Hidden Maryland: Baltimore Carmelite Monastery
The third installment of Hidden Maryland heads to Baltimore Carmelite Monastery, where 18 sisters from all walks of life garden, share meals, and cheer Baltimore sports teams in between devoting their lives to prayer.
By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun
On a typical day, as you head north on Dulaney Valley Road just above I-695, you might be speeding to outrun the tailgater behind you, glorying in that steal you just scored at the nearby Towson Town Center or just trying to make Jarrettsville in time for dinner.
If so, you might miss an invitation to history.
Turn left at a little white sign south of Seminary Ave., cruise up a wooded lane and park by a fieldstone mansion, and you’ll find yourself on the 27 quiet acres that serve as home to Baltimore Carmel, which descends from the first community of religious women formed in the 13 colonies.
“Oh, there’s a whole other world back here — that’s one way to put it,” says Sister Monika Bies, a German native who joined the community in 2001. “It’s more interesting than you might guess.”
Selah, as the Old Testament might say. Indeed it is.
One of 65 Carmelite monasteries in the nation, Baltimore Carmel houses 18 nuns and two postulants (aspiring members), women ranging in age from 33 to 93. Their ex-professions include dentistry, nursing, education and the law.
Their spiritual focus is prayer, and their roots go a long way back.
The Carmelites, an order of the Roman Catholic Church, were born around the year 1200, when a group of religious hermits set up a community on Mt. Carmel in what was then Palestine. Their brief formula of life, the Rule of St. Albert, laid out 21 articles. These called for members to live in individual cells, make vows of poverty and obedience and observe silence from evening through morning.
The goal: to develop lives of constant prayer.
“The external details of our lives might differ, but every Carmelite believes prayer is a fundamental part of life and has a real effect on the world,” says Sister Constance (Connie) FitzGerald, 79, who has lived at the monastery since 1951.
By the 1700s, the order was well established in Western Europe, including Spain and southern France, and later that century, a contingent of women from southern Maryland travelled to the Low Countries (later Belgium) to enter English-speaking monasteries.
In 1790, they boarded a boat home and set up a convent at Port Tobacco, the first Carmelite monastery in America. It was moved to a site on Aisquith Street in Baltimore in 1831, to another on Biddle in 1843, and to the Towson location in 1961. Along the way, the place opened like a budding flower.
For 185 years, the nuns practiced strict seclusion. They wore habits and veils, stayed behind grates when interacting with the public and rarely left the grounds.
Then came the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, which sought to modernize Roman Catholicism.
Baltimore Carmel, like many others, adapted. To some, it was a relief.
“I was fine with the old ways at the time, but the habits were heavy and hot, we looked like penguins, and I still have bald spots from the veils,” says a chuckling Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester, 80, who joined in the 1950s. “I’m glad we left those days behind.”
Today’s nuns wear white robes for services, regular clothes the rest of the time. The grates and veils are long gone. And since 1990, they worship in a light-filled chapel alongside members of the public, more than 150 of whom regularly come for Sunday Eucharist.
“In a world where the culture is much less Christian than it was, it’s necessary for contemplatives to be more visible,” says Sister Colette Ackerman, the monastery’s prioress. “Our mission is to share contemplation with the people.”
At the monastery today, life alternates between silence and sound, aloneness and community, spirit and matters of the world.
At 7:30 on a recent morning, the women file into a chapel for lauds, an “office” in praise of God. Sister Monika, a musician, breaks the silence with some bright notes on the piano, and the sisters take up a quiet chant. “Praise the eternal God in all your words and deeds,” they sing.
At 8, a dozen lay friends join the nuns for Mass. They pray for the Syrian people, for the 19 firefighters recently killed in Arizona, for a friend who has passed away. Then it’s time for work, another form of intimacy with God.
Sister Connie, a Carmelite scholar, heads upstairs to tend the archives, which include such treasures as the land grant for the old Port Tobacco site and a relic — a bone fragment — from St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic and poet who helped reform the order in the 15th Century. “We draw strength from our history,” she says.
Sister Mary Fleig, tall and strong at 49, heads outside. She tends both the website and the rolling, well-manicured grounds, and she and Celia Ashton, 36, a postulant and former dentist, are clearing brush from a grove of trees.
“You don’t always get to see the results of prayer. Here, you work for a while, and the weeds are gone,” Fleig says. “That’s a blessing, too.”
Up the hill at the community garden, Sister Judy Murray, 66, tends peppers, beets, eggplant and more, striving always to keep the divine in mind. “God started things in a garden — at least that’s our foundational myth,” she says. And at the midday meal, the nuns sing “Happy Birthday” to the Rev. John Donahue, a community friend who’s turning 80.
They tear into salad and roast pork. The dining hall buzzes with noise as they talk family and theology, brain science and a bit of baseball. Before long, they’re back at their jobs.
In a quiet room overlooking a courtyard, Sister Robin Stratton, 73, sits down to answer the phones. People call in all the time, she says, with prayer requests or simply to share their burdens. She tries to listen well.
Her favorite caller, she says, was a lady who simply said, “I’m out of hope. Can you hope for me?” The two prayed together. The woman kept calling. Fifteen years later, they’re close friends though they’ve never met.
“I sometimes think we’re God’s heart,” Sister Robin says.
As the hours go by, the sisters dine together, read Scripture, watch the news and retire to their rooms for more of their two-plus hours of daily private contemplation. At Baltimore Carmel, circa 2013, it all feels like part of the same process.
It’s hidden, but also in plain view.
“There’s a connection between prayer and people’s lives,” Sister Connie says. “We believe that. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.”
Have a suggestion for a Hidden Maryland location? Tell us about it at baltimoresun.com/hiddenthoughts.
Baltimore Carmelite Monastery, also called Baltimore Carmel
Where: 1318 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson
You never would’ve guessed that: In Scripture, God sent a raven to bring food to the hermit-prophet Elijah – one reason the nuns at Baltimore Carmel are rabid Ravens fans.
Baltimore Carmel website: baltimorecarmel.org