SONOITA - The nuns who live a contemplative, mostly silent life here say their noiseless world will be shattered by a proposed copper mine.
"Peace is one of the hallmarks of our way of life. To have detonations, trucks and dust - what is that going to do?" asked Sister Victoria Murray.
She is one of 10 Roman Catholic nuns who live at Santa Rita Abbey, a sprawling, cloistered community that sits on top of a hill just below the Santa Rita Mountains.
"The thought of it fills me with dread," Sister Pam Fletcher said. "You feel kind of helpless. We've been praying a lot."
Canada-based Augusta Resource Corp., which owns Rosemont Copper Co., proposes developing the Rosemont Mine on nearly seven square miles in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson.
The company would mine copper, silver and molybdenum, and dispose of waste rock and tailings in an area that's about five miles from Santa Rita Abbey.
Company officials tout the economic benefits of the mine, including the creation of 500 jobs with average annual pay of $59,000. Mining could begin in 2011 and continue for 19 years.
While they recognize the importance of earning money, the nuns say those benefits do not outweigh the damage they see the mine bringing to an area they call pristine. They worry about the mine's effect on the Sonoran Desert's water supply, as well as its impact on area residents, wildlife and vegetation.
The nuns' community sits at a 5,000-foot elevation. The company has identified several ridges higher than that between the abbey and the spot where the mine would sit, said Rosemont spokeswoman Jan Howard.
Those ridges are expected to act as a buffer for noise, Howard said, adding that officials are in the midst of evaluating the mine's noise impact.
She said the company will work with the sisters, and that the project has been designed to minimize its use of land and water.
Still, the proposal is "horrifying" to Sister Miriam Pollard, the abbey's soft-spoken prioress.
"It's hard to imagine how we will live our life with this kind of obstacle," she said.
The nuns say the mine would seriously affect their own simple, prayerful lives. As members of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, often known as Trappistines, the nuns' mission is to live a monastic balance of prayer, work and prayerful reading. They follow the centuries-old Cistercian tradition of silence, solitude, prayer and simplicity.
Often, they spend hours at a time without speaking.
They say the environment is an integral part of their daily lives. It is so quiet on their grounds that the nuns know when the compressors in their freezers turn on and off.
During dry seasons, Fletcher said, she can hear the trees' thirst. The property is dotted with trees, including mesquites, cottonwoods, aspens and desert willows.
By stripping away the "noise" of the outside world, the sisters say they become closer to God, and more open to appreciate and commune with what's around them.
They rise at 3 a.m. for formal prayer. At 4:30 a.m. they break for personal prayer, which often includes pre-sunrise walks on the abbey's 1-square-mile grounds. They eat simply and have no personal belongings - everything is considered community property, even their black-and-white habits and veils.
"The sky, the mountains and the stars here are just beautiful," said Sister Kate Mehlmann as she completed her day's work on Tuesday in the abbey's industrial kitchen. There, the sisters produce 75,000 whole-wheat altar breads, or communion wafers, each day. The sisters sell the wafers all over the country, and the income supports their livelihood.
"I am praying for people's good faith, and their interest in preserving the natural environment," Mehlmann said.
The sisters, who range in age from their early 30s to their late 80s, also operate a small retreat center for up to eight people at a time. They have a gift shop where they sell artwork and creamed monastery honey, made by members of their order who live in Redwoods, Calif.
The nuns also have numerous creative pursuits, including gardening, sculpting, sewing, painting, writing, singing and playing music.
On a walk along the western side of the monastery, Murray pointed toward some hills in the distance where mining activity would occur.
"That's close enough as the crow flies, believe me," Murray said. "Noise can wreak havoc on the human spirit and the human person."
Santa Rita Abbey sits along Fish Canyon Road, which is just off state Route 83. Augusta Resource has said that highway will be a transportation route for the mine, although Howard said the truck traffic is not expected to reach as far south as the nuns' residence.
The popular Gardner Canyon and Kentucky Camp areas, which include well-used mountain bike, horse and hiking trails, are close by. All those areas would be adversely affected by Rosemont, the nuns believe.
Two of the nuns are avid bird-watchers and keep track of the species they spot, including phoebes, pyrrhuloxias, red-tailed hawks, white-winged doves and vermillion flycatchers.
The abbey is unusual for being a cloistered community - just about 5 percent to 10 percent of nuns in the United States are cloistered, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. "Cloistered" means community members are in general sequestered from the world, though the cloistered life has relaxed since Vatican II.
The Cistercian vows are poverty, chastity, stability and obedience. The "stability" vow refers to the fact that the sisters typically do not leave Santa Rita except for shopping for necessities, family emergencies, funerals and voting. Occasionally, the sisters travel for educational purposes, such as conferences.
Since spending a lot of time outside the convent isn't compatible with their way of life, the nuns attended just one meeting with other opponents of the proposed mine.
Since then, they have been taking action by signing petitions and staying in contact with local congressional offices. They have also been praying.
"I guess you just trust that people are connected enough to themselves, to each other and to nature that they wouldn't totally decimate the Earth, that they wouldn't care only about some ore," Murray said.
"To me, all the opposition is showing what people really value. I find it so heartening that's still there in the human spirit."