NEW HAVEN – Last November, Pope Francis quietly visited a Camaldolese monastery in Rome, where he entered the cell of a nun from Connecticut who chose to live a life of total silence, solitude and hiddenness as a mystic and reclusive for 45 years before her death in 1990.
The extraordinary vocation of Julia Crotta, who became Sister Nazarena of Jesus, has not been forgotten by classmates or, especially, family members, who retell stories of the strong-willed, intelligent, musically gifted student of the Yale School of Music and Albertus Magnus College.
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Her story is told in the book Nazarena, an American Anchoress, written in 1998 by Father Thomas Matus, a Camaldolese Benedictine monk, who gave permission to The Catholic Transcript to draw from his work and from an interview he conducted with Vatican Radio.
It was while she was a student at Albertus Magnus that one of the Dominican sisters invited Miss Crotta to attend a Holy Week retreat. Reluctantly, the Sunday Catholic agreed. But while sitting in the chapel on Good Friday, Miss Crotta heard a man’s voice calling, “Julia.” She saw no one; but again, the voice called her name.
Then, in the darkness, she saw “a bright column of light” and the shape of “a man, stripped and wounded.” He said, “Julia, I’m all alone – come with me to the desert! I’ll never leave you!”
She knew who it was. In a moment of grace, her life was forever changed.
Born on Oct. 15, 1907, in Glastonbury to Italian immigrant parents, she attended the Hartford Conservatory before studying piano, violin and music composition at the Yale School of Music. She even worked briefly as a chorus girl and secretary in New York City.
The youngest of seven children, she moved with her farming family to Ellington, then Rockville and finally to Lincoln Street in West Haven. After graduating from Albertus Magnus College in 1935, Miss Crotta “went on to lead a life that was truly extraordinary,” said Dr. Julia M. McNamara, college president.
For the 11 years following the retreat in 1934, Julia searched for her desert. After college, she taught violin and piano; worked in the Catskills and in Manhattan; and was briefly engaged to marry, before she joined Carmelite nuns in Newport, R.I., for three months.
She left the community and was advised to go to Rome, where a priest suggested she try the Camaldolese, part of the Benedictine family of monastic communities. In 1938, she joined the Italian-speaking nuns at the Monastery of Sant’Antonio Abate on the Aventine and was clothed as a novice. But after a year, her superior suggested she again enter Carmel.
Carmel too severe
Miss Crotta entered the Carmel of the Reparation in the fall, and pronounced her simple vows as a Discalced Carmelite nun, but found it to be an extremely severe kind of life. She wrote that she lived there for five years “without a single ray of light, without any consolation, comfort, or support, whether human or divine.”
On the eve of taking her final vows, she heard the voice once more calling her to the desert. Now, in the waning days of World War II and with American troops in Rome, a tall, very thin Miss Crotta left the Carmelites to work in a soup kitchen and as a secretary in an American military agency, giving her time to consider her vocation.
Pope Pius XII
Coincidentally, a colleague arranged for Miss Crotta to have a private audience with Pope Pius XII. The Holy Father gave her permission to enter the Camaldolese monastery as a “private recluse,” a lay anchoress, to be given a room isolated from the rest of the community for a life of prayer, penance and solitude.
She entered on Nov. 21, 1945, and for the rest of her life lived a very strict ascetic rule. Her cell had a stone floor, tiny washroom with a cold shower, wooden chest containing materials for her work that also served as her bed, a straight wooden chair and a wooden table. Nazarena slept for three or four hours before rising at 1:30 a.m. for prayer and meditation.
She attended Mass and received the Eucharist through a grille. Her food, consisting mostly of bread and water with some occasional vegetables, was passed through a slot in the door to her cell. She went barefoot year-round. And she spoke to no one directly, only once a year to her confessor and to her mother superior.
Her niece, Virginia Crotta Wallace, recalls that when family members went to Rome to visit her and spoke through the grille after Mass, she quietly shut the door to the grille without a word. “Once she entered, she didn’t have any contact with any of her family,” said Mrs. Wallace.
Her family, including nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-newphews, still lives in the New Haven area.
Nazarena took her simple vows as a Camaldolese nun in 1947 and professed her solemn vows in 1953 at the age of 45. On Ash Wednesday of 1966, Pope Paul VI visited the monastery and, through the grille, blessed Nazarena, who was veiled in black for the occasion.
Her cell adjoined a larger work room where she wove ornate palm crosses for the Vatican’s Holy Week services. When the nuns brought fronds to her cell, they knocked, allowing Nazarena time to dart into a corner of the cell so they could enter without seeing her.
Also in her room were tools of penance: a horsehair cummerbund, a chain belt and a cross with nails worn against the skin – tools that Nazarena used to keep her mind “centered and grounded.”
Her vocation was “simply to follow a call of God and to do God’s will and to devote her life to love,” said Father Matus during an interview with Vatican Radio on the occasion of the visit by Pope Francis to her cell. The Holy Father made the visit on the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary that also marked the Day for the Contemplative Life as one of the final events in the Year of Faith.
Book recounts life
“She wrote in letters to her abbess that her love song was going to be her life,” said Father Matus, who was inspired to write a book about her after reading an article about Nazarena in the April 1962 issue of Time magazine. She was constantly told that she was mentally disturbed and was not called to the religious life, he said. “But she knew God was calling her.”
“She was extreme in her own life,” he said, but suggested that for younger sisters, the focus should be on “correcting vices” and “encouraging virtues.”
Nazarena believed in a balanced, harmonious formation in the monastic life, he said, according to the spirituality of the Scripture, liturgy and teachings of the church.
In describing her vocation and relationship with God, Father Matus pointed to a series of letters she wrote to the late Cardinal Augustin Mayer, O.S.B., about “the great spirit one must have” and “the two guides” that are necessary to do the will of God – the Holy Spirit and the Mother of God. “These are the two friends on the journey,” he said.
Her message, said Father Matus, is that she is a witness to the value of the humblest and most obscure life on earth. “Simple, ordinary people by the grace of God can enter into a deep union with God, and no one will know about it,” he said. “Maybe they themselves will not know about it.
“But if one does good for souls through pastoral work, or directly through prayer and contemplation … God wants us to do good without trying to make a list of achievements,” he observed.
Although Nazarena has been called a saint, a cause for canonization has not been raised, he said, because the Camaldolese are “famous for not canonizing its own.”