A life of silence. A life of joy. A life alone with God. This is what the Carmelite sisters from Alexandria, S.D. will be pursuing at their new home in south-central North Dakota.
On March 19, the feast of St. Joseph, the Diocese of Bismarck welcomed a new order of sisters to the prairie: a group of cloistered Carmelite nuns.
About a week before they came to stay for good in their new monastery, three of the sisters, along with Mother Marie Therese of the Child Jesus, met with Bismarck Bishop David Kagan and also sat down for an exclusive interview with the DCA.
The Carmelites’ monastery in Alexandria had 17 sisters, and they were willing to send a few to the Bismarck diocese to start a new monastery. The monastery in North Dakota is located “in the middle of nowhere” as the sisters described it, northeast of Hague in Emmons County. An old farmhouse has been renovated to become a quaint, simple monastery that now accommodates four sisters, with room for more.
Bishop Emeritus Paul Zipfel made the first request for a Carmelite foundation in the Diocese of Bismarck before his retirement in November 2011. After Bishop Kagan was appointed to lead the diocese, he visited Mother Marie Therese in February 2012 as a follow up to Zipfel’s request.
“We had a very good and fruitful visit, and after a period of prayer and discussion by the Carmelites, it was agreed to honor our request,” explained Bishop Kagan, who served as chaplain for a different order of cloistered nuns in his former diocese before being appointed Bishop of Bismarck. “Bishop Paul Swain of the Diocese of Sioux Falls endorsed the request and the preparations began.”
The heart of cloistered life
Sister Mary Baptist of the Virgin of Carmel has been named prioress at the new monastery in N.D. Sister Mary Joseph, the sub-prioress, Sister Mary John of the Blessed Sacrament, and Sister Raphael Mary of Jesus the Eternal High Priest will accompany her at the cloistered Bismarck Diocese monastery.
To be “cloistered” means that the sisters remain in enclosure, not leaving their monastery except for rare occasions, such as a medical appointment. The enclosure allows the sisters to more readily live a life of complete prayer and silence, being alone with God and constantly praying for others.
“We value our enclosure because it’s part of our sacrifice for the diocese and the world,” Mother Marie Therese explained. “Once the bishop erects the cloister, he locks us in.”
Being in the Bismarck Diocese, the sisters will live their life of prayer and penance especially for the priests and laypeople of western N.D.
“Prayer is really the foundation for all missionary activity,” Sister Mary Baptist said. “You can talk to somebody and try to convince them, but if they don’t have grace, which is won by prayer, then it won’t be effective. So we really need prayer as the basis.”
The nuns said they fast during half the year (one full meal and two smaller meals) and do other forms of penance, including sleeping on a slab of wood with a simple straw mattress. During Lent, they do the “black fast” (no dairy)—and they never eat meat.
“Surprisingly enough, we live to a ripe, old age, usually!” Mother Marie Therese laughed.
“It’s not just that we have to do it. [Penance] is something our Lord inspires us to do because we love Him,” Sister Mary Baptist added.
Despite all of the sacrifices, the sisters are very joyful—and their faces youthful, regardless of their age. In fact, they were quick to remind that a “good sense of humor” is required to be a good Carmelite. Their life is lived with great attention to the Church’s liturgical calendar, which means that whenever the Church is celebrating a solemnity, the sisters are feasting and celebrating with enthusiasm.
Bishop Kagan said that this unique lifestyle is “by no means a rejection of the world or creation,” but instead “a statement that God and His will are first and all-important.”
“To have these prayers and sacrifices offered to God daily for all of us is the greatest of blessings,” he added.
The way of Christ
The sisters explained that their “hidden” life is meant to imitate the life of Christ; Jesus spent 30 years largely hidden before engaging in public ministry. As a result, the sisters often don’t see the fruits of their ministry, said Sister Mary Baptist, which they consider another sacrifice to offer for the Church.
Carmelites wear a full brown habit for their clothing, complete with a scapular (a long, narrow outer cloak with a hole for the head) and veil. The brown color of the habit represents humility. A black rosary with six decades hangs off of the sisters’ belts.
The nuns have named their Bismarck Diocese monastery “Carmel of the Holy Face.” After establishing themselves, they will be self-sufficient, growing their own food in gardens surrounding the monastery and raising goats, chickens and other animals for food.
“We’re not going for a free ride, let’s put it that way. We want to help as much as we can to earn our own living,” Mother Marie Therese quipped. “[We want] to be like a leaven in the diocese…to raise the whole dough.”
The monastery in South Dakota makes customized vestments, hand-made rosaries, scapulars, and other religious articles that have become very popular and are often in high demand. After some time, the N.D. sisters hope to begin making items like scapulars and Chaplets of the Holy Face, although they admitted they must not let their work overshadow their life of prayer.
“It’s a joyful life!” the sisters repeated amid their smiles. This is one thing they wanted the people in Hague, Emmons County, and the whole diocese to know.
“God does exist. He’s worth giving your whole life for.”
The public is invited to three days of open house April 23-25 to visit the monastery near Hague and the Carmelite sisters. The open house will be held from 2-8 p.m. each day. On Saturday, April 26, Bishop Kagan will celebrate Mass at the monastery beginning at 11 a.m., after which he will take the key and lock the sisters inside, where they will remain in prayer for the Diocese of Bismarck.
The rosary worn by the Carmelite sisters (pictured above) contains six decades and is known as the Brigittine rosary. An extra decade is added to the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries. A decade in honor of the Immaculate Conception is added to the Joyful Mysteries; a decade commemorating the moment when the body of Christ was taken from the Cross and placed in the arms of Mary is added to the Sorrowful Mysteries; and a decade in honor of the patronage of Mary, Mediatrix of all Grace is added to the Glorious Mysteries.