June 20, 2008

Carmelite spirituality will help nuns begin their life in Oldenburg

Carmelite Sister Jean Alice McGoff, prioress, enjoys spending time in the gardens at the Monastery of the Resurrection. (Photo by Mary Ann Wyand)

Carmelite Sister Jean Alice McGoff, prioress, enjoys spending time in the gardens at the Monastery of the Resurrection. (Photo by Mary Ann Wyand)

By Mary Ann Wyand

Purple irises bloomed tall and proud in the rock garden inside the high stone walls of the Carmelite Monastery of the Resurrection at 2500 Cold Spring Road in Indianapolis.

On a sunny day in late May, Carmelite Sister Jean Alice McGoff, the prioress, bent to admire an iris and said she plans to take some of the flowers and perennial plants when the nine-member, cloistered community of nuns moves on June 30 to Theresa Hall on the motherhouse grounds of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis in Oldenburg. (Related story: A prayerful presence: June 21 Mass and open house to celebrate Carmelites’ ministry before move)

As Sister Jean Alice walked on the quiet monastery grounds, she reflected on the nuns’ 75 years of contemplative prayer and service to God at the castle-like monastery with six huge stone turrets reminiscent of medieval times. (Click here to see a photo gallery)

The Carmel was founded in 1922 in New Albany by Mother Theresa Seelbach, the former Emma Seelbach, with a $2,000 check from her family, who owned and operated a hotel in Louisville.

The cloistered nuns purchased land and moved to Indianapolis a decade later then began a 29-year building program. The last wing of the monastery and the chapel were completed in 1961.

An occasional bird call broke the stillness on the scenic grounds near a small stone hermitage as Sister Jean Alice talked about the emotional days ahead for the nuns, who are busy packing most of the community’s belongings.

They will leave several large crucifixes and a carved stone statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel as well as religious books for the archdiocesan seminarians who will move into the monastery later this summer.

The sisters are grateful that their fortress-style monastery and chapel on 17 acres of land near Marian College will continue to be a place of prayer and Christian formation as the new home of the archdiocese’s Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary.

It is a holy place, a sacred space, and it pleases the nuns that God will still be honored there during daily Mass in the chapel and the Liturgy of the Hours prayed in the seminary.

“Most of us were in our 20s when I came,” Sister Jean Alice explained, “and we did a lot of heavy manual labor [in their habits to help the construction workers]. It was good for the soul, I think, but not much fun!”

Before her sentimental tour of the monastery and grounds, the prioress joined three nuns in the dining room for tea and conversation about their life of contemplative prayer and seven decades of ministry in Indianapolis.

“I think prayer has just permeated the grounds and seeped into the walls,” Carmelite Sister Teresa Boersig said, “not only from within, but also from without the walls. So it has been, I think, a symbol of prayer for the city … from its very inception. It’s like a lighthouse. The light of God is in it, and it beams forth and attracts people … and they reflect it back so that prayer surrounds it both inside and out.”

Sister Teresa recalled with fondness the Carmelites’ prayer novenas on the monastery grounds, which drew as many as 5,000 people to pray with the sisters in years gone by.

In the Carmelite tradition, Sister Jean Alice explained, prayer is a continuous relationship with God, who loves us.

“I think as we spend time—sometimes long periods of time—just concentrating on that relationship [with God],” she said, “then that overflows into our daily lives, which involve doing things like everybody else does. But, eventually, I think you begin to pray your life. Life becomes a prayer.

“It’s like living with someone you love very much,” Sister Jean Alice said. “You don’t have to be talking all the time. You are just sort of upheld and delighted and challenged by that person, whose love you feel all the time. So our relationship with God becomes, at least for me, sort of an energy that permeates the building. I feel it all the time, even when I go outside the monastery. It’s because we’re all focused on prayer and you don’t need a lot of words anymore. It becomes very silent, very intuitive … being present, and being loved and loving.”

During Mass, Carmelite Sister Ruth Boyle explained, the priest reminds people that they are entering into the presence of God.

Carmelites focus on being in God’s presence throughout every day, she said, not just during liturgies.

“I think back on that Scripture passage where Paul says, ‘In him, we live and move and have our being’ [Acts 17:28],” Sister Ruth said. “It’s a constant relationship. … Everyone is in the presence of God, and God is loving us constantly. Another Scripture passage which is one of my favorites is from Romans 8, where it says that nothing can separate us from the love of God [Rom 8:39].”

The architecture of the monastery offers opportunities for prayer at every turn, Carmelite Sister Betty Meluch explained, not just in the chapel or the small prayer cells with arched doors and windows or the outdoor hermitage.

“There are so many places that one can pray in the building,” Sister Betty said. “I love space, and love looking out [the windows at nature].”

Sister Jean Alice said the nuns see their ministry as one of prayer and community which supports God, and their cloistered, contemplative lives as their witness of love for and faithfulness to God.

“We have four pillars for our community—prayer, silence and solitude, community life and contemplative presence,” Sister Teresa explained. “One of those is not greater than the other. We hold on to them as our non-negotiables for our community.”

To earn income for their living expenses over the years and supplement donations, the nuns baked altar bread, sewed vestments, created ceramic vessels, typeset and published books, and most recently managed a prayer Web site at www.praythenews.com, which was named by Sister Betty.

“After our monastery was finished in 1961, we did not ask for any alms at all,” Sister Jean Alice said. “We endeavored to support ourselves, to pay for our ordinary expenses, and the donations we received covered maintenance on our building. We also began to build up savings for our retirement. I think it was in 1975 or 1976 that we needed to replace part of the roof, and then we did ask for help again and the people were good to us. But we always tried to earn our ordinary expenses by the work of our hands.”

The nuns will “retire” their electronic prayer ministry and remove their Web site from the Internet when they move to Oldenburg with Lucy, their black Labrador Retriever, at the end of June.

Every decision that the nuns make is discerned through prayer as a community, the prioress said, based on their Carmelite spirituality.

Sister Jean Alice said the teachings of Christ, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross will help sustain them during their new beginning in the historic “Village of Spires” in southeastern Indiana.

The nuns said they see many blessings and benefits in their move to the grounds of the Oldenburg Franciscans’ motherhouse.

Their Carmel was founded by Mother Theresa Seelbach, and the foundress of the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg was Mother Theresa Hackelmeier. They will live on the first and second floors of Theresa Hall, which was named as a tribute to Mother Theresa and St. Teresa of Avila.

“We are moving and not leaving,” Sister Jean Alice said with a smile. “We are going to a new place that will nourish our lifestyle, and our building here will live on with new vocations. It will still be a place of God. We know that we are following God’s Providence.” †

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