June 4, 2021

Hermitess embraces life of prayer for the Church in central and southern Indiana

Sister Elizabeth Mary of the Visitation, previously Ellen Carney, receives applause after professing vows as a hermitess of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis during an April 26 Mass at Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Church in Indianapolis. Joining in the applause behind Sister Elizabeth Mary are Father C. Ryan McCarthy, left, and Father Joseph Newton. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Sister Elizabeth Mary of the Visitation, previously Ellen Carney, receives applause after professing vows as a hermitess of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis during an April 26 Mass at Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Church in Indianapolis. Joining in the applause behind Sister Elizabeth Mary are Father C. Ryan McCarthy, left, and Father Joseph Newton. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

Ellen Carney was in a dark valley in her long and winding spiritual journey.

By the summer of 2016, she had suffered physically, mentally and spiritually for many years.

“The bottom kind of fell out of my life in 2010,” said Carney, 67. “It went on for a long time.”

At the end of that dark valley, though, stood bright hope in the Eucharist. She felt drawn to it that summer after being a member of the Episcopal Church for many years.

“I had this impression to go and sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament,” she said in an interview with The Criterion at Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis.

“Within 30 minutes, I was here,” recalled Carney, who lives minutes away from the Indianapolis South Deanery faith community. “This was the first place that popped into my mind. But I had never darkened its doors before. I slithered in and cried for two hours.”

Within a couple of months, Carney, who had studied the faith assiduously for years, was received into the full communion of the Church.

Receiving Communion for the first time was a revelation for her.

“I realized I had been starving to death my entire life,” she said. “Don’t ever, ever underestimate the power of the sacraments. If they do, send them to me. We’ll have a chat.”

After having been married in the 1990s before her husband died, Carney eventually discerned a call to live as a hermitess in Indianapolis in the Episcopal Church while continuing to support herself by working weekend nights as a registered nurse at Indiana University Health Hospital in Indianapolis.

She gave up that solitary life when she was received into the Catholic Church. But with the help of her spiritual director and archdiocesan leaders, she felt that call renewed. On April 26, she professed vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as an archdiocesan hermitess during a Mass at Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Church, taking the name Sister Elizabeth Mary of the Visitation.

“St. Elizabeth, the mother of St. John the Baptist, found the fruition of her vocation later in life,” she said. “I’m the same way.

“I’m overjoyed to be able to have this vocation … . Hopefully people will know that I am indeed praying intensely for them.”

‘I thought that I had died and gone to heaven’

Intense is a good word to describe Sister Elizabeth Mary’s personality. She lives and loves her faith intensely. And her reflections on her life of adventure are filled with intensity, too.

Some of those adventures have taken place within her soul. Others have happened in locales around the world, such as when she was a medical missionary in the mid-1970s in Zimbabwe, the southern African country which soon descended into a civil war.

“We got thrown out. It got ugly—really ugly,” Sister Elizabeth Mary recalled. “I kind of grew up there. You grow up fast.

“We packed up the hospital—anything that was not red hot or nailed down. We put it on a truck and bugged out.”

On her journey back to the U.S., Sister Elizabeth Mary traveled across Europe like many young adults at the time. She came first to Rome and was a confused first-time visitor until taken under the wing of an American religious sister.

With her assistance, Sister Elizabeth Mary, raised in a strict, non-liturgical Protestant faith tradition, attended a papal Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.

“I thought that I had died and gone to heaven,” she said. “This little Church of Christ girl didn’t know beans from apple butter. I must have looked like I had been gobsmacked.”

Sister Elizabeth Mary returned to the U.S. a young woman spiritually changed forever.

“The Church of Christ wasn’t cutting it, not cutting it,” she said.

‘I think God kind of picked me up by the scruff of the neck’

Her taste of liturgical prayer and centuries-old spiritual culture in Europe eventually led Sister Elizabeth Mary to the Episcopal Church, which she joined after moving to Indianapolis in 1976 to work at St. Vincent Hospital.

Soon after marrying in 1991, she and her husband learned that he had severe health challenges, which ended with his death in 1999.

During that time, Sister Elizabeth Mary’s spiritual life took a back seat.

“I wasn’t paying much attention other than to putting bread on the table and taking care of him,” she recalled. “I was physically and mentally exhausted.”

After several years of discernment and theological formation, Sister Elizabeth Mary began her life as a hermitess in the Episcopal Church in 2007.

Guided today by the Church’s Code of Canon Law, the life of hermits and hermitesses is the oldest form of religious life in the Christian tradition, dating back to the third century in Egypt when men and women began living solitary lives of prayer in the desert there.

