December 18, 2015

Terre Haute Carmelite monastery gives witness to faith, prayer

Members of the Discalced Carmelite Monastery of St. Joseph in Terre Haute pose on Oct. 10 with Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin on the monastery’s grounds. Earlier that day, Archbishop Tobin was the principal celebrant of a Mass at the monastery that marked the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Teresa of Avila, who founded the women’s branch of the Discalced Carmelites. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Members of the Discalced Carmelite Monastery of St. Joseph in Terre Haute pose on Oct. 10 with Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin on the monastery’s grounds. Earlier that day, Archbishop Tobin was the principal celebrant of a Mass at the monastery that marked the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Teresa of Avila, who founded the women’s branch of the Discalced Carmelites. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

(Editor’s note: The Church’s Year of Consecrated Life began in November 2014, and will conclude on Feb. 2, 2016. During that time, The Criterion will publish a series of articles featuring the life and history of each of the religious communities based in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. This is the fourth article in that series.)
 

By Sean Gallagher

TERRE HAUTE—The grounds and buildings of the Monastery of St. Joseph today exude the quiet solitude of the prayerful way of life of the small group of Discalced Carmelite nuns who have lived there for nearly 70 years.

But just about 15 years before the Carmelites came to their original home on the south end of Terre Haute in 1947, part of the building had been used as a Prohibition-era speakeasy and dance hall.

“There was access to it through the garage,” said Discalced Carmelite Mother Anne Brackman. “It was like a little dance hall where they would have parties.”

Mother Anne joined the community in 1959 when it still resided in its original home, which she said “very quickly became too small.”

“It just wasn’t the environment that’s necessary for a life of prayer and solitude,” she said.

The current monastery was constructed during the 1960s through the help of generous donors, who came to know the community of contemplative nuns in its first decade of life in Terre Haute.

Since the women’s branch of the Discalced Carmelite was founded in Spain nearly 500 years ago by St. Teresa of Avila, the order has been dedicated to maintaining small communities. When one grows to have more than 21 members, it has to start another monastery.

The Monastery of St. Joseph was founded by the Discalced Carmelite nuns of the Monastery of the Resurrection, which was located in Indianapolis until 2008. At that time, that community relocated to the grounds of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis in Oldenburg.

For its part, the Carmelite nuns in Terre Haute have founded one community in its history—a Carmelite monastery in Des Plaines, Ill.

In the years leading up to the founding of the Monastery of St. Joseph, Mother Anne Brackman said that Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter, who led the Archdiocese of Indianapolis from 1934-44, saw a need for the witness of Carmelite nuns in Terre Haute because mafia figures from Chicago came there and were involved in prostitution and illegal gambling.

Mother Anne said that Archbishop Ritter, who kept up a close relationship with the community after he became the archbishop of St. Louis in 1944, wanted the monastery “to be a place of prayer, praying especially for the city.”

Today, the 14 nuns at the Monastery of St. Joseph, many of whom were born in countries around the world, are a witness to the universality of the Christian life and the call to contemplative prayer.

Many of these women, Mother Anne said, were drawn to a Carmelite vocation in particular because they had previously grown in faith by living through “difficult periods in their lives.”

“They knew what suffering was about,” Mother Anne said.

Discalced Carmelite Sister Mary Joseph Nguyen, 45, knew such trials as she grew up in war-torn Vietnam. Members of her Catholic family fled the communist country as part of the “Boat People,” who suffered hardships on the high seas and in refugee camps in many southeast Asian countries from the late 1970s through the mid-1990s. She and other family members remained in Vietnam, and were eventually able to immigrate to the United States through a sponsorship program.

Sister Mary Joseph appreciates sharing her vocation with other nuns from the United States, South Korea, Trinidad and Tobago and the United Kingdom.

“It is the love of God that binds us together and the charism of our holy founder, St. Teresa,” she noted. “She said that in order to live a life of prayer, we have to have three foundations: humility, detachment and love of one another. We’re trying to work toward that goal.”

Discalced Carmelite Sister Martha Hall, who joined the Monastery of St. Joseph in 1960, has appreciated how the makeup of the community has changed over the years.

“We take turns cooking,” she says with a laugh. “We enjoy a variety of cuisine that way. We also celebrate the feasts of the different countries.”

This intimate life shared by women from so many different cultural backgrounds, Sister Martha said, is an example for the rest of the world.

“We try to live peacefully with each other,” she said. “I see us as a little United Nations. The way we live together is the way we hope the world would live together.”

The Monastery of St. Joseph has also in recent years attracted more young professional women to its life of prayer.

Mother Anne noted that some of its younger members have college degrees in engineering, zoology, computer science and library science.

“They’ve worked in those fields,” she said. “And they did not find them really fulfilling for a lifetime. They gave themselves time to really listen to the deepest yearnings of their heart. They set aside time to really reflect and, as they did that, they really got in touch with the call of the Lord.”

Many of the newer members of the community learned about it through its website, www.hearstawake.org.

“This is where young people find their information,” Mother Anne said. “So, the Internet has been a very good tool to foster vocations.”

The website has also enhanced the community’s life of prayer. About 20 requests for prayer a day from all over the world come to the nuns through their website.

“They’re printed out, and the sisters read them as they have time,” Mother Anne said. “It does motivate them. They see the real sorrows [of people who make prayer requests]. People turn to God when they are suffering.”

Although the community makes use of the Internet to promote vocations and reach out in prayer to people around the world, Mother Anne recognizes the pitfalls that come with being too involved online.

No one in the community, for example, has accounts for social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter.

“We don’t want our minds filled with all of that distraction,” Mother Anne said. “Our day is supposed to be living in the presence of God in a constant communion with him … ”

And in that communion, the nuns constantly offer up prayers for the Church in central and southern Indiana and around the world.

“Even though we’re hidden, we’re continually living in the presence of God and continuing in prayer,” said Sister Mary Joseph. “And that prayer is not for ourselves, but is for everyone.”

Mother Anne foresees the life of prayer that is at the heart of the Monastery of St. Joseph—today and has been so since 1947—continuing into the future.

“The Lord has been very good to us to bring these women with this potential and this deep faith to continue our mission,” she said. “If we have that, then that is very great grounds for hope.” †

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