The Discalced Carmelite Sisters of Fairfield, Pennsylvania of the Carmel of Jesus, Mary and Joseph were established in 2018, an outgrowth of a Carmel convent in Valparaiso, Nebraska. Following the beliefs of the great Carmelite reformer Teresa of Avila (1515-82), Carmelite religious houses are to be kept small, and when a sufficient number of sisters join a single house, a contingent of the sisters is sent elsewhere to form a new, and eventually autonomous community, such as that of Fairfield.
The Fairfield Carmelites wear a traditional habit and live a life of sacrifice. They spend eight or more hours a day in prayer, sleep 5½ hours a night, and engage in such penances as abstinence from meat and frequent fasting. They eschew modern conveniences such as indoor heating or air conditioning, electricity, and indoor plumbing. They make use of the traditional Latin Mass and breviary, and have prayer as their charism, or work, for the Church and her priests.
While such a hard life is unthinkable to many, the Sisters have flourished as a community, drawing 100 inquiries per year about joining the community. There are currently 25 sisters at Fairfield, with another two scheduled to enter; the maximum number the sisters can take at present is 30. The leadership of the community includes Mother Stella-Marie of Jesus, prioress, and Mother Therese of Merciful Love, subprioress. They are in the process of building a new monastery, with the buildings being made of stone.
While the sisters have been doing well with attracting vocations and fundraising for their new monastery, a 2018 document released by the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, titled Cor Orans (“praying heart”), has the sisters concerned about their future. According to a Vatican news release, “The document provides precise guidelines regarding all the practical, administrative, legal and spiritual aspects pertaining to the founding and running of Monasteries for contemplative nuns.”
The Fairfield Carmelites have many objections to the contents of the documents and have written Vatican officials repeatedly to request an exemption, but so far unsuccessfully. Chief among their concerns is the loss of autonomy of their community, (a hallmark of Carmelite houses for 500 years), loss of control of their finances, and formation of new members.
While the Fairfield Carmelites have yet to speak to the media about their concerns, Catherine Bauer, younger sister to Mother Therese and daughter to the community’s caretaker, Tom Bauer, spoke to CWR about the community’s concerns. Catherine serves as the community’s director of marketing and development, leading the effort to raise funds for the community’s new monastery, and is the designated spokesman for the community.
CWR: How did your sister, Mother Therese, come to join the Carmelites?
Catherine Bauer: She was the oldest of seven children; we grew up in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. When she was age 14, and I was 11, she began telling the family she wanted to join a religious order. She looked at the Poor Clares and the Buffalo Carmelites before deciding on Valparaiso. Valparaiso is a well-established community that can trace its lineage back 400 years to Mexico. They are an incredible order and have drawn large numbers of vocations. Young women are attracted because of their stability and faithfulness to their charism. It was nuns from this community who came to establish a house in Pennsylvania, first in Elysburg and then Fairfield, in the Diocese of Harrisburg. They first came in 2009, and the three bishops who have led Harrisburg since then have all been very supportive.
How is the process of building their monastery going?
Catherine Bauer: It is coming along well. We have the funding for the foundations of the chapel, and we’re working on permitting several other buildings. We are starting work on the interior of the refectory and kitchen, and will hopefully finish in 2022. We’ve finished the recreation and work rooms building. All will be made of stone and timber.
CWR: Why stone?
Catherine Bauer: It fits in with the charism of the Carmelites. Stone is solid, permanent and lasts. If built right, a stone monastery will last a thousand years. The idea is that this community of nuns, too, is here to stay.
For the Carmelites, everything is a prayer that brings them to God, and has symbolic importance. They have to hand pump rainwater. They have to light candles and oil lanterns. They bring in wood to cook in a wood stove. All is done with great mindfulness.
They have no phone (they can, however, use the caretaker’s phone in an emergency), electricity, or computers. Everything is a littler harder to do. They are trying to live as their foremothers did. St. Teresa of Avila believed her nuns should live as austerely and laboriously as possible. She did not believe the life of a nun should be cushioned, but a hard, continually wearing away of your faults, along with a mindfulness of your surroundings and continued prayer.
The chapel we are building is small, holding about 80 faithful plus the nuns, with a main church over a crypt. In the heat and humidity of the Pennsylvania summers, the stone buildings will retain coolness, and the sisters will be able to go below to the crypt for Mass. And, in time, the living sisters will be surrounded by the remains of the sisters who have finished their lives on this Earth.
CWR: Where do the sisters get their food?
Catherine Bauer: Local people donate fish and cheese, and they grow their own vegetables. The sisters also raise chickens for eggs and have cows for milk.
CWR: Why do they prefer the [traditional] Latin Mass?
Catherine Bauer: As Carmelites, there is certainly an appeal to it being the same Mass Teresa of Avila would have attended. They also say the rosary in Spanish as she would have.
But also, as beautiful as the Novus Ordo Mass can be, the Latin Mass has a history and meaning they find more beneficial. And, many of their vocations are coming from traditional families, so many sisters would have had the Latin Mass as part of their upbringing.
CWR: How have you observed this life of sacrifice to have benefitted the sisters?
