"What would you, holy maiden
Of that rock face, cold and grim?
Were you seeking for a loved one
When you knelt in prayer to Him?"
These first lines, from an early 1900s poem entitled "The Kneeling Nun," were written by Lou Curtis Foster, the niece of a Silver City Judge. The pathos of the words beautifully expresses the feelings of wonder that Santa Rita’s famous volcanic monolith inspires in all but the most insensitive of souls.
For who has not heard of the Spanish legend of the fair nun, Teresa of the Mission of the Knights of the Holy Grail, who shared a forbidden love with a handsome soldier and was turned to stone for abandoning her vows?
A few years before Foster’s written thoughts about Sister Teresa were put to paper, a long-time patient at the U.S. General Hospital at Fort Bayard penned another poem about her. He wrote it in story form, calling it "Legend of the Kneeling Nun." From his bed he was no doubt influenced by a daily view of her. His narrative concludes with a graphic description of the young woman’s eternal fate:
"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!"
(A slightly mysterious footnote to its history has followed this particular tale. At various times it was attributed to "author unknown," Walter Sellers, and Edwin Foote Sellers.)
Quite different, and lesser known apparently, is an earlier account of the tragic maiden. In this version, written in 1899 by Harry Burgess, she was known to natives as Sister Rita.
Simply called "The Kneeling Nun," this saga by Harry Burgess tells how Rita and a young monastic fall deeply in love. Finally, unable to contain themselves, they are found in one anothers’ arms in the convent garden by the stern Abbess. Rita’s lover flees, and she, unrepentant, is put in the dungeon, under sentence of death. Before the awful deed can be carried out, however:
"Lurid gleams the vivid lightning,
Deafening are the thunder crashes,
And the earth, with fitful shuddering,
Heaves and groans with fiery mouthing,
As the earthquake works its ruin . . . "
The convent falls into a "yawning chasm" during the quake, but a miracle saves the young nun from being crushed in her dark cell. Her lover finds her on the nearby mountain and begs her to leave the place of terror with him.
But Rita, truly contrite now, is asking God’s pardon for the sin of broken vows. She begs Him for the strength to stand against all entreaties so she will be "firm and staunch as rock unyielding."
When her lover tries to lift her from the ground where she is kneeling in prayer, she turns to stone. He cries in anguish, falling backwards. His body hurtles downwards and dashes lifeless on the bottom! The poet who wrote this legend ends it by pronouncing:
"Still the nun bends o’er her penance,
Kneeling onward through the ages,
Making endless reparation."
Throughout the ages, these and other Spanish legends centering around the convent nun have grown and been passed down from generation to generation, likely beginning around 1800.
Apache Indians surely had legends of their own, Spanish explorers are said to have "noted" about that time. They refused to camp in the vicinity of the rock formation that uncannily resembled a veiled woman "despite the excellent vantage point into the valley below."
Though no Apache stories of the Kneeling Nun seem to exist today, there are two centuries of speculation surrounding an Indian prophecy regarding a sacred messenger who would appear in the form of a female spirit. For reasons lost in the shadows of long-ago events, the Spaniards linked this prophecy with "Cibola."
Cibola, in Spanish, means female buffalo. At one time explorers called the Kneeling Nun by that name. They thought the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola lay somewhere in the region in caves, probably buried during an earthquake (such as the one in the Sister Rita story, and other documented quakes that shook Southern New Mexico in 1885 and 1887).
Perhaps they believed this because in "New Spain" (Mexico), a story was being told by natives there of groups of ancient towns with many people and great wealth, to the north (the Mimbrenos?).
The Spanish journeyed to Santa Rita looking for Cibola, the City of Gold, and instead discovered rich deposits of copper, thanks to a friendly Apache chief who showed them where his people had been mining the shiny metal for untold years. The result was the Santa Rita del Cobre . . . and the beginning of the Kneeling Nun legends . . . legends that will likely persist, as long as she continues to grace the landscape above this Southwest New Mexico community.