Sister Seraphim was a Russian Orthodox nun who founded the Hermitage Cat Shelter back in 1965, and today is known to some as Tucson's "Patron Saint of Homeless Cats."

Tucson historian Jane Eppinga celebrates what would have been the 109th birthday of Sister Seraphim, "Tucson's Patron Saint of Homeless Cats", on Friday, Aug. 12.

In 1965, the Russian Orthodox nun founded The Hermitage No-Kill Cat Shelter, the first of its kind in Arizona.

Even before that, Eppinga says, Sister Seraphim led an eventful and adventurous life even before she joined the order and settled in Tucson.

Here is author, historian and storyteller Jane Eppinga's account of Sister Seraphim's legacy, including Jane's one chance meeting with her...


Sister Seraphim died in 1989, but her presence still permeates Tucson's Hermitage -- a shelter for cats. I first encountered the diminutive Russian Orthodox nun several years ago in a grocery checkout lane. She refused to pay the sales tax on several large bags of pet food, thereby holding up a large number of irate shoppers. Finally, when she explained the purpose of the Hermitage, the manager agreed with her. Now that is real power. When I refused to pay sales tax, the clerk just laughed.

From her writings, you would gather that Sister Seraphim might have been distantly related to British royalty. Born in London, she attended an exclusive girls' boarding school in Switzerland and had a definitely aristocratic air. For a while she lived in Jamaica. Sister Seraphim joined an order of Russian Orthodox nuns. She loved all animals and founded the Hermitage to give shelter to cats.

PHOTO: Courtesy of The Hermitage Cat Shelter
Sister Seraphim and some of her friends...

To this day, every cat at the Hermitage has a name. The group found behind a convent, known collectively as the convent gang, have biblical names of Luke, Eli and Athena. Those with names such as Tequila, Vino, Quervo and Margarita and other Mexican liquors were rescued behind a Mexican food restaurant. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were rescued from the blistering desert and reminiscent of Daniel and the Lion’s den. Of course, there were Jewish cats with the names of Israel and Mitzvah.

In one of the many places where Sister Seraphim lived, the Mother Superior wrung her hands. "Sister Seraphim, you know full good and well that a convent is not a refuge for every stray cat. Other arrangements must be made"

"Yes, Mother."

"One mouser per convent is quite enough."

"Yes, Mother." The diminutive Russian Orthodox nun bowed her head, more to conceal a grin than to convey contrition.

At that moment, a voice in the hallway one of the sisters said, "Oh! The sweet precious babies. Please Sister Seraphim; the mama must have another saucer of milk."

Sister Seraphim slipped unnoticed out of the room. Mother Superior shook her finger at empty air. "And just last week we found the kitchen coffer empty because you took the money to purchase two ragged kitties from little boys, who were unable to care for them." Mother added, "And Sister, how many times must I remind you, you are not allowed to raid the refrigerator for meat for the cats. Other arrangements must be made."

Sister Seraphim returned to the lecture scene. "Yes Mother, but when I was but a child, I made a deal with God."

"Sister Seraphim," Mother said with long-suffering patience, "We do not make deals with God!"

"I do," Sister said serenely. "I vowed early in life to take care of all living creatures who came my way so long as God provided the means."

PHOTO: Courtesy Dave Fitzsimmons / The Hermitage Cat Shelter
Arizona Daily Star cartoonist Dave Fitzsimmons' portrait of Sister Seraphim

Mother Superior sighed as she watched the sisters file into Sister Seraphim's room to coo and pet the newest additions to Sister Seraphim's collection of waifs--Grisette and her three newborn white balls of fluff.

And then there was Pandora, a born troublemaker if ever there was one. She believed in waking Christian nuns at the crack of dawn by prying their eyes open. But that was not the worst of it as Sister Seraphim found out one Sunday after services.

Mother Superior stood with her arms folded. “That cat is impossible, come see what she has done to the convent bathroom. Sister’s eyes widened with horror as she surveyed the destruction. The haughty Pandora lounged on the window sill.

Sister asked sternly “What have you to say for yourself. Her attitude said, See how I have excelled at bathroom transgressions. Pulled down the curtains and towels. Chewed up the toothbrush bristles. Sharpened my claws on the toilet paper and then shredded it into confetti. One good swipe broke the cough medicine bottle and then I mixed everything into a nice big mess.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of The Hermitage Cat Sheler
Sister Seraphim (Aug. 12th, 1903 - March 26th, 1990)

Mother Superior continued, “Why just last week she was again ousted from the chapel and Pandora has the impudence to flick her tail at the bishop.”

Sister suppressed a giggle and said, “But if I don’t love her, who will?”

Mother Superior replied, “Other arrangements will have to be made.”

Sister grew troubled over the next few weeks. She had to obey. She found homes for all the cats. She vowed to lead a life uncomplicated by cats. But before long a cat appeared and then a couple more. What could she do? The feline grapevine told all where to find her. Mother Superior turned a blind eye.

{As the years went on Sister Seraphim suffered from respiratory troubles and arthritis. The time came when she moved to Arizona. Tucson also had plenty of homeless cats. Sister took matters into her own hands. She persuaded a real estate agent to donate a house and land. No longer would she have to make other arrangements. When Sister Seraphim finally met God, they had both kept their end of the bargain.

(Written by Jane Eppinga, and used here with her permission.)