They’re not the twelve apostles, but they are 11 Catholic nuns who are spreading the word of Jesus — through music.
Not church hymns, mind you, but full-on Christian worship/pop music with a definite mission.
They call themselves Siervas (the servants), for they serve the Lord through their mission on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, where their convent is located. They sing in Spanish, but their message is universal. They write their own songs, with titles such as “Heroes,” “Come and You Will See” and “Trust in God,” with messages that run the gamut from trusting in God to get you through the darkest times to how to create awareness about the crises children around the world are facing in today’s world.
“We do sing at mass, but these songs are not for mass,” says vocalist/percussionist and the group’s English-speaking “organizer and promoter” Sister Monica. “They are for your car, your party, your free time. There are many Catholic and Christian musicians making worship songs and that is what we are doing. You can worship with our songs, and we want people to worship in the middle of everyday life. We want our music on the radio so people can be inspired and sing along and have a better day. God says, come and you will find the truth and you will find happiness. Our music is about finding that truth and that happiness through Jesus.”
The band performed last year at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, and friendships formed with organizers of that event led to their return to the Chicago area this month. Their “Tour Hoy Despierto” brought them to Chicago late last week for a series of 10 parish concerts, which continues through April 2. Dates/parishes can be found on Facebook.
The 11 sisters who comprise Siervas come from all walks of life and various educational and music backgrounds, as well as from eight different countries. They formed the band officially in 2014 as an outreach of their daily work, which includes ministering to the poor in neighboring shanty towns, working with the disabled, and visiting women in local prisons.
“We give the women in prisons hope through prayer and counseling and just talking to them,” Sister Monica said. “Prison is a very lonely place. Some of them are foreigners and have no one to visit them. We help them in spiritual ways to heal.”
The band features seven vocalists, with two lead singers: Sister Ivonne (from Chile, who plays electric and acoustic guitar) and Sister Dayana (from Ecuador). The rest of the lineup (in addition to Sister Monica) includes: Sister Paula (Chile, drums), Sister Camilla (Peru, electric guitar), Sister Teresa (Chile, bass guitar), Sister Kathleen (Philippines, keyboard), Sister Andrea (Argentina, vocals), Sister Cindy (Venezuela, violincello), Sister Arisa (Japan, violin) and Sister Jessica (China, clarinet).
“I do vocals and I play [percussion instruments], small drums, bongos, shakers. But we [credit] God with organizing us,” Sister Monica says with a hearty chuckle.
Several of the sisters arrived at the convent with musical backgrounds. Sister Ivonne, Sister Teresa and Sister Dayana came from a family of musicians. “Sister Kathleen sang with her sisters from an early age, and she arrived at our convent already able to play the guitar and keyboard,” Sister Monica said. “Sister Paula has very good rhythm so we told her you have to learn to play the drums! Sister Camilla played guitar, so she learned to play electric guitar over the past two years. So, ours is a very musical community.” They all take music classes to improve their singing and musicianship, she said.
While Sister Monica says they follow the teachings of Jesus and the Catholic church, they wanted their music to blast away at stereotypes that somehow pigeonhole who nuns are and what their religious calling entails.
“Before we were nuns, we were regular people who listened to all kinds of music and had regular lives like regular people,” Sister Monica said, revealing that she is a huge fan of the Beatles. Sister Andrea was studying biology. Sister Paula is studying philosophy, and yet another sister is studying communications. Sister Monica has already finished her second college degree, revealing her love of anthropology and archeology almost led her to Chicago and a whole different life path.
“Before I became a nun I dreamed about coming to Chicago for my master’s degree because I was told by so many scholars that if I wanted the degree, Chicago had the best program for anthropological studies,” Sister Monica said, revealing she’s never been to the Field Museum but hopes to visit one day. “I was studying archeology in Peru, and trying to understand what I wanted to do with my life. I really loved my studies but something was lacking in my life. I always believed in God, but as I was researching universities in Chicago I asked myself if that life would truly make me happy. I loved archeology but it did not fulfill me. That’s when I discovered that I wanted to help people through social work. So, I took charge of a local social project and I found God. It turned my life around.”
Local word of mouth about these singing nuns, who first entertained their local parishes in Peru and later in Ecuador and Colombia, turned around all their lives in ways they could not have imagined, she said. Social media, iTunes and YouTube helped put them on a global stage.
“People are getting to know us more and more, especially through YouTube. We never thought we’d be traveling around the world with our music. Now we have booked the whole year. … A priest in Mexico City heard our records and saw our YouTube video and he wrote and told us he somehow would get us [on the roster] to play for Pope Francis during his visit to Juarez [in 2016]. And two weeks before the Pope’s arrival we were told we would play for the Pope in front of 250,000 people.”
Sister Monica said music is something they want to keep pursuing in order to keep raising funds for their mission and the churches/parishes where they perform on their tours. And unlike those demanding veteran rockers out on tour this spring/summer, they don’t have ridiculous contract riders. “When we travel, we ask only for the basic needs: our [travel] fare, food, a place to stay, and some kind of donation of the parish’s choosing to our mission,” she said.
“Our mission is to help people find the love of God through our music. Our music is for both believers and non-believers. We want to deliver a message of hope and faith through songs that can change the world, regardless of your beliefs. We all have to be good people, but also people who do good in the world. That’s a message anyone can relate to.”