The cloistered nuns of Anchorage live down the street from a Holiday gas station and a laundromat, in a building so modest a person could drive up and down Lake Otis Parkway a dozen times without noticing it.
They are called the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, an order with roots that date back to Italy in 1802.
Their monastery was built in the mid-1980s. Right now, it houses seven Catholic nuns and one young woman in the initial steps of entering the order. The women do not leave the grounds for any reason other than necessity, like an occasional medical appointment.
The sisters have devoted their lives to a practice called adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, kneeling in their small chapel and running rosary beads through their fingers day and night. They ask God to bless and protect Anchorage, a city full of places the nuns have never visited and people who have no idea they exist.
They believe their work is urgently important, says Sister Alicia Valencia, a 73-year-old nun with a gentle voice.
Their prayer is a call "for our people in the world, in the church, in Anchorage. For the needs, for the peace."
New arrivals from Mexico have boosted their numbers in recent years, but the future of the monastery depends on new people following them into a life of devotion. They struggle with how communicate the value and appeal of solitude and contemplation to a world that's increasingly fast-paced and digital. In their order, there are no young potential nuns who come from the United States.
"It's more difficult when more material things are around," said Sister Milagrosa Veytia.
The monastery on Lake Otis Parkway
Former Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley attended school in San Francisco in his youth, near a Sisters of Perpetual Adoration monastery, said Therese Syren, an Anchorage tutor whose family donated the five acres of land at Lake Otis Parkway and 72nd Avenue the monastery sits on.
In the early 1980s, he pushed to bring a group of Sisters of Perpetual Adoration to Anchorage from Mexico, where the order has more than 80 monasteries.
A group of the nuns from Guadalajara agreed to come north. It felt like moving to the end of the earth, said Veytia, who at 75 is the oldest sister and the last surviving nun of the original group.
By 2013, the monastery had dwindled to three sisters from the original group. Then, a new group of six nuns agreed to venture to Alaska from a monastery in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, a city of 500,000 on the Texas-Mexico border so violent that the U.S. State Department warns visitors about street gun battles. They arrived on a January day in 2013, to a youth mariachi band that met them at the Anchorage airport.
The Sisters speak in Spanish to each other but English to when they communicate with people in the outside world. For an hour a day, they watch an instructional language video to improve their fluency in English.
Today's Sisters range in age from 34-75. One young postulant, who is 27, also lives at the monastery.
They know that for contemplative orders like theirs to survive, young women must feel the call that Veytia felt as a young teenage girl in Mexico — a pulling at the heart.
To that end, there's construction underway for a new housing space where women in the initial stages of choosing religious life will be able to stay. A local family is paying for the construction.
The sisters have hosted Catholic teenage girls from Anchorage to visit the monastery. The girls are so curious, said Valencia. They wanted to know whether the sisters ever ate candies, if they were friends with each other. If they watched movies. If they got sick of being inside the monastery.
"They had so many questions," she said. "We wanted to tell them how we are living. That we are happy."
Over the years, a tight and devoted community of people has sprung up to support the sisters.
The public can come to pray in the chapel or attend mass offered by a rotation of visiting priests. People sign up for prayer in shifts. The group is multicultural, and has been from the beginning Syren said: Filipino, Korean, Nigerian, Alaska Native, people from every walk of life.
The sisters wake early, pray and eat breakfast in silence every day except Thursday and Sunday. They take shifts at adoration on a balcony that overlooks the small chapel, where members of the Anchorage public can come for early morning mass. From morning until night, someone is always there.
Local Catholic faithful go to Costco for them, keeping them supplied with instant coffee and trail mix. Outside, they grow zucchini, carrots, potatoes, radishes and gladiola in a greenhouse and raised beds. On the forested land they sometimes play in the snow, building snowmen.
For recreation time they play ping-pong — the younger sisters are best, according to Valencia. They exercise on a stationary bike and an old Nordic track. They play Bibleopoly. They make rosaries, tamales and cookies to thank the benefactors that pay for the upkeep of their monastery. They use computers, for communication with other monasteries and for work and bookkeeping.
They live separate from the struggles of Anchorage and the larger world, but are not ignorant of them. They subscribe to the newspaper. They know about troubles such as suicide as a leading cause of death in Alaska, a fact that concerns them greatly. People come to them with their sorrows, to ask for prayers.
"There's so much suffering in the world today," said Valencia. "To hear God is helping (people) by our prayers, it's a great experience of joy for us."
Syren says she sees the monastery as something like a spiritual power plant, pumping prayer into Anchorage. A visiting priest once compared the monastery to a generator.
"It's not an especially attractive building. There's hardly any windows," she said. "And yet, it's lighting up the whole city."