by James Baca
OUTSIDE, the old neighbor lady pokes her head out the door.
Clutching the sweater she's pulled around her nightgown, she
shuffles to the end of the porch and peers down the alley,
calling for something. A fat white cat emerges in a slow trot
and moseys around the base of the porch, up the steps and
into the house. The old woman follows.
A car eases itself out from the row of vehicles parked alongside
the curb. A man strides up the sidewalk as though he's late
for his bus.
From the first-floor window in this brick house across the
street, it all unfolds like some urban morning ballet, set
to the score of minor-key polyphonic chanting and swells of
organ, the oily smell of incense in the air.
In here, a tall man in a thin white cowl bends deeply at
the waist, straightens himself and intones: "In the beginning
of this day, Lord, we sing your praise...."
He is answered by more organ and rhythmic chanting from five
other cowled people in the room: "Create in us the heart of
They all face an altar, behind which is a simple gold tabernacle.
Three red roses in a tiny vase sit before it on a shelf. Off
to the side, seven candles burn in a menorah.
There are icons on every white wall. Saints surround us:
John Vianney, the famed Curé of Ars; Seraphim of Sarov, the
19th-century Russian Orthodox monk and mystic; Joseph the
carpenter; the Little Flower, Thérèse. The eyes of Christ
are here, toocosmic Byzantine images, the holy face
in negative from the Shroud of Turin.
Welcome to the Catholic Community of the Beatitudes, easily
the most eccentric household in this working-class neighborhood
in northwest Denver, Colorado, and perhaps in all the Rockies.
Living under the roof of this 14-room former convent are
three nuns and a laywoman. Frequently, members from other
countries join them for a few months. Until recently, a husband
and wife with young children lived here. They now live in
a small house nearby.
This is what they do pretty much all day: work and pray as
monks do. At 7:15 a.m. it's Morning Prayer. Mass is celebrated
at 8. Then at 8:30, members read their Bibles. They work from
9 to 11 a.m. Then it's an hour of adoration of the Blessed
Sacrament, followed by the rosary, midday prayers and lunch.
In the afternoon it's more of the same. The day ends with
Night Prayer at 8:30 p.m.
An International Movement
This radical experiment in Christian communal living is a
branch of an international movement founded in France in 1973
by a charismatic Catholic deacon with a mystical appreciation
for Israel and the Jewish liturgy, and a deep devotion to
the Virgin Mary.
Today, the movement has the blessing of Church authorities
in Rome. There are more than 70 Beatitudes households in countries
throughout the world, including Germany, Hungary, Lebanon,
Peru, Djibouti, Zaire and New Zealand.
But this is the first outpost in the United States, founded
in late 1998 at the invitation of Denver Archbishop Charles
J. Chaput, O.F.M.Cap.
Making an Impact
With their radical living arrangements, their monk-like daily
routine, their simple habits and beautifully ethereal liturgies,
community members are attracting a small but loyal following.
They are changing the way Catholics think about prayer and
life in this boomtown of the new global economy.
"I call it my weekly retreat," says Mary Camacho, a pensioner
who drives across town to join the community for Mass and
other services. "Spiritually and emotionally, the way they
treat people, they are an inspiration to a lot of people.
From them, I've learned the joy of the Resurrection."
Bob Sherwin, a young husband and father who is director of
youth ministry for the archdiocese, often takes his lunch
here, where he enjoys the fellowship and the serenity. He
says the pure joy of the community members is beginning to
have a real influence, especially on Denver's young Catholics.
"They have such a real love for young people and the Church,"
he says. "The kids seldom see this kind of enthusiasm and
real joy in the practice of the faith. And the Beatitudes
Community lives with this joy all the time."
At first glance, these don't seem to be impossibly holy people.
In fact, they're disarming in their simplicity.
"We are a family living like monks," says Christine Meert,
a small woman in her mid-40s with a big smile and short, tousled
She and her husband, Christianthe tall, lanky man in
the cowl at Morning Prayerare the co-leaders of the
Denver community. Married in 1977, they have five children.
They began living this wayas married monastics, parents
vowed to a life of prayerin 1990 in France.
Asked how it all began, they tell a long story of drift and
despair, of heartbreak and a mystical sensation of divine
Both were born and raised Catholic, he in Morocco and she
in France. Christian had an uncle who was a priest and an
aunt who was a nun. He can remember, as a child, carrying
baskets of food to the homes of the poor each Sunday after
church with his mother.
By the time Christian and Christine met in their late teens
in the south of France, neither of them was going to church
"We started living together and I found myself pregnant,"
Christine offers a quiet, frank summation, her eyes turned
down. "I was 19 and I was very afraid of telling my parents.
Christian was not ready for that. He even told me that if
I kept the baby he would leave me. I was very afraid, so I
had an abortion. And it was terrible. That's how everything
A priest who was a friend of Christine's parents heard her
confession and absolved her of her sin. But she couldn't forgive
herself, she explains.
