Gabriella Martinez Otero was born in Tucson in 1850 when southern Arizona was still a part of the Republic of Mexico. Her parents, Senor Manuel Otero and his wife, Senora Clara Martinez de Otero, had just moved to the “Old Pueblo” from their hacienda at Tubac where the Otero family had lived for several generations. According to family research, their ancestor, Don Jose de Otero, had come from Spain to Rosario, Mexico, in 1732. His son, Don Torevio, migrated north to the frontier province known as Pimeria Alta, received the first recorded land grant in what is now Arizona, and was one of the colonizers of Tubac. The Otero family was prominent in southern Arizona.
When Manuel Otero moved his family north to Tucson, he constructed one of the first houses built outside the walls of the old presidio. A few years later, the United States and Mexico negotiated the Gadsden Treaty and Tucson became a part of a vast area known as New Mexico Territory. As a young girl, during the Civil War, Gabriella saw the creation of Arizona Territory in 1863.
Gabriella Otero was a young woman of twenty when the first nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph, arrived in Tucson in 1870 to open the Sisters Convent and Academy for Females. Under the leadership of Sister Monica of the Sacred Heart, the six women had traveled to their new assignment via California, from their mother house in St. Louis, Missouri. Following the southern overland route from west to east, they had traveled to the Yuma Crossing and along the Gila River to the Pima villages, then to Tucson – some 200 strange, difficult miles for a group unused to the Southwest. Tucson gave them a rousing reception. The town was illuminated with torches and the flash of fireworks, bells pealed, and the welcoming parade of citizens, headed by four priests, met the nuns. Gabriella may have been in the crowd that greeted the Sisters of St. Joseph. She soon became well acquainted with them and their charitable works. Other nuns came and schools, orphanages, and hospitals were started in several places in Arizona Territory.
On August 15, 1877, Gabriella was one of four young Hispanic women who entered the newly-formed novitiate of Mt. Saint Joseph located at the base of the mountain about one mile west of Tucson. For Gabriella, her time of probation passed quickly at the little adobe novitiate. She and the other young women assisted in teaching children from the nearby ranches that were west of the Santa Cruz River. In 1880, she took final and perpetual vows and chose the religious name of Sister Clara of the Blessed Sacrament.
Sister Clara taught school, and on weekends, joined other teaching Sisters to relieve the nursing Sisters at St. Mary’s Hospital. She resided at St. Joseph’s Academy in its original location by the Placita and later at the larger institution on 15th Street. In the building, nuns instructed students in a wide range of basic subjects with extra courses in art, music, and needlework. Sister Clara taught Spanish, drawing and painting, and gave instruction on the piano, harp, guitar, and violin.
Besides the formal lessons she gave in drawing and painting, Sister Clara taught art throughout the school. In the primary classes, one young pupil was impressed with her Spanish accent as she would say, “Do eet these way.” That same pupil remembered Sister Clara as a very gentle, holy person who quietly went about her duties.
According to a family tradition, when Sister Clara visited her family at Tubac, she not only taught her nieces and nephews but also gathered the Indian children of the area around her to learn prayers and precepts of the Catholic faith.
Sister Clara was in poor health for many years, yet still tried to attend to every duty of her charge and to assist at all community exercises. In the last years of her life, she took care of the Academy chapel. She died at St. Joseph’s Academy in Tucson on September 4, 1905, in the 28th year of her religious life, at age fifty-six.
Sister Clara Otero is remembered as one of the first young Arizona women to enter a religious order, the Sisters of St. Joseph.