Contemplative religious communities: Carmelites witness to faith in Roxbury for over 130 years

This article is the first in an occasional series on the contemplative religious communities in the Archdiocese of Boston.

BOSTON -- Most religious orders can trace their history back to a single founder who established their rule of life -- saints like Francis, Clare, Dominic, or Benedict. But this is not the case for Carmelites, who founded the first community of contemplative religious women in Boston in 1890 -- and have been present there ever since.

The Carmelite order was formed in Palestine in the early 1200s as pilgrims and former crusaders gathered on Mount Carmel to live as hermits, imitating the prophet Elijah, whom they considered their spiritual father.

"They wanted to live out his spirit of standing always before the face of God," Sister Bernadette Therese, the prioress of Boston Carmel, said in an interview with The Pilot. Their way of searching for God, she said, "was to meditate on the law of the Lord day and night."

These hermits asked St. Albert, the patriarch of Jerusalem, to write a rule for them. Consisting mostly of Scripture, the rule affirmed his approval for the way they were living. The Carmelites later migrated to Europe in the face of growing persecution in the Holy Land. St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross reformed the order in the 1500s, seeking to return to the spirit of the early Carmelites.

The first Carmelite community in the U.S. was founded in Baltimore. In 1889, Boston Archbishop John J. Williams visited Baltimore for the centennial of the Catholic hierarchy in America. There, he learned that the Baltimore Carmel had reached their maximum of 21 sisters and so were having to turn away applicants. He invited them to establish a monastery in Boston, and five nuns came to do so in 1890.

The sisters initially stayed on Cedar Street in Roxbury until their friends and relatives raised enough funds for them to purchase their own property. They bought their current site on Mount Pleasant Avenue and built the monastery, moving there in 1894. From Boston, the Carmelites have founded monasteries in Danvers; Concord, New Hampshire; Philadelphia; and Santa Clara, California.

While Roxbury has grown and changed, the Carmelite Monastery has remained a fixture for nearly 130 years. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest existing monastery still in use in the U.S.

A priest once told the nuns -- currently nine in number -- that they have been a sign of stability in the area, staying at times when many people were leaving.

Despite being cloistered, the nuns are still connected with their neighborhood. Their front porch serves as a venue for evangelization as they put up banners or decorations for different liturgical seasons and feast days. Every year on Good Friday, the nearby St. Patrick Parish holds Stations of the Cross in the streets, and one of the stops is at the monastery, where a sister is sometimes asked to offer a reflection.

In the past, they allowed the Urban Sisters to use part of their property for a day care project called the Tot Lot. People are welcome to visit their chapel to pray or attend Mass, and they correspond with people who call or write letters or emails with prayer intentions.

Inside the monastery, the nuns lead structured lives following a schedule that balances solitude with community. They spend most of the day in silence, with many hours dedicated to prayer and work. But they also enjoy periods of recreation together at lunchtime and in the evenings.

"In a society where there is so much focus on doing and performing and achieving, our life is so simple. We focus on being, being the best human beings we can be, in the image of Christ. And that's enough for God," Sister Bernadette Therese said.

Volunteers help them with external duties, such as answering the phone. During the pandemic, they were unable to have this outside help; but taking calls themselves allowed them to keep in touch with people reaching out for prayers.

St. Teresa of Avila stressed that the Carmelites' apostolate is prayer -- for priests, for the Church, and for the world. Prior to that, prayer was not viewed so much as an apostolate, according to former prioress Sister Mary Teresa.

"Prayer is how we express our love," she said, adding that asceticism flows from that love.

Penance, devotion to the Blessed Mother, and intimacy with Christ are also key aspects of Carmelite spirituality.

Sister Mary Teresa recalled a time when she wondered if they were becoming "too soft." Carmelites, after all, are one of the strictest Catholic religious orders. But then, she received the grace of understanding that "St. Teresa did not found us to be the strictest order in the Church, she founded us to be good friends of Jesus," Sister Mary Teresa said.

The Second Vatican Council brought significant changes for the Carmelites, as it did for most religious. They adapted their habits, and priests were allowed to come into the choir to celebrate Mass for them. Before that, they had to be separated by a grate and receive the Eucharist through a small window.

Sister Mary Teresa noted that there is a difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.

"The letter of the law, the literal law, has been changed in some ways. But the spirit, the deepest part, we hold on to," she said.

Individual Carmelite communities used to function in a mostly autonomous fashion, but after Vatican II they were encouraged to form associations, allowing collaboration and the exchange of ideas between different locations. In this context, some Carmelite sisters began a magazine called "Encounter" to show how their communities were adapting to the changes.

"It witnessed to the effort being made to communicate and share among the Carmels," Sister Bernadette Therese said.

Vatican II also promoted education. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, theologians from nearby schools, including Boston College, would visit the monastery each month to teach classes. The sisters maintain a website, featuring podcasts and videos about Carmelite saints and spirituality, and also run a newsletter that comes out twice a year.

During Pope Francis' pontificate, the Vatican has published two documents on women's contemplative life: "Vultum Dei quaerere," ("Seeking the face of God") in 2016 and "Cor orans" ("praying heart") in 2018.

"We have put a great deal of effort into adjusting to the changes that that document requires of us," Sister Bernadette Therese said.

One change was the amount of time required for formation before making one's solemn profession. Previously, the time from entering as a postulant to making final vows was usually about five or six years. Now it takes nine to 12 years. Sister Bernadette Therese said she thinks this is meant to help them focus on the quality rather than the quantity of vocations.

Sister Mary Teresa uses the story of Cinderella as an analogy for vocations: either the shoe fits, or it does not. If someone has a vocation to religious life, she said, "One's being fits into this charism -- the silence, the solitude, the whole picture. One flourishes and can become the best they can be."

Sister Bernadette Therese said that it is a "very graced" and "joyful" life for those called to it.

"It's a privilege to spend your life in search of God, to focus on this relationship with God, and know that this relationship supports a prayer life that is for the world," she said.

Information about Boston Carmel can be found on their website,