DocumentCitationsKeywordsRelated Material

“The Kneeling Nun”

In 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President, US citizens were suffering from the bad times known as the Great Depression. Under the new president, Congress passed laws aimed at speeding up economic recovery and helping people in need. One of these acts created the Works Progress Administration, or WPA. The WPA gave people jobs building highways, streets, bridges, and parks. It also hired writers, actors, and musicians to create and perform new works. Nationwide, about 8.5 million people found jobs through the WPA.

Between 1936 and 1942, writers working with the New Mexico Federal Writers’ Project, a department of the WPA, fanned out across New Mexico. They gathered information and wrote several thousand pages describing the state’s landscape and people, reporting on social and economic conditions, and recording folklore and oral histories. Many of these WPA files, including the one below, ended up at the New Mexico State Records Center and Archives in Santa Fe, where anyone can go in and read them.

~ ~ ~ ~

Perhaps no story is so dear to the people of Grant County as the legend of the Kneeling Nun, located near Santa Rita, New Mexico, eighteen miles east of Silver City, in the Santa Rita Mountains. The mountain is nearly perpendicular and towers in the air nearly five hundred feet. Its brow forms quite a plateau in the center of which stands rocks formed like the ruins of a dome. Between these rocks and the northern edge of the plateau stands a monolith. When the mountain is viewed from a distance, it assumes the appearance of a fortress or castle of medieval ages. The rising stone or monolith resembles a human form in a kneeling position.

Superstition has clothed the mountain with the following legend: In the early days of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, a band of men under Coronado came through Santa Rita searching for gold. Shortly after, there came a band of monks and nuns, building a monastery. Times were hard not only to make a living, but there was the constant fear of Indians. Soldiers of the Coronado army were brought to the monastery wounded and dying. One of these soldiers, wounded and brought to the monastery, was tenderly cared for by a young nun, Sister Rita. Love came to these two although she fought and prayed against it. But, alas, they were reported by a jealous man, and Sister Rita was condemned to die.

She prayed to be turned to stone and her wish was granted. A terrible earthquake shook the walls of the monastery and only the Kneeling Nun or form of Sister Rita was left alone through countless ages of time. Santa Rita is supposed to have been named from this legend.

The following is an ode to the Kneeling Nun, by L.E. King.

Ode to The Kneeling Nun
Appalling in yon mountainous splendor
O’er looking man’s domain of mines and vales,
High above us sits that mighty maid of ancient lore,
The Kneeling Nun.

Travelers, plainsman, fast vanishing Indians,
Healthseekers, miners, maidens fair
Have through the ages asked her for guidance, succor, prayer,
The Kneeling Nun.

Ancient tales of Spanish Roamers
Unfold the Tale of the Kneeling Nun and warrior bold;
He, injured, but nursed by her to health and loved
Regardless of the cloak of order;
The Kneeling Nun.

Stripped of raiment of the order,
Flung aside, from out their midst;
Warrior gone; her prayers of Ave Maria unheard,
She builded an altar on yon mountainside of rock.
The Kneeling Nun.

Her vigil kept throughout the years,
Her lover’s pleas unheard;
Prayers of Ave Maria in vain, body, soul racked with pain;
And, in the end, cast in stone by the omnipotent One;
The Kneeling Nun.

Guiding humans’ destinies down through all the years,
Tortured by man’s pilferage, his lust for copper,
Unmindful of preposterous manmade thunder, she sits,
Slowly weakening, slowly crumbling,
The Kneeling Nun.

Withering away, breaking, torn asunder,
Pleading for her love’s return, Calling,
By Ave Maria in vain for forgiveness,
Knowing soon she’ll call no more, as to dust and earth she returns,
No more to guide men or fair maidens.
The Kneeling Nun.

Legend of the Kneeling Nun
(Walter Foote Sellers)
This the tale as they tell it: how in Days of old,
Came the explorer and the Soldier, seeking the glitter of gold;
Robbing and burning and killing, all in the name of the King;
Eyes a-gleam for the honors, men to the conqueror bring.

After them came the Fathers, close on the steps they trod,
Holding a lot the sign of the faith, chanting the glory of God,
Gentle were they, and tender, healing the wounds of pain,
Left by the sword and firebrand of the pitiless hand of Spain.

This the tale as they tell it; how by the Aztec trail
They builded an Indian Mission, The Knights of the Holy Grail,
Here in the desert they labored, teaching the truth and the Light.
Showing the ways of another race to the savage sons of Knight.

Fairest of all the workers was the Sister Teresa, the Nun,
Teaching the Indian children, quickly their hearts she won,
Soon through the desert country, where’er spread the Mission’s fame,
Even the gurgling infants were trying to lisp her name.

This is the Tale as they Tell it; how Diago the Soldier came,
Staggering into the courtyard, weary and sore and lame,
Leagues had he crawled through the desert, seeking a kindly hand:
The last of all his comrades, dead in the new-found land,

Then through the long days of sickness, quietly there by his bed,
Watched the Sister Teresa, cooling his fevered head,
And while he raved of his tortures, there through the length of the night,
Faithful, kindly and patient, she watched for the coming of light.

This the tale as they tell it; how Diago’s eyes grew clear,
And gleamed anew with a shining light, when the Sister nurse was near,
Hours would they talk together; he with his stories of strife,
Strange to her quiet seclusion these tales of Struggles of Life.

So did their hearts grow stronger, till ever she bore in her mind,
The name of Diago the Soldier, and love to her vows were blind;
Till at last in his arms they found her, eyes like stars above,
Shining into the depths of her lover’s, breathing the Life of Love.

This is the tale as they tell it; how on that fatal day,
Stripped of her garb of her Order, they turned the Sister away;
Forth to the desert she wandered and builded an altar of stone,
There she knelt in her suffering, at last, with her God alone.

Then came the storm and the darkness, madly the thunder crashed,
Loud rolled the earth in its anger, cruel the lightning crashed,
And oft through the night to the Mission was born her piteous cry;
“Oh Madre de Dios; Thy mercy on such as I!”

This the tale as they tell it; how with the coming of light
There where had been an altar, a mountain had grown in the night,
While before it was kneeling, so saw the Mission flock,
The Sister Teresa of yesterday turned to eternal rock.

So in the desert country, through all the length of days,
Kneeling before her altar, for the erring souls she prays,
And oft when the storm is raging, they hear her piteous cry;
“Oh Madre de Dios! Thy mercy on such as I!”