Christine and Christian got married. Then he immersed himself
in his high-stress job as export manager for an international
irrigation-equipment manufacturer based in the United States.
The trauma of the abortion and Christine's feelings of guilt
cast a long and deepening shadow over their relationship.
"After each child was born, I had a lot of anguish," she recalls.
"I was kind of mad at him still, even though I had played
my part. He was traveling a lot and it was very hard."
Realizing God's Love
At the suggestion of her sister, she attended a charismatic
Catholic healing service. "It wasn't like firecrackers or
anything," she says. "I realized that God loved me, even though
I had done bad things. I knew he was loving and that he loved
everybody, but I didn't think he could love me personally.
And that changed everything."
Christine began going to Mass every day. She also prayed
the rosary and read the Scriptures. Turning her eyes toward
her husband, she recalls without a laugh, "He thought I was
Two years later, in 1984, the couple attended a five-day
retreat at the Community of the Beatitudes. There, during
a reconciliation service, Christian says, the Blessed Mother
appeared to him in a vision.
"She was watching me with a pretty, sad smile," he recalls.
"And then she presented me to Our Lord and I had the experience
of being before the source of life and of love. It was a very,
very strong experience. I thought maybe everybody in the room
had it, too. I didn't talk about it for a year to anyone."
Over the next several years, they drew closer and closer
to the Beatitudes Community, attracted by the radical lifestyle
and the transcendent worship services.
"You could feel God's presence in the liturgy of the community,"
Christine says. "I could feel a door open on heaven."
After a long period of prayer and reflection, Christian quit
his job and they sold all their worldly belongings to join
"I called my boss," Christian remembers with a smile. "I
said, 'I'm sorry. I'm moving to a monastery.' There was a
big blank there on the transatlantic call."
Accepting an Invitation to Denver
The Meerts met Archbishop Charles Chaput at a Pentecost celebration
at the Vatican in 1998. He invited them to migrate to Denver.
Archbishop Chaput is a big fan of new renewal movements like
the Beatitudes, and he has invited as many as a dozen to set
up shop in Denver in recent years.
The archbishop gave members of the Beatitudes Community a
place to live, paid their rent and health insurance for the
first year, and encouraged Catholics in Denverpriests
and laypeople aliketo be open to what they might learn
from this unique community.
"I think God uses communities like the Beatitudes to shake
things up in a good way, to blow the dust off the gospel,"
he explains. "That doesn't mean they're perfect. It does mean
they're very, very valuable to the life of the Church here.
They're a great witness. And they have a lot of evangelical
energy, which is why they're very attractive to Catholics
who hunger for something more in their spiritual lives."
Karen and Deano González, young parents of five, had long
felt that desire for the spiritual experience of "something
Deano is a tax collector for the I.R.S. and Karen is a stay-at-home
mom. They say that, like a lot of young families they know
living in the suburbs, they felt isolated and fragmented.
Their life seemed to be a disconnected jumble of work, volunteer
ministries and regularly scheduled children's activities.
Even in their parish they felt they had a circle of acquaintances
but no deep ties, no sense of friendship in the faith.
When the Beatitudes Community came to town it was like an
answer to all their prayers. With their childrenranging
in age from toddler to preteenthe Gonzálezes join other
families and individuals for a weeknight prayer service at
the community house. Services are followed by a potluck supper.
Then adults and children break off for religious instruction
and faith-sharing activities led by community members.
"The obedience, the accountabilitythis is the intimacy
that we were striving for," Karen explains. "This is a place
where you do share your whole beingyour weaknesses,
your strengths, everything. So it becomes a place where you
can love and learn what love is."
Last year, Karen and Deano renewed their wedding vows before
the whole community, on their knees in the house chapel, as
a visiting Beatitudes priest from France blessed them with
Now they're engaged in a formal process of prayer and reflection
with Beatitudes Community members to decide whether to become
full-fledged family residents.
Deano and Karen are under no illusions about the life they
are considering. Whatever mystic heights they might scale
in prayer, members of this community are down-to-earth and
frank when it comes to describing their limitations and the
daily struggles of their common life.
"We did not choose each other," stresses Sister Marie-Liesse,
who was a Beatitudes nun in France for 18 years before moving
here. The community was drawn from volunteers in France, and
many of the members weren't well acquainted before embarking
together for Denver. "It is every day a school of holiness
"School of holiness," which comes from the Rule of St. Benedict,
and a similar phrase, "school of love," come up frequently
in conversation here. It's like a code they use to tell visitors
and to remind themselves that this isn't easy. It's a demanding
and draining work. They're enrolled in a lifelong learning
course in the toughest subject of all, the surrender of self
in order to truly love God and others.
