Mexican nuns of new order open first U.S. convent in Denver

Six Allied Discalced Carmelites of the Holy Trinity to serve archdiocesan center

Roxanne King

It seems providential that a new order of Discalced Carmelite nuns, whose charism is to know and to make known the glory of the Holy Trinity, has arrived to Denver to care for the archdiocese’s Holy Trinity Center.

The six Allied Discalced Carmelites of the Holy Trinity are the first nuns of their order, which was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico, to open a convent in the United States.

“It is by the grace of God,” Mother Martha Patricia Malacara, superior of the community, told the Denver Catholic. “He is making history (here).

“We want to thank Archbishop Samuel Aquila for welcoming us,” she added, “we are very grateful.”

Founded by Sister Martha Maria Ramirez-Mora on July 16, 1986, the order has 200-plus nuns serving in various apostolates—ranging from assisting at nursing homes to retreat centers—in Mexico, Italy, Rome, Argentina and Chile.

The semi-cloistered nuns are active contemplatives.

“We have the Carmelite essence of contemplative prayer but we also have an apostolate,” Mother Malacara said.

Residing in the convent at the St. John Paul II Center campus, which includes the chancery offices and the archdiocese’s two seminaries, the nuns will help run the day-to-day functions of the Holy Trinity Center, which includes the archbishop’s residence and rooms for large-scale meetings, conferences and events. The nuns will also help maintain the various sacristies on the campus.

The nuns’ primary task, however, is prayer—particularly the Divine Office and daily Eucharistic adoration. They pray especially for the sanctification of priests and seminarians, for the conversion of sinners and for the needs of the Church. They also welcome prayer requests.

“We want to let people know that we are praying for them,” Mother Malacara said. “Prayer is our main charism.”

Ranging in age from 35 to 46, the nuns are all Spanish-speaking natives of Mexico. They arrived to Denver March 14. Serving under Mother Malacara are Sister Imelda Cardona, Sister Lidia Cortez, Sister Elvira Esparza, Sister Maria Patricia Mireles and Sister Laura Martinez-Silvestre.

Clad in sandals, black veils and brown habits, the nuns’ habits are emblazoned with a triangular emblem that represents the Holy Trinity: one God comprised of three persons—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Inside the triangle a cloud signifies the Father’s providence, which floats over his son Jesus’ cross, upon which the Holy Spirit, as a dove, issues tongues of fire for the Spirit’s seven gifts, which descend on a globe.

The nuns’ first impressions of their new land have been of warm hospitality.

“The United States is very beautiful,” Mother Malacara said. “People have welcomed us well. We do not speak English but people have tried to speak to us in Spanish.”

The nuns are learning English, but when language fails, the nuns said laughing, those involved have resorted to friendly gesturing.

“From the first moment we stepped on the land of the United States, very friendly people have helped us and guided us,” said Sister Mireles.

Not only do the nuns welcome prayer requests but women interested in their order are invited to contact them.

“If you feel that call, answer it!” Sister Cardona said, adding that there is no need to be afraid. “God loves you, so you should answer.”

Prayer requests may be emailed to Carmelites@archden.org or mailed to Allied Discalced Carmelites of the Holy Trinity, 1300 S. Steele St., Denver, CO 80210.

COMING UP: Why icons still matter to a modern world

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Icons have existed from the time of the early Church and grew in popularity over the years as an aid in prayer and worship — but today, icons are often seen as irrelevant to our modern world because of their perceived rigidity and austerity.

But it hasn’t died out, and there’s a reason.

In Denver, instructor Laurence Pierson, a former nun in the Community of Beatitudes, teaches a course at the Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways — Byzantine Iconography,” which is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro.

Pierson attributes the long-surviving tradition of icons to the same reason the Church still exists.

“Tradition has great value, and if it’s an art that’s survived so many centuries, that’s because there is a great value to it, and it’s not only the tradition, it’s that mainly, it’s rooted in the Gospel,” Pierson said.

In an article called “Sacred Icons,” painter Aidan Hart quotes John of Damascus, who said of icons, “What the written Word proclaims through letters, iconography proclaims and presents through colors.”

Laurence Pierson, left, is a former nun of the Community of the Beatitudes who has been teaching an iconography class at Denver Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways.” It is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro area. (Photo provided)

It is the same story of the Gospel, presented in art rather than word, and as the Gospel is timeless, so is the art of icons. And while they may look austere, that’s not something to be afraid of, nor is it irrelevant in our modern time.

