End of an era for Carmelite Sisters in Barrington


BARRINGTON — For the last nine decades, the Discalced Carmelites in the Diocese of Providence have maintained a quiet, prayerful vigil on the shores of Narragansett Bay. They have only moved once during that period, when steadily increasing membership caused them to leave behind the cramped quarters of their original cloister in Newport and travel across the water to the Barrington monastery which they now call home. That was more than half a century ago, however, and it seems minor in comparison to the journey now facing the sisters: the dissolution of their community and the loss of their peaceful sanctuary at Mount Carmel.
“We plan to wait until we’re sure that every sister has somewhere to go,” says Sister Sue Lumb. “But the closing is definite. It’s really the only option available to us at this time.”
Sister Sue is the current — and final — Prioress of the Monastery of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. Therese, located a short distance from the Town Beach in Barrington. Despite her best efforts, Sister Sue has been unable to prevent the gradual decline of the monastery’s population.
“We’ve lost about 14 sisters over the past few decades, some to death and some to nursing homes,” she explains. “Now there’s just the six of us.”
Six nuns (ranging in age from 52 to 100) is simply not enough womanpower for the monastery to continue supporting itself. Self-sufficiency has always been a Carmelite virtue, rooted in the reforms which St. Teresa of Avila brought to the community in the 16th Century. Working together with St. John of the Cross, Teresa founded the Discalced branch of the Carmelite Order as a reaction to the sometimes luxurious standard of living that characterized certain medieval monasteries. The name itself signifies the Order’s strict standard of austerity — “discalced” derives from the Latin discalceatus, meaning “barefoot” (like many Franciscans, these Carmelites took their vow of poverty so seriously that they refused to own or wear shoes).
Although most of the sisters in Barrington have accepted wearing simple footwear (some, however, still wear only sandals year-round), they have remained true to the lifestyle of prayer and contemplation which St. Teresa enjoined upon them. They have accepted the responsibility of caring for their monastery (and for one another) with as little help from the outside world as possible, tending the grounds and maintaining the building while selling religious goods and incense to cover the modest expenses which they incur. Carmelite communities traditionally strive to maintain a population of 21 members, a number which St. Teresa herself selected as being small enough to facilitate a sense of sisterhood while still allowing a sufficient number of nuns to tend to the work of maintaining the monastery. While their current figure of six nuns has proven insufficient for the second of these aims, their love for one another as sisters seems to have only increased as their numbers have dwindled.
“The contemplative is such a different focus from life on the outside,” says Sister Beth Shainin. “It really draws us all closer together.”
Sister Beth is close to celebrating her 50th anniversary in the religious life, and currently works as the receptionist for the monastery; as such, she serves as the primary liaison between her Carmelite sisters and the world outside of the cloister.
“I greet visitors at the door and write emails, but it seems like most of my time is spent answering the phone,” she says. “People call with prayer requests or looking for help with whatever spiritual troubles they’re facing. Lately, we’ve been getting a lot of callers that just want to talk, probably because they know we won’t be here to talk to for much longer.”
The daily routine for the sisters is simple — and, Sister Beth wryly notes, will seem familiar to most lay people after months of social distancing. They remain within the monastery unless given permission to leave for necessities, such as doctor’s appointments or procuring groceries; similarly, they rarely admit visitors except at the community Mass which they offer each weekend. They pray five times a day as a group, and spend most of their free time either in solitary prayer or reading (the monastery boasts two complete libraries — the sisters are currently working to find new homes for the books in their collection). Each sister has her own set of responsibilities to attend to in order to serve the community, such as cooking, cleaning, caring for the grounds, or selling religious books and items in the small store which they operate in the monastery’s entryway.
Besides the store, the other major source of income which the nuns have depended on is a contract to make incense for the Trappist monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts.
“We get packages of ingredients delivered to us from India, the Middle East — all over the world, really,” says Sister Beth, who declined to elaborate, however, insisting that the exact composition of the incense they make is a closely guarded secret. Their work — whether it be mixing incense, binding books in the library, or preparing food in the kitchen — represents a major component of their charism.
“The way we care for one another is part of the way we experience the love of God,” Sister Beth explains.
Sister Sue agrees: “People sometimes think that being cloistered is only about practicing a life of solitude, but there’s also such a sense of community and family here.”
Performing that necessary work has become increasingly difficult for the sisters, however — and not just because of their declining numbers. Traditionally, the nuns have worked in their appointed roles long past what would be considered the age of retirement in the secular world. The most dramatic example of that is certainly Sister Patricia Keilty, who continues to serve as the community’s nurse even after having celebrated her 100th birthday.
“I joined the Order back in 1942,” Sister Patricia remembers. “In those days, we had so many girls knocking at the door trying to get in that we had to turn some away because of our 21 nun limit.”
Sister Patricia isn’t the only one with fond memories of Mount Carmel at its prime. Sister Marian Steffens is the monastery’s official historian — a position she is well-suited for, given that she was present for most of the monastery’s history. Although health troubles have recently caused her to relocate to the St. Clare-Newport nursing home, Sister Marian still considers herself to be a member of the community. In fact, when she first joined the monastery, it wasn’t located too far away from where she is now.
“The Newport community has always been very generous to the Carmelite Order,” Sister Marian explains.
As recounted by Sister Marian, the presence of a Carmelite community in Rhode Island can be attributed almost entirely to a single laywoman by the name of Emily Post. The granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt and a member of Newport’s high society, Post traveled to France during World War One in order to care for wounded soldiers. While in Lisieux, she met the older sisters of St. Thérèse and was so inspired by their recollections of the “Little Flower” that she resolved to bring the Carmelite tradition back to Newport. In 1930, she donated her mansion (the Vanderbilt estate of Stoneleigh) to the Order, which accordingly became the community’s first monastery.