Catherine Bauer: When I visit, there are no words to describe the joy or love for life and the Church I observe among them. They laugh, tease, and tell funny stories. As the nuns have told me, we get to live a beautiful life, and then we get heaven at the end of it. St. Teresa of Avila has said that if you follow the Carmelites’ rule of life, you’re guaranteed to go to heaven.
CWR: Are visitors welcome?
Catherine Bauer: Their Mass is open to the public, although since they are cloistered, you won’t see the nuns. When people have donations or prayer requests, they can come and ring a bell and one of the sisters will respond. There is a turn or turnstile, on which items can be placed and the nun answering can turn it around and receive it. (For those who do not live locally, prayer requests and other questions can be emailed to me at email@example.com.)
CWR: The community had a four-day apostolic visitation at the end of September. Why was that?
Catherine Bauer: They were visited by two Carmelite nuns and one Carmelite father at the behest of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. The official reason given was an investigation related to the transfer of a group of Carmelite nuns out of a Philadelphia convent in 2021.
The Valparaiso Carmelites had been asked to re-found a Carmelite community in Philadelphia. There were three elderly nuns there, one of whom has since died and a second has entered a nursing home. Valparaiso agreed, and sent six nuns, with another three coming from Elysburg (now part of Fairfield). In 2021, the nuns wanted to return to Valparaiso, as they believed the implementation of Cor Orans was interfering with their way of life. The nine nuns did return to Valparaiso, along with two aspirants who had joined the community.
Due to the proximity of the Fairfield Carmelites, they received the apostolic visitation to determine what had happened in the Philadelphia convent. But we believe an issue of greater importance to those visiting was to assess Fairfield’s observance of Cor Orans.
CWR: The Fairfield Carmelites have concerns about this document.
Catherine Bauer: Yes. For the past 500 years, Carmelite communities have been small and family-like, and operate autonomously, the ideal environment to pass down the community’s traditions. If implemented, Cor Orans will give control of the monastery over to a religious federation outside of the community and will give Vatican officials greater oversight into the day-to-day lives of the Carmelites.
It is a mandate for female contemplative orders, with 298 rules the nuns are required to follow. It centralizes power in the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, requiring all women’s contemplative religious orders to follow the same rules.
These rules relate to the formation of new nuns, financial oversight and the sharing of assets between monasteries, constant visitors and requirements that our Mother Superior and Novice Mistress attend regular meetings and formation classes. Our community tried to follow these rules, but quickly realized it is impossible to do. They wrote many letters requesting exemptions, as have many other cloistered women’s communities, and talked to their bishop, telling him we are being interfered with. They cannot follow the rule of St. Teresa of Avila and Cor Orans.
This was the reason that the 11 nuns in Philadelphia opted to return to Valparaiso, which was the justification for the apostolic visit to Fairfield.
CWR: You are raising millions of dollars to build the Fairfield Carmelites a monastery. How might Cor Orans affect the finances of cloistered women’s monasteries?
Catherine Bauer: It gives officials in the Holy See access to the financial assets of the nuns and their properties. It gives them the ability to take control of the monastery, evict the nuns and then have financial control over the property. We believe there are those in leadership in Rome who believe that contemplative orders don’t have a place in the Church any longer. They believe the nuns’ assets would be better used for charitable ventures; the assets can be sold and the money given to the poor.
CWR: You also have concerns about the formation of your novices.
Catherine Bauer: Yes. Cor Orans allows religious federations to remove novices from communities, form them, and then return them later. Imagine if someone took children away from their parents, educated them, and then returned them to their home years later. Would anyone want this?
CWR: What will the sisters do if they get an unfavorable verdict from the apostolic visitation?
Catherine Bauer: When the three visitors left, they assured the Fairfield Carmelites that they were living a good life, and all was in order. We are concerned, however, that it does not matter what the three say, the directive from the Congregation will be that the Carmelites must implement Cor Orans.
The nuns will not do this, and we fear it will cause a firestorm, and could lead to their suppression. We believe that if the broader Catholic community is aware of what is happening, it will make it harder for them to shut the community down. The Catholic media and laity can be our salvation, as right now we have no recourse to canon law or the Vatican.
CWR: Will other communities support you?
Catherine Bauer: Every monastery has its own idea about how to respond to Cor Orans. We know of 60 monasteries who are very much against it, but the Fairfield Carmelites are the only ones willing to take a stand. I think the others believe that if they lay low, things will blow over. Since the Fairfield nuns received the apostolic visitation, however, it is their head on the chopping block. Our nuns have chosen to stand up and fight, even if they will be doing so alone.
CWR: What else would you like to share?
Catherine Bauer: The Fairfield nuns do not want to be in this position in which they are being forced to choose between their charism and the heart of the Church. They love the Magisterium, they love the Church and its history. They have no intention of being schismatic, nor do they want to disobey rules. They are Carmelites, and they are Catholic. But this is their Church, too, and they shouldn’t be forced to choose between 500 years of Carmelite history and being in the heart of the Church.
We need the Carmelite nuns. We need their prayers. We must not diminish the role of contemplative orders in the Church. Prayer will save our Church, and it will save our world. We must protect these nuns at whatever the cost.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
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