“Even though an icon might look austere, it actually drives us beyond superficial emotions — they want us to go deeper. It’s a deep joy,” Pierson said. “I think you have to be quiet and go deeper. In the spiritual life, our ascetic aspect doesn’t have to be forgotten, and sometimes there is an ascetic aspect, and our human condition needs to be redeemed.”

“It’s a medium that has to be rediscovered, and there is so much potential,” Pierson added.

Sacred doorways and symbols

The deep spirituality of icons is part of what has preserved them throughout the roughly 2000 years that they’ve been around. Hart explains that icons are “not just pictures to look at, but are a door to heaven, a way of meeting those who dwell there.”

Hence the name of Denver’s class, “Sacred Doorways.” The material use of the paintings are a way for us to pass through the material world and into a knowing of the holy people depicted. This is just the tip of the spiritual meaning of icons.

The specific look of the icons: the elongated nose, the wide eyes, the dimensions and perspectives, are all intensely symbolic.

“Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this,” Hart said.

“An artist isn’t just someone who puts colors [on a canvas],” Pierson said. “An artist reveals the reality of this world, which sometimes isn’t possible to see. And icon painting is revealing this invisible reality and making it visible with lines and colors.”

Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this.”

So what are icons revealing through their symbols?

Here are just a few insights from Hart:

– Inverse perspective: “There is a number of perspective systems used in icons. With inverse perspective, the lines converge on us, the viewers. This serves to include us in the action depicted,” Hart said. “A sacred event in the past is still acting on us today, ‘Today Christ is risen.’”

– Flatness: “It helps us pass through the icon to the person and events depicted. The aim…is not to replace the subject depicted, but to bring us into living relationship with them,” Hart said.

– Anatomy: “The eyes and ears of people are often enlarged, and the nose elongated. This is to show that the saint is someone who contemplates God, who listens to him, who smells the fragrance of Paradise,” Hart said.

The spiritual process

Pierson has been painting icons for 25 years and teaching for 18. Following the rich tradition of the painting style is the first step of entering into the “spiritual journey” of painting an icon, Pierson said.

“It’s very important for me to get rooted in Byzantine tradition, especially because it’s an art that comes from the Eastern world,” Pierson said. “You have to be very careful not to distort ancient tradition but also find a way to speak to our modern world, so it’s a very delicate balance. For me, that’s crucial, to find this balance.”

“[Painting] has to be a solitary experience because you have to pray, but for me, it’s important to be anchored in a community and liturgical life,” Pierson said.

Pierson, who is commissioned to paint icons for the community often, begins with research and prayer, both to whom the icon is depicting and for the person who will receive the painting. Then the painting begins, which is an intense, multi-layered process.

The art of painting icons is far more than just a creative process; it’s a deeper spiritual journey that requires a lot of prayer, Pierson says. (Photo provided)

First, a binder, which is what the pigment adheres to in order to stay on a board, is created. The binder consists of egg yolk mixed with an equal part of water. This is mixed with the paint pigment and a few drops of water, creating the egg tempera medium with which icons are traditionally painted.

Next, guiding lines are traced into a gesso-covered wooden board and then engraved with a tool. Then, paint is added, layer by layer, beginning with dark colors and finishing with lighter colors. “It is as though the iconographer begins with darkness and death, and ends with light and resurrection,” Hart said.

The final stage is writing the saint’s name; then the icon is blessed by a priest and venerated. The working time varies, but it is a very long process, taking up to a year.

Revealing a Presence

The act of painting is something Pierson discovered she needs for her life to flourish — “essential,” even.

With icon painting, it “combines art and the vertical connection to God,” Pierson said.

And the connection to God is experienced deeply throughout the painting journey.“There is a journey — there’s a time you feel discouraged or bored. Even though you don’t feel it, you live by faith, trusting what you do has meaning and will bear fruit,” Pierson said. “With iconography, there is a Presence.”

“This whole painting journey teaches you about yourself, it takes patience — it takes time. You cannot finish an icon painting in a few hours. You have to trust the process. You have to trust someone else is inspiring you, even though it might not perfect. It’s all very like our spiritual life. It teaches us all that in a very practical way,” she added.