As spacious as the mansion was, the steady growth of the Order soon had it filled beyond capacity.
“We were blessed with a real boom in the religious life in those days,” Sister Marian remembers. “Stoneleigh filled up so fast that we had sisters living in the attic, under the eaves. Most of us didn’t have rooms of our own, so we had to make our own cells using curtains. I remember how excited I was when we first moved — I shouted to the rest of my sisters ‘Look, I get my very own door with a real knob!’”
That move occurred in 1957, when Bishop Russell J. McVinney offered the community the use of a diocesan property which had formerly housed a summer camp. This was not the only new beginning that this era would bring: in the wake of Vatican II, the community also began to adapt to a changing sense of what it meant to be a religious sister.
“At first after the move, we were still very strictly cloistered,” Sister Marian recalls. “We had a grate shrouded in a black veil through which we could speak to visitors, and it also had a ‘turn,’ which was basically a lazy Susan which people would use to give us our mail or offer donations. That was really our only contact we had with the outside world in those days.”
Over the decades since the Second Vatican Council, the community at Carmel slowly began to refresh its ancient spiritual practices. Sister Marian is adamant that despite the changes in appearance, the spiritual character of their community has remained constant.
“We always knew that a contemplative vocation didn’t mean that we were cut off from the outside community on a spiritual level,” she says. “We were still members of the larger Body of Christ, and always prayed for the community on the other side of our grate. After Vatican II, we accepted that the Church was calling on us to witness to the faith in a different way, and we knew that we had to obey.”
At first, this was almost as awkward for Barrington’s Catholic community as it was for the sisters themselves.
“There were people who felt like they shouldn’t look directly at us even after we took down the veiled grate,” Sister Marian recalls with a laugh. “I remember one repairman who came to work on the roof in the late 60s and who insisted on shielding his eyes with his hands whenever he spoke with us.”
Over time, however, Barrington and Carmel established a deep and meaningful relationship: the generosity of the community has helped to keep the contemplative lifestyle of the sisters possible even in the face of declining numbers, while the nuns have been a constant source of spiritual support and guidance for the local faithful.
One of their most important contributions to the community has been through the establishment of a Secular Order. Since admitting its first member in 1930, this Third Order has allowed laypeople the opportunity to experience Carmelite spirituality and practice contemplation without taking on the requirements of a cloistered life. It was this sense of spiritual “friendship,” which attracted Barbara Simone to profess her vows as a Secular Carmelite in 1990.
“The sisters have been such beautiful friends to us, and such an inspiration to me personally,” Simone says. “Learning that they’ll be leaving has been such a blow to us. I know that it can’t compare to what they must be feeling to have such a disruption in their lives, but it just saddens me so much to know that we won’t have the Order here much longer.”
Although the Secular Order (which includes approximately 30 members from throughout Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts) intends to continue meeting even after the departure of the sisters, they are uncertain where their community will be based.
One suggestion has been nearby St. Luke’s Parish, to which Simone belongs and which has long maintained a close relationship with the monastery. Both of the priests currently ministering to the parish, Pastor Father Timothy Reilly and Assistant Pastor Father Eric Silva, regularly celebrate Mass with the sisters.
“It’s been such a meaningful connection for our parish to have,” Father Reilly told Rhode Island Catholic. “The sisters have always made me and my parishioners feel at home in their monastery, and it has given me so much joy to be able to celebrate the sacraments with them.”
Mass at the monastery has been one of the most important ways that the sisters have maintained a connection with the community. Although the pandemic brought an end to their weekly celebration, they sought and received permission to hold a final public Mass in order to announce their intentions to close.
“We had to rope pews off, and we could only accommodate about 35 people in total due to spacing restrictions,” Sister Beth says. “But it was the right way to make the announcement. The people here have been so kind to us, and we really wanted to be able to say ‘farewell’ in person.”
Although the nuns have not officially announced a date for their departure, they expect that it will most likely be this fall.
“We won’t close the doors until we have a plan for what each of our sisters will do next,” says Sister Sue. “The challenge is that so many other Carmelite monasteries are in roughly the same position, so it’s been tough to figure out where we even can go next.”
It is similarly uncertain what will happen with the monastery once the nuns have left; it still belongs to the diocese, which has not made any announcements regarding the property. According to Sister Sue, neighbors of the monastery in particular have been disappointed to learn that the sisters will be relocating — though not exclusively for spiritual reasons. “Nuns tend to be pretty quiet neighbors,” she explains with a smirk.
The closing of the Carmelite monastery in Barrington represents the end of nearly a century of tradition for our diocese. More importantly, it represents an incalculable loss for each of the six women who have called it their home — in some cases, for almost the entirety of its existence. For them, it is not merely the loss of a building: it is the disruption of a contemplative lifestyle to which they have dedicated their entire lives, and separation from the sisterhood that has served as their means of experiencing God’s love. There is hope, however, that the sisters will be reunited in at least one way after the monastery closes its doors, thanks to the generosity of Bishop Thomas J. Tobin.
“Because of their many years of prayerful presence in our diocese, Bishop Tobin was happy to do the Corporal Work of Mercy of Burying the Dead in designating a section at Gate of Heaven Cemetery for the Carmelite Sisters,” says Msgr. Albert A. Kenney, Diocesan Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia.
The plot will serve as the final resting place for those sisters already buried at the monastery, whose bodies will be exhumed and reinterred at Gate of Heaven, as well as for the current sisters, when they pass and begin their journey towards heaven.
According to Father Reilly, this should help to provide both the sisters and their supporters with a sense of closure.
“Despite the loss, there’s something so beautiful in the fact that they’ll be together once again,” he says. “I mean, how beautiful is that their bodies will be able to remain together like true sisters as we await the Resurrection?”