An American Enigma: Sister Nazarena

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?

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 especially flourished.

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 the highest of spiritual achievements. It was indeed an arduous effort to evade worldly allurements, including wealth and bodily comforts, to find a transcendent way of life. Today, we know these ascetics 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 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.

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 gifted 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.

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 that it was Jesus beckoning her to the desert; the difficult question that would take years to answer was, “where is this desert?”

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.

A priest whom she knew arranged a private audience with Pope Pius XII. Her Capuchin spiritual director, Padre Giovanni, had the idea 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.

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. She organized the remainder of her day along simple terms until she retired around nine-thirty at night. She slept between three to four hours.

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.

Consequently, was her decision to imprison herself 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?

In other words, intercessory prayer can affect greater change in the world than external activity, despite its apparent idleness. 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.

Sometimes, the most beautiful flowers blossom in the desert.

Sr. Nazarena’s longtime 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 7, 1990, the gathered nuns said, “We beheld the resurrection.”

The Bridegroom had returned.

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…