Soprano Graciela Arriola had everything an opera singer could want: a brilliant career in her native Mexico as well as growing recognition on the European stage. But she left it all behind in order to become a Franciscan nun. “Every time I was on stage, I could touch, just barely, a fullness, a spiritual transcendence which brought me closer to God, but which always escaped me,” she recalls. “Every successful concert left me with a great emptiness. I knew that I needed something more.”
Graciela was born in 1966 to a devoutly religious family in Mexico City. In 1986, she enrolled in the city's National Conservatory of Music. Her career took off in 1990 after she won first place in her country's most prestigious national contest for opera singers. The following year marked Graciela's debut at Mexico City's National Theater of Fine Arts in Donizetti's Lucia di Lamermoor, an extremely difficult role which won her the Union of Theater and Music Journalists’ Prize, another coveted award. That same year, the Mexican newspaper Claridades declared Graciela “Female Opera Revelation of the Year.” She performed with all of the principal Mexican orchestras, singing opera as well as sacred music and receiving accolades for her extraordinary talents.
After receiving her diploma at the National Conservatory in 1992, Graciela headed for Europe, where she enrolled in the prestigious Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. She performed throughout Europe: in Austria, Germany, Spain, Poland, Hungary and Portugal, as well as in the Czech and Slovak Republics.
She also sang in Egypt and Morocco, while at the same time continuing to perform in Mexico, where she was considered the best female operatic voice in the country.
“I never expected all this success,” Sister Graciela told the Register. “I didn't understand it, it was too much, too fast.
“It was, in fact, the very applause that I received from audiences all over the world that made me think that this was not all there was to life, that there had to be more. It was then that I felt the desire to go beyond fame. I realized that my soul desired much more. Before each concert, I would kneel down and ask the Lord to reveal what he wanted from me. Like the Virgin Mary, I would say, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let the Lord do with me what he will.’”
Above the Arias
The more Graciela achieved fulfillment in her career, the more she longed for spiritual transcendence. “My audiences always seemed to understand the message that I had inside me, but, ironically, I was not able to perceive it,” she recalls. “I felt that I had to express something much more profound than the arias I was singing.”
In 1994, while still living in Salzburg, Graciela took a trip to Italy in order to visit Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis. It was here that a young man handed Graciela a flier with an invitation to a five-day vocational course organized by the Franciscan Sisters of Saint Filippa Mareri. “I owe my vocation to a piece of paper that someone happened to give me while I happened to be in Assisi,” says Sister Graciela. “This was a wonderful experience for me — the chance to ask the Lord to make me understand what he truly wanted from me.”
Against the backdrop of Assisi's sublime spirituality, Graciela, along with 180 other young people, read the Bible, visited sanctuaries and listened to the experiences of nuns and friars. “While listening to the word of God, I was struck. It was as if I had been living with a veil over my eyes and it was finally removed. I had the intuition that a consecrated life was perhaps what God wanted from me.”
Though she continued to live and study in Salzburg, Graciela went to Assisi every two months in order to meet with Father Giovanni Marini, the priest who guided her along the spiritual path which eventually led her to leave fame and glory behind her for the obscure life of a Franciscan nun. “After a year and a half of this spiritual journey,” she says, “I was able to discover that what I had been looking for in song was God — while, at the same time, it was God who had been looking for me in order to make me a singer of his gifts and his grace.”
In 1995, after receiving her diploma from the Mozarteum, Graciela canceled all her singing engagements and began her novitiate at the Institute of Franciscan Nuns of Santa Filippa Mareri in Borgo S. Pietro di Petrelia Salto, about 50 miles northeast of Rome. As Sister Graciela Maria de los Angeles, she took her preliminary vows of obedience, poverty and chastity in 1998.
The Franciscan Order of Saint Filippa Mareri, which was founded in 1228, has the courageous mission of saving abandoned children of all religions from death and disease by giving them a safe refuge where they can find not only shelter and schooling but also love, affection and prayer.
In 1994, the sisters opened a mission in a remote town in Albania, one of the poorest countries in Europe. Last spring, they were there to assist thousands of desperate refugees fleeing from war-torn Kosovo. Over the past five years, the nuns have ministered to between 4,000 and 5,000 people in this area.
Ever the Artist
Sister Graciela is currently in Assisi, where she is studying at the Theological Institute as well as contributing, through song, to the vocational courses organized by her order. In October, she will take her perpetual vows.
“I am still an artist,” affirms Sister Graciela, “but my greatest desire is to be a true instrument of the message of the Gospel — no longer for my glory but for the glory of God. I ask the Lord to show me the way that I can reach people, especially young people, in their search for the truth.”
Sister Graciela continues, in fact, to find new ways to use her voice to serve God. Recently, she was “discovered” by the La Madre de Los Pobres Foundation, a San Francisco-based charity established in 1982 by the late Franciscan Father Alfred Boeddeker. The foundation, which is headed by Salesian Father Larry N. Lorenzoni, has been providing financial support to the activities of Sister Graciela's order. After listening to her sing at a Mass in the Holy Father's residence at Castel Gandolfo, La Madre Foundation vice president Frank Clark proposed that she record a CD in order to provide much-needed funds for the mission in Albania.
Accompanied by pianist Luigi D'Amato, Sister Graciela recorded Alleluia, a collection of 10 pieces including arias from Mozart and Donizetti, as well as religious songs and modern music, sung in English, Latin, Italian and Spanish.
When asked if it wasn't at all difficult to give up stardom for a humble life of poverty, chastity and prayer, Sister Graciela explains: “It has been said that he who leaves everything for Jesus will get it back one hundred times over. This has been my experience: For the first time I have been given the opportunity to record a CD. But if God had told me never to sing again, it wouldn't matter at all. I have found the happiness, the peace and the joy that my previous successes never gave me.”
Berenice Cocciolillo is based in Rome.