At the time of the Crusades to the Holy Land, hermits settled in various places throughout Palestine. Some of these, “following the example of Elijah, a holy man and a lover of solitude, adopted a solitary life-style on Mount Carmel, near a spring called Elijah’s Fountain. In small cells, similar to the cells of a beehive, they lived as God’s bees, gathering the divine honey of spiritual consolation.”
Unlike most religious orders, the Carmelites have no founder. Instead, we trace our beginning to some hermits who settled on Mount Carmel in Palestine more than 800 years ago. Historians aren’t sure what led these men to give up everything they had to live in bare cells, but we can surmise that they faced personal disappointments or tragedies that led to a desire for a radical change of life. Some may have been unhappy with the violence and excess they saw around them. Others may simply have felt a call to be closer to God.
Moved by “their love of the Holy Land”, these hermits consecrated themselves in this Land to the One who had paid for it by the shedding of his blood, in order that they might serve him, clothed in the habit of religious poverty,” persevering “in holy penance” and forming a fraternal community.
While we call these early Carmelites hermits, they actually lived with others in shared solitude. These first brothers took responsibility for one another. When sometime after 1206 they asked the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Albert, to draw up their way of life in a Rule, the relationships among themselves and with their leader were critical. This Rule of Life, which Albert presented to them in 1214, directs the hermits celebrate Eucharist together each day in a place near their cells and to gather weekly encourage and correct each another. This Rule is a formula for living that Carmelites still follow today.
Soon after they received the Rule, Jerusalem fell from Latin hands and the hermits were forced from their mountain. They began to migrate to the West with those leaving the Holy Land. They settled in Sicily, Italy, Spain, France, and England.
This journey not only led them to a new home, but also to a very different style of life.
Carmel in Europe
When they left Mount Carmel and the Holy Land, the early Carmelites exchanged expansive desert scenes for crowded city noises, hermitage for active ministry. While many of the first immigrants tried to maintain their hermit stance, settling in remote spots and less populated areas, younger members were inspired by the active preaching role of the young Franciscan friars and the Dominicans. These Mendicant orders spread rapidly throughout Europe, preaching the Word of God and doing good works.
Brother Simon, a member of the Mount Carmel community, was the elected leader of a now widely scattered group. Listening to the call for change, in 1247 he petitioned Pope Innocent IV to have the original Rule modified, allowing the Carmelite community to settle in and near cities and begin a pastoral role among the people.
In 1281, the community set up a house of studies in Paris and each province was to send two men to study theology. Carmelites were also studying at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. In 1287, the community was divided into nine provinces because it was growing so quickly in so many areas of Europe. By 1362, there were 12,000 members of Carmelite houses.
During the fourteenth century, the Carmelites were affected, as was all of Europe, by the Plague, the Hundred Years War between England and France, and the schism in the Church between the two popes — one in Rome and one in Avignon. Some houses were entirely closed, while others had only a few survivors to carry on and train new members.
In 1432, the Carmelite regulations were adjusted a bit more. Friars were allowed to eat meat three days a week and fasting and abstinence were further modified. This caused a division in the order, with some wanting to adopt the new regulations and others seeking a stricter adherence to the original Rule. In 1462, some of these “Barefooted” or “Observants” opened their own houses.
Carmel in the United States
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Scipio, Kansas[/caption]In 1858, a priest from Louisville, Kentucky presented a dire need for religious to run parishes and schools. Three Ursuline sisters from the neighboring convent responded to the request and established a school in Louisville. They corresponded with their friend and former confessor, Fr. Cyril Knoll, about their ministry in Louisville.
By the 1850’s the Carmelites in Straubing, Germany, had recuperated sufficiently from the years of the Secularization to begin looking to establish missions in other countries. On June 8, 1864, Fr. Cyril and Fr. Xavier Huber arrived in Louisville from Straubing. Unfortunately in the meantime, the bishop had been transferred to Baltimore and a new bishop had not been appointed. The two Carmelites immediately began working, even accepting responsibility for St. Joseph’s Parish, some 13 miles north of Louisville.
A short time later, Knoll was back in Louisville, assisting at St. Martin’s parish. Without a new bishop however, Knoll grew restless to move on and eventually wrote to Bishop Miege of the Kansas Territory for a foundation. Miege welcomed the Carmelites into his fledgling diocese and gave them responsibility for St. Joseph’s Parish. By 1866, there were six members in the Carmelite community, including local priests who joined the immigrants.
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Father Cyril Knoll[/caption]Later that year, Father Knoll purchased a large Redemptorist convent in Cumberland, Maryland. He immediately began to fill it as a novitiate. Candidates moved in and out of the novitiate quickly.
In 1870, the small group opened a house in Paducah, Kentucky, and in 1873 expanded to Louisville. In 1874, the Commissary of Kentucky was erected. New houses were opened in Engelwood, New Jersey, New Baltimore, Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh as well.
Back in Kansas, the Carmelites felt that Father Knoll had abandoned them, only remembering them when he needed men and money. As a result of their complaints, the Prior General took the Kansas houses under his direct jurisdiction in 1869. With this help, they were able to build a neo-Gothic church of St. Joseph in Leavenworth, buy farmland to support the community, build a stone church and convent and open a school for boys in Scipio. In 1874 the crops failed and the country was in an economic depression. Instead of contracting, the Kansas prior opened a foundation at Niagara Falls, Ontario in 1875.
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The Province's first Chapter, or meeting, was held in May 1890. These delegates passed a resolution that postulants must know Latin before entering the community.[/caption]In 1878 the two priors agreed to unite their jurisdictions. Three years later Father Knoll resigned as commissary of the German houses. In 1881 all the American houses were united under one prior. In 1890, the American foundations became a Province dedicated to the Most Pure Heart of Mary. In 1900 the Province expanded to Chicago and opened St. Cyril College (now Carmelite High School). The Chicago area became the headquarters for the Province.
In 1949, the Carmelites built a parish and school in Lima, Peru. Since 1959, it has had charge of the prelature of Sicuani.
In the 1950s, we took on parishes in Houston, Texas, and Tucson, Arizona. Salpointe Catholic High School in Tucson opened in 1953 and Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino, California in 1959.
In 1970, we opened our first chapel in a shopping mall, St. Therese Chapel in Paramus, New Jersey. In the 1970s and 80s, we also moved into Phoenix and Glendale, Arizona; Peabody, Massachusetts; Fairfield, California; and Venice, Florida.
By 1990, the Province had spread throughout the United States with some 300 members in 19 States, the District of Columbia, and the province of Ontario, Canada. At present the Province of the Most Pure Heart of Mary has about 260 men in North America, Canada, Peru, Mexico, and Italy.
Today throughout the world there are about 2,200 Carmelite friars on five continents. There are 72 communities of cloistered nuns, 13 Congregations of sisters, a Lay Missionary Family, a Secular Institute, three communities of hermits, and numerous Third Order Lay members and Confraternities of the Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
From 12th century crusaders who became hermits on a mountain in the deserts of northern Palestine to the founding of communities in the great cities of Europe and eventually in the Americas and around the world, the history of our Carmelite brotherhood is intimately connected to the lives and stories of individual souls who sought out prayerful solitude together in the world.