Throughout the earliest centuries of the Carmelite Order, the vast majority of its religious women were cloistered nuns, who led very simple and austere lives. Their primary ministry to the Church was prayer and contemplation, so they had little or no contact with people outside their own walls. That all changed with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.
Many of the secular philosophers of the 18th century, and the crowned heads who followed their ideas, felt that there was no place for intercessory prayer. They might grudgingly allow for religious who worked with the poor, or ran schools, or cared for the sick. But without a practical and visible function, convents were seen as parasitical institutions which ought to be suppressed. This “war against the nuns” gathered momentum during the French Revolution, in the 1790’s. Many convents were closed, and the sisters dispersed into the population. Some were even killed for their fidelity, like the Carmelite nuns of Compiegne.
So after the storm of revolution had passed over them, some cloistered Carmels were indeed restored as centers of silent prayer. However other convents had attempted to survive by taking in children for education and day care. Others had opened clinics, and built wards for the sick. Still others had opened their doors to the poor, the elderly, or the homeless. The obvious value of dedicated women working in these other ministries was beyond dispute, so at least some of the convents in the 19th century decided to maintain their outreach.
That is not to say that a shift in spirituality was an easy thing. A centuries-old Carmelite tradition built around solitude and silence had to be re-cast into a new form for people who were busy in a crowded and noisy world. It may actually be easier to find God behind protective walls, than it is to seek his face in a cranky sick person. So the new working sisters had to devise ways of taking the chapel and the cloister along with them, as they walked to a classroom, or a homeless shelter. It is a difficult leap, but it can be done. St. Therese of Lisieux devised that sort of simple, “portable” spirituality, which was ideal for busy working people.
One community in particular had been established just after bitter experience of the Revolution. Beginning in 1824 in France, the Sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel earned a reputation as fine teachers and zealous helpers of the poor. But continuing political turmoil forced them to relocate to the French-speaking parts of Louisiana. Starting with a school for free black girls in New Orleans, the sisters took in new postulants, and opened many more schools.
With special attention to the middle and lower classes, the Sisters pulled off a miracle of resilience. They kept all of their schools open during the Civil War, and added the nursing of soldiers and epidemic victims as well. The restoration of peace rewarded the Sisters for their heroic sacrifices, as new candidates flooded in, and excellent schools mushroomed. Today, they have opened several missions in the Philippines as well, but retain their very strong base in Louisiana.
Another congregation traces its roots to Spain. The “Hermanas” (Sisters of the Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel) were organized in the late 19th century as a teaching and nursing sisterhood. They affiliated with the Carmelites in 1905, and grew at an astounding rate, because of good leadership, and attention to the poorest of the poor. Today they have houses throughout Spain, but others in Italy, Portugal, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Rwanda, and Peru. Recent troubles in Indonesia have highlighted the zeal of the Hermanas in East Timor. These sisters seem to be everywhere where love confronts hatred.
A different sort of congregation was instituted in 1929. Their mission is seen in their name, the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm. From the start, the moving force was Mother Angeline Teresa McCrory, who became a pioneer in geriatric care. Until her time, most homes for the elderly assumed that their wards had to be poor, and would otherwise be begging on the streets. Thus most homes for the elderly were dismal places, where it was assumed that a roof and a bowl of soup were “better than nothing.”
Mother Angeline saw beyond that cheerless image, and acted on her vision. In her conviction, the “poverty” in most cases was not one of money, but of care, and caring. She decided to reach out to older people who might have their own resources, but no access to people who could care for their health and welfare. She gathered a group of highly motivated women who could provide genuine professional care for people who had passed their working years, but still had good lives to live ahead of them.
Her new retirement homes welcomed both those who were poor, and those who were not. The sisters got to know their guests as individuals, and saw to their genuine needs without managing every detail of their lives. Residents were given plenty of options and choices in living out their retirement, without ever losing their freedom or their dignity. Mother Angeline’s sisters wrote a new chapter in the history of care of seniors.