When Christian and Christine talk about raising children,
they sound not unlike the overworked parents of any large
"Because he is in charge, he doesn't have much time for the
family," Christine says with a matter-of-fact nod toward her
husband. "And when he has time for the family, he is tired
and stressed. We find ways to adjust."
They say they have endured ordinary parenting strugglesmoody
adolescents, rebellious teens, kids who don't want to go to
Massbut that growing up in a virtual monastery was a
positive experience for their children.
"My father was afraid for the kids," Christine recalls. "He
thought that living this way, they would become disgusted
with prayer and with the Church, that they would react against
it. Now, if you asked him, he would say he is very happy.
He is proud of his grandchildren."
Christine explains why the family recently moved into a nearby
house: "We have more room in the convent to welcome visitors
and the family has more privacy. God is good!"
The five Meert daughters seem well adjusted. Mathilde graduated
last year from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She
is planning a June wedding in Denver that will be celebrated
by the archbishop.
Jehanne, who was married last August, is attending art school
in France. Recently, she had a miscarriage, which was very
upsetting for her and her husband, Oliver. But it happened
when her father was in France for community meetings so he
was able to spend some time with them.
Another budding artist in the family is Marion, a senior
at Holy Family High School in Denver. Upon graduation, she
plans to attend the same art school in France as her sister.
Pauline, an eighth-grader at St. Catherine of Siena, is preparing
for Confirmation. She enjoys playing the saxophone and has
taken up fencing.
The youngest daughter, Charlotte, is a first-grader who received
her First Communion in France two days before her sister's
All members of the Denver community live simply. "We need
about $3,500 every month," says Christian. The community earns
about half of that through various ministries: leading holy
hours, school retreats and parish missions; teaching marriage-preparation
classes and workshops on the Jewish roots of the faith; selling
handicrafts and devotional recordings and books.
The other half comes from donations and the kindness of strangers.
For instance, one man shows up every Friday, takes the household's
weekly grocery list and buys every item for them.
As community members mind their own business, working and
praying, they have become a magnet of sorts for strangers
in need. Mostly people come at night, when all the churches
are dark and closed for the day. They come because they have
no place else to go.
There were the two teenage boys who stood in the doorway
one night, their heads down, hands jammed in their pockets.
They didn't want to come in. They didn't want to get very
specific. They had a simple request: "Could you say a prayer
Their request was granted.
Another time, a distraught woman rang the bell late at night.
"My nephew, Bobbie, is going to die," she said. "He had a
reaction to some medication. He's on artificial ventilation.
He's going to die. It's just a matter of time. I was just
at the hospital and he doesn't have long to live. Could you
pray for him?"
Community members sat her down in the chapel and prayed with
her. The next night, the woman came back. Her nephew had turned
the corner toward recovery. Everything was going to be all
Growing in Faith
"It's not my job to change the worldthe Lord is the
only one who can change hearts," says Sister Mary of the Visitation,
who was a member of the Denver community before returning
to France last September. She admits that their vocation might
seem puny in a world of poverty, suffering and exploitation.
But, she says, they take their cues from St. Thérèse of Lisieux,
the late 19th-century saint of the "little way"trusting
that things are in God's hands and that their duty is to offer
everything to him.
"The only reproach Jesus had to his disciples was for their
lack of faith," she says in a soft voice. "Our main job is
to grow in faith. If I'm here, if I'm on my knees, if I'm
having a cup of tea or I'm ironing clothes or whateverwhatever
I do, if I do that for God and offer that to him, it will
bear fruit for God."
At 30-something (she declines to give her exact age), Sister
Mary could be a poster girl for the next generation of vocations.
With her big-sister-next-door good looks and a beaming, mischievous
smile, she cut quite a figure tooling around Denver on her
bicycle in full habit.
"The Lord calls us for happiness," she says. "He said, 'Blessed
be the poor.' He didn't say, 'Blessed be the miserable ones.'
When I was young, I thought that to be a sister you had to
be very strict and seriousyou could never laugh or anything.
Those were all false images."
Ten years ago in Belgium, she was a loose-living broadcast
journalist who had drifted far from the Church. Engaged to
be married, two weeks before the wedding she called it off.
She has been a nun in the Beatitudes Community for the last
Sister Mary sees a quiet desperation lying just beneath the
surface of much of American life. "This culture is terribleeverybody
is just running for material stuff that won't give happiness,"
she says. "I think people have a very hard life. They have
many social activities, but no good friends. There is so much
superficiality. How can you nourish your soul with that? So
you need more and more things..."
She trails off, as if conscious that she's started to preach.
But she and other members of the Beatitudes Community are
aware that their lives are a kind of sermon. They are a daily
witness to the possibility of other priorities and values,
to another purpose for living, another way of life.
"Bearing fruit for the Lord is what matters," says Sister
Mary. "We are just passing by. In a blink of the eyeseverything
will change, like a trumpet blast. We don't how or when. We
are just going and trusting."
For more information on the Community of the Beatitudes,