Forty years after the Children of Israel left Egypt, God led them out of the desert into the Promised Land, redeeming them from slavery.
In 1967, years after the horrors of the Holocaust, the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary came into the desert. They established a home here in Phoenix, dedicating their existence to seeking redemption for the anti-Semitism in their German homeland that resulted in the murder of 6 million Jews.
The movement began in 1947 when a group of young girls, inspired by Mother Basilea Schlink and founded within the framework of the German Evangelical (Protestant) Church, bonded during the wartime bombing in their hometown of Darmstadt. In the forward to her book, Israel, My Chosen People, Schlink notes that Shabbat candles are lit every Friday evening in the chapel in Darmstadt, the location of the movement’s Mother House, “as a constant reminder of the guilt of the Third Reich and as a summons to pray for Israel.”
Mother Basilea, an educator and psychologist, refused to comply with Nazi policies and even taught the Old Testament to her young students. The sisterhood, from its small beginnings, has grown throughout the years into an international organization representing all Protestant denominations. There now are approximately 200 sisters worldwide.
On 10 lush and lovingly cultivated acres in the heart of north Phoenix, nine Sisters of Mary presently live at Canaan in the Desert, a compound of eight buildings built over a period of 40-plus years. The complex incorporates offices, a workshop, guest houses for singles and couples, a computer room, kitchen, laundry and a chapel.
At one point there were 14 sisters on site. Those remaining explain that the others either “graduated to heaven or went back to the Mother House where they are well cared for.”
“The sisters are wonderful neighbors,” says Mort Dubnow. He and his wife, Paula, are among several Jewish families living in the area. “We have been guests at their home. We chat when we meet on walks, and we look forward to their handcrafted greeting cards on Jewish holidays. What we feel and appreciate so much is their pure love for the Jewish people.”
The sisters invited our small group to tour the grounds and visit with them on a sunny Arizona afternoon. The following is excerpted from our conversation with Sisters Mary Anne and Pinea (both American-born) and Daniela (native of Germany):
Sister Pinea: “We are similar to nuns. We live in a convent here and we feel called by God, but we aren’t under the jurisdiction of the Pope or a particular church. Sisters represent various Protestant denominations.”
Sister Mary Anne: “There is no formal training for us. We become a part of our spiritual family in Germany with a shared love for the Lord Jesus. But there is no formal preparation. It is on-the-job training. Most of us became sisters because God called us to dedicate our life to Him. Whoever stands for Israel has our support. Israel’s God is the God of the Ten Commandments. Israel is the apple of His eye. Any chance we have to support the local Jewish community we do so. We attend rallies, events for the Israeli Scouts and Tu B’Shevat celebrations. We have been invited to private homes for Passover seders and also to bar and bat mitzvahs.” She adds that while the sisters’ long habits might appear to be unwieldy, especially during summers here in the desert, “in fact they are mostly cotton and quite comfortable.”
Sister Daniela: “Our love for Israel is born out of repentance for the guilt of the German nation against the Jewish people, and also the guilt of Christianity for its history of persecution of the Jewish people. This is our mission. We humble ourselves before the Jewish people and ask for forgiveness. Bringing this attitude into the churches is a huge challenge for us. Christians typically aren’t taught in their churches about the history of anti- Semitism.”
Printed material, brochures and tapes, created by the sisters and widely circulated, include a video entitled “Repentance: Changing the Future by Confronting the Past.” In it, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel lauds the efforts of those “good Christians who realize that the past of Christianity for us Jews is a source of anguish.” Sister Mary Anne concurs that some Christians indeed “have taken this message into their hearts.”
The Sisters of Mary, who “operate on donations and our Father in heaven who arranges for gifts from foodstuff to shovels to computers to furniture,” surely are among Wiesel’s “good Christians” who pray and toil tirelessly on behalf of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. Visitors to their compound are encouraged to enjoy the tranquility and beauty of the gardens, but perhaps most importantly to spend time in the room devoted to Israel. There, with appropriately somber music in the background, one can be immersed in the impressive collection of scholarly books and Judaica. There also is a display of post-Holocaust photographs of victims of terrorism.
For more information about the Sisters of Mary and Canaan in the Desert, call 602-996-4040 or go to kanaan.org.