Alex Vera grew up in St. Joseph, Mo., during the 1940s — a time when European immigrants arrived fleeing World War II. Although she was baptized Catholic by her mother, Vera was actually raised as a Methodist.
“The Methodist church had a big home there for displaced persons,” Vera said. “There were Romanians, Slavs, Armenians — people from many nations. I learned a lot of different cultures and languages just being around them.” She also learned their musical styles and began piano lessons at age 6 in the Wesleyan House.
Most of Vera’s immigrant friends were Catholic and attended St. James Church, which stood across the street from the family’s Methodist church. On Sundays, Vera used to wait for her friends outside on the steps of St. James.
“I could smell the incense and I could hear the organ playing and I know that’s what fascinated me,” Vera said. Later, she embraced the Catholic faith, the Irish pastor telling her that “she knew the Scriptures better than anybody,” since as a Methodist she memorized the Psalms and other Bible passages.
In the late 1950s she and her husband moved to Phoenix and bought a house next to St. Catherine of Siena Church. When the pastor found out that the mother of seven played the organ, sang, and knew the Psalter, prayers and rituals, he quickly volunteered her for the Sunday Masses. She also volunteered teaching music at the parish school.
So how did a woman with a large family accomplish all that?
“I never knew if I was going to get up in the morning and play for a funeral,” Vera said with a laugh. “After you get your kids off to school, what do you look like?” She wore her hair short, in what was known back then as a pixie cut, donning a turban for Mass.
“My kids always knew where to find me,” Vera said. “If I had a baby, they would send an eighth grade girl to take care of him.”
She volunteered with the Guadalupanas group and found out that many of her fellow Spanish-speaking Catholics did not know their faith.
After the Second Vatican Council, the pastor gave her the council documents, which she studied. She invited Spanish-speaking parishioners to her home so that she could teach them about the Mass and the catechism.
Vera also attended workshops around the country, networking with other liturgists, and served on national boards and commissions. She became a charter member of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians and wrote music reviews for the publication for decades. She was also a charter member of the Instituto Nacional de Liturgia Hispana and volunteered at the office of worship for the Diocese of Phoenix.
All seven of her children attended
St. Mary’s High School, and Vera took a job at the governor’s office to help pay tuition. She worked for several Arizona governors, serving as the protocol officer and in many other capacities, including helping to get funding to educate the children of migrant workers.
Vera’s co-workers fondly referred to her as “Mother Superior” as she was known for taking off work on Holy Days in order to be able to attend Mass.
Her youngest son, Rene, has moved back to take care of her in the family home, which sits at the foot of South Mountain. Looking back over a lifetime of service to the Church, the 86-year-old Vera said the highlight was participating in the diocesan chorale that sang for Blessed John Paul II when he visited Phoenix in 1987.
Year of Faith:
She prays the Liturgy of the Hours each day, sitting at her prayer table with a candle burning in front of a small portrait of her late husband. “Every Psalm, I can tell you what it is,” Vera said.
St. Mary’s Basilica
Faith in a nutshell:
My faith is grounded in music because it is universal language and it’s one I have used to interpret the Scriptures and of course the Psalms.
What do you love about being Catholic?
I love the freedom. In my lifetime, I’ve had the freedom to acquire the knowledge that I have acquired. It’s been open — there’s been no restriction, no government or anything to keep me from it.