Mary Cuff is currently an independent scholar and homeschooling mother of two. She holds a PhD in American literature from the Catholic University of America and has published in the Southern Literary Journal, Five Points, Mississippi Quarterly, and Modern Age.
It is 4:00 a.m. and fifteen Carmelite sisters arise to this call, dating back to the days of their foundress, Saint Terese of Avila. They make their way to the stone chapel, where they will spend an hour in adoration. At 5:30, the silence is broken by Latin: the community recites together the Little Hours of the Divine Office. Mass—in the Extraordinary Form—follows directly after. The sisters will return to the chapel five more times today, including one more hour of silent adoration.ADVERTISEMENT – CONTINUE READING BELOW
This could be a scene from the saintly Spanish mystic’s own monastery in the sixteenth century. The sisters file out the doors of their stone chapel to begin their daily chores: intricate embroidery on vestments, tending livestock, sweeping floors, darning torn clothes. Saint Teresa herself would not feel lost or confused by the rhythm of life here.
But this is not sixteenth century Spain, nor is it seventeenth century Mexico, though these sisters trace their monastic roots to those Carmels. This is 2021, and we are in the Keystone State. Welcome to the Carmel of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in Fairfield Pennsylvania, in the diocese of Harrisburg.
The Carmel in Fairfield dates back to 2018 and is an offshoot of another monastery, also in the diocese of Harrisburg. According to the prioress, Mother Stella-Marie of Jesus, the decision to move part of the Elysburg community was due to an increase in vocations. “Our initial plan was to move the whole community to Fairfield, but that proved to be impossible because of the size of our community. And so, we decided to do extensive renovations to our monastery in Elysburg, and to build a new monastery in Fairfield. Our Bishop, Bishop Ronald Gainer, was delighted to have two traditional Carmels in his diocese.” Indeed, Bishop Gainer has been very supportive of the sisters, celebrating the opening of the monastery in July 2019 with a Tridentine Mass. On the feast of Saint Therese this year, he returned to papally enclose the monastery buildings.ADVERTISEMENT – CONTINUE READING BELOW
Following the desire of their saintly foundress, these Carmelites maintain “family-sized” communities of twenty-one nuns. Fairfield is already on track to reach maximum capacity: the sisters are actively accepting vocations and three young women are scheduled to enter in the coming months. Mother assured me that the many applicants whom the sisters are unable to accept are referred to other Carmels.
I asked Mother why communities such as Fairfield find themselves overflowing with young vocations when many other religious communities are dying out all over the globe. She responded:
I think the reason for the growth of the Carmels of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (we are one of six similar Carmels) is that young women are looking for the full expression of the Carmelite charism, as lived out by Saint Teresa of Jesus, our Foundress: the full habit, the strict silence, the traditional liturgy, and faithful following of the evangelical counsels, as well as keeping strict Papal enclosure. I think every community would flourish if they lived to the full the charism of their foundress!
As discalced Carmelites, the sisters live out a charism that is both hermetical and cenobitic. At Fairfield, the charism of Carmel is beautifully expressed. The sisters are not simply committed to a daily life that expresses traditional monasticism; they also are engaged in a building project that will serve as a constant reminder of their charism for centuries. As Mother Stella-Marie explained:
Here in Fairfield, we have undertaken the construction of our new monastery following traditional building methods. We decided to build this way because we wanted the building we lived in to help form us as Religious, and to give glory to God by its beauty and simplicity. The building forms us because it is a constant reminder to us in our spiritual lives: the walls are of stone, they are thick and will last for centuries. We must be strong in our Faith and no trial or suffering should weaken our union with God. The timbers are exposed and wide, strong enough to hold up the slate roof. Our virtues need to be strong and enduring, visible to God and holding up the most beautiful virtue of all, charity…and so on. God is found in beauty, and so our desire is to build a beautiful and simple monastery—one free of technology and any other modern means of construction that is not necessary to the living out of our Carmelite vocations.
While the bulk of the building is being accomplished by professional craftsmen who specialize in traditional methods, the sisters themselves have learned how to lay brick and stone, paint, and white-wash. So far, the barn, caretaker’s home, a utility shed, and the recreation and work rooms have been built. For a time, the sisters were living in the barn, but moved into the recreation and work rooms over this past Thanksgiving. Current projects include the refectory, and a climate-controlled work shed that will allow the craftsmen to continue construction of wooden lintels and beams during poor weather.
With the exception of the classically Pennsylvanian red wood barn, these buildings are built from exposed wooden beams, grey stone, red brick, and slate roofs. The aesthetic is both humble and gorgeous, and is rooted not only in the tradition of western monasticism but also in rural American culture. According to Mother Stella-Marie:
An important factor in deciding to build in this way is that we wanted the architecture of the monastery to be beautiful, so as to enable visitors to lift their minds to the Author of all Beauty, but we also wanted it to look simple enough to reflect our monastic lives of poverty and humility. We wanted it to remind people (and ourselves) of the Hidden life of Nazareth, of Our Blessed Mother’s presence among us in the simple, rustic monastery.
Surprisingly, Mother assures me that such a unique and beautiful method of construction is actually no more expensive than modern methods, and the buildings will last hundreds of years. The timeline for completion mirrors the construction of its medieval counterparts: funds permitting, it will be finished in fifteen years.
Soon, the sisters hope to begin building the gem of the monastery: the permanent chapel. Currently, the sisters are using the future utility shed as their chapel, though the photos they shared with me show a building so breathtakingly beautiful that it puts to shame many churches that have been built to purpose. By 2022, God and funds permitting, the sisters will move their beautiful altar to its permanent home. Mother tells me it will be Romanesque with just a hint of the Pennsylvania farm house, and will seat a congregation of almost one hundred. The sisters’ choir will be separated by a grille to preserve their strict observance of papal enclosure.
The sisters are deeply committed to their cloistered life, even considering the impact of technology on the cloister. Mother Stella-Marie communicated to me via their director of development, Catherine Bauer, who handles their digital presence. Mother wrote her answers to my questions by hand, which Catherine then digitally transcribed. Additionally, the sisters do not allow photos of their faces to be taken—much like a digital grille.
I asked Mother how the Catholic laity could help the sisters in their work. For those local to the area, there are various volunteer opportunities at the monastery itself, while those who would like to support from afar could donate to the sisters. Part of the sisters’ charism is trust in the Lord: they receive no financial support from the Diocese of Harrisburg. Rather, they rely upon almsgiving and in-kind donations. Most of the funds for the monastery have been small donations. Most importantly though, Mother requests prayers: “that God’s work may be done here on our little hill in Fairfield, but also that this monastery may become an instrument by which many souls may return to God.” As our interview concluded, I asked Mother if she wanted to share with the readers of Crisis. She responded:
During these trying times of so many restrictions regarding Mass and the Sacraments, I just wish to encourage all the Faithful to stand firm in their trust and hope that God will never abandon us, and to remain faithful to the practice of the Faith: to pray the rosary, and not to give up… Our Lord is with us; He has conquered and He will lead us to victory. In the end, Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart will triumph.