contemplation,” said Margaret McGuinness, professor emeritus of religion at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

Sister María de la Iglesia spent nearly 40 years in Santorini before moving to Spain to lead the Federación Madre de Dios, or Mother of God Federation, which oversees the island’s convent and nine other Dominican Catholic convents on four continents.

“In today’s logic, our life is not understood or valued, but within the church it is,” she said. “We are the voice of the church tirelessly praising and pleading on behalf of all of our humanity. This is an exciting mission.

When they are not praying or practicing music and hymns, the sisters – aged between 40 and 80 – do housework; take care of the garden, where they grow tomatoes, lemons and grapes; and make hosts for most Catholic parishes in Greece.

During two daily recreations, they break their silence to chat on the wide terraces, the Aegean Sea sparkling in the distance.

At dawn, a bell calls the first of approximately nine hours of prayer, most sung in Latin, Spanish and Greek.

“As the sun rises, creation and the human person unite in harmony of praise to God,” said Sister María Guadalupe, adding that with monasteries across time zones, someone maintains always active prayer. “We are not out of the world, but rather very involved in the world.”

In predominantly Orthodox Greece, the presence of the Catholic convent signals the desired unity with other Christians, the sisters say. They exchange holiday greetings with the island’s Orthodox monks and nuns and fondly recall a visit when they sang hymns together.

“Despite their cloister, nuns have always been an important element in the life of a place,” said Fermín Labarga, professor of church history at the University of Navarre in Spain.

It was in this country that the Dominican order of cloistered nuns was founded more than 800 years ago by Saint Dominic, to pray constantly in what Labarga called “the rearguard” while their fellow religious brought the gospel to the world.

This “missionary spirit in a contemplative space”, in the words of Sr. María de la Iglesia, continues to animate today’s nuns, who wear the historic Dominican black veil and enveloping white habit — representing penance. and innocence. They came to Santorini mainly from the Caribbean (Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo), as well as from Angola, Korea, Argentina, Greece and Spain.

Sister María de la Iglesia was sent to the island by her order in 1981, when only three nuns remained at the convent.

It was first established in 1596 on the rocky promontory of Skaros – now a popular place to watch the sunset, but then a haunt of pirates. After an earthquake it was moved to the main town of Thira a few miles away, where it survived another devastating earthquake in 1956 which drove many residents including most other Catholic clerics , to abandon the island.

Large boulders are embedded in the artistic grid that separates the public space of the church from where the sisters pray, near a globe that further symbolizes their connection to their surroundings.

The sisters keep abreast of world events through various Catholic media and newsletters, as well as daily Mass homilies. In the latter, the priest looked at the war in Ukraine, the metaverse and the dangers of parkour.

They also receive prayer petitions from other religious as well as visitors, asking for everything from world peace to healing from disease – “and babies, lots of babies,” said Sister Maria Flor de la Eucaristía happily.

“We also suffer with them, we feel the pain of families and of the world, but with a certainty of hope that gives us joy,” said Sister Maria Fátima, originally from Angola.

This certainty of belief shines through in the joyful attitude of the sisters despite an austere life that demands sacrifices not only from them but also from their families, whom they see only occasionally behind the railings.

“It is a call from God. You cannot follow any other path. A constant call, so that you can follow it with joy,” said Sister Lucía María de Fátima, originally from Argentina.

This joy they find abundantly in their vocation, despite giving up most of the activities that attract hundreds of thousands of tourists to Santorini – like going to the beach.

Sister María Isabel said she loved the beaches of her native Puerto Rico. Upon entering the Dominican convent, she could no longer see the ocean.

When she was transferred to the main convent of Olmedo, in the heart of Spain, she thought she would never see a wave again. Then came the mission of Santorini.

“God gives you a grace you never expected,” she said with a broad smile, before the bell rang, and she rushed to the church, to continue singing God’s praises.

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Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.