Because of her Episcopalian background, she chose to become a member of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter when she was received into the Catholic Church in 2016.

The ordinariate is a diocese-like structure within the Church for Anglicans and Episcopalians in the U.S. and Canada who have been received into the Church and who want to retain spiritual traditions of the Church of England.

St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne Parish is an ordinariate faith community that is based at the archdiocesan Good Shepherd Parish in Indianapolis. While Sister Elizabeth Mary prays Evening Prayer with the ordinariate community on Thursdays, she is a member of Holy Rosary Parish and worships at Sunday Mass there.

When she discerned a call to be a hermitess in the Church, leaders of the ordinariate, based in Houston, said they would be unable to oversee her religious life and recommended that she seek out the guidance of archdiocesan leaders in Indianapolis.

Looking back on the many twists and turns of her spiritual journey that led to her life as a hermitess in the Catholic Church, Sister Elizabeth Mary described it all in her intense and homespun way.

“I think God kind of picked me up by the scruff of the neck and said, ‘You’re going to be a hermitess, and this is how we’re going to do it,’ ” she said. “But it’s only on the other side of things that you can see that.”

‘A spiritual nurse’

Lee Ashton, a member of St. Cuthbert Parish, is glad that Sister Elizabeth Mary has finally been able to pursue her vocation.

“This has been a dream for her and all of us,” said Ashton of himself and the ordinariate community in Indianapolis. “We’ve all prayed long and hard for her to be able to get back to where she knows God has led her to go. She knows in her heart and in her soul that this is what God wants her to do.”

He also spoke about how her life of faith has strengthened his own.

“She lives a very simple life,” said Ashton. “It’s been helpful for me to watch her. It’s helped me reground myself in the idea that it doesn’t take a lot to follow God’s leading. The rest of it will follow.”

While he is impressed by her life of prayer, Ashton also noted how Sister Elizabeth Mary has used her professional skills as a nurse to help others.

When a member of the ordinariate parish was dying of colon cancer, Ashton recalled, Sister Elizabeth Mary “jumped in immediately and was at his home by his bedside. She was there when he was dying. She helped the family greatly with her medical knowledge and her spirituality.”

“She is very balanced,” Ashton said. “She has her spirituality and brings that to the game. But she’s also not afraid to pull her sleeves up and say, ‘This person needs help.’ ”

Franciscan of the Immaculate Father Terrance Chartier, Sister Elizabeth Mary’s spiritual director, reflected on how her life as a caregiver and her faith have come together in her vocation during the homily he preached at the April 26 Mass in which she professed vows as a hermitess.

“A nurse by training and profession, Sister Elizabeth’s new mission is to be a spiritual nurse, assisting our Lord, who is the divine physician, in the work of guiding, converting, sanctifying and saving souls with her … life of prayer and penance,” said Father Terrance, who ministers at the Mother of the Redeemer Retreat Center in Monroe County. “Grace doesn’t destroy nature, but rather builds on it. Once a nurse, always a nurse, but now a spiritual nurse.”

‘My job is prayer, sacrifice and reparation’

Sister Elizabeth Mary, who lives alone in her home on the near westside of Indianapolis, described her life as a hermitess in her interview at Holy Rosary.

“I come here,” she said. “I go to the grocery store. I go to the friars [in Monroe County] and repeat.

“I pray the Office [Liturgy of the Hours]. I do two hours of mental prayer each day. Several times a week, I do an hour of adoration or a holy hour, depending on what’s available. I try to go to Mass every day, depending on my health.”

She also regularly gives spiritual direction to several people.

Although her interactions with others are limited due to the nature of her vocation, Sister Elizabeth Mary views her life as an integral part of the Church in central and southern Indiana.

“My job is prayer, sacrifice and reparation to build up the Church,” she said, “to pray for the archbishop, the clergy, seminarians and everyone thinking [about priestly vocations], for the moms and dads and everybody else trying to raise kids in this environment.”

That focus on prayer at this time in her life and in the life of the Church is important to Sister Elizabeth Mary because she sees prayer as “the absolute nexus of what’s needed in this sorry world. Without it, you might as well pack it up and go home, because you’ve just lost all the juice that gives forth evangelization, good works or anything else.”

After having gone through many years of discerning her vocation, Sister Elizabeth Mary shared wise advice for others pondering what their calling from God might be.

“If you have any interior wondering, check it out with somebody—your pastor, a religious, somebody you look up to who’s a good Catholic,” she said. “Talk it over. There’s never any harm in inquiring.”

(Sister Elizabeth Mary of the Visitation can receive prayer intentions by e-mail at ellencarney65@aol.com.)

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