Serving the Carmelite Nuns in Philadelphia

The annual clean-up day took place last month at the cloistered Carmelite Monastery in Philadelphia. I had been wanting to go for years for this project, but it had never worked out. This time it all came together and it was with great anticipation that I drove down to the Carmel early on a crisp December morning.

The day commenced with a mass that was celebrated by a priest from the Legionaries of Christ. The cloistered nuns assisted at the mass from the other side of the grille (an open grating of wrought iron bars) and received Holy Communion from the priest through an opening in the grille.

I have been going to the Philadelphia Carmel regularly since 2001. As a matter of fact, the first time was only a few weeks after 9/11 because I could remember the priest giving his homily about the attacks. Maria and I often go during the Triduum of Masses in honor of St. Therese for her Feast Day on October 1st and for the Novena of Masses for Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in July. It is always such a joy for me to see the nuns who are dressed exactly as St. Therese had been over 100 years ago.

It was such a privilege to serve the needs of these holy nuns. After the mass, a huge breakfast was served by female volunteers who were not allowed to work inside the cloister grounds because it is forbidden as a Papal Enclosure. I knew that they planned to work us hard when I saw the breakfast spread of eggs, pancakes, sausages, bacon, and French toast, that was served to us! 

After breakfast, the workers entered the cloister grounds through the large doors. We had quite a large work force that flucuated between 60-70 men including almost 50 U.S. Navy Sea Cadets, many seminarians, and a bunch of laymen like myself. The Sea Cadets were young men between ages 11 and 17 who were in the program to learn leadership and seagoing skills. The program provides a great way for young men to give military life a ‘trial run’ before they make a more binding commitment of service after age 18. As previously mentioned, the female Sea Cadets who attended the work day were restricted to serving meals or other types of service outside the cloister grounds.

Vans full of rakes and equipment for the taking were parked inside the the large, open gate. Four Sea Cadets were posted at the gate at all times to prevent any unwanted intruders from entering the enclosure. I strode into the 3-acre grounds enclosed by a 12-15 foot stone wall and put my rake to good use. The old Chinese proverb “many hands make light work” was surely appropriate here as 50 Sea Cadets in prime physical shape were able to clear downed branches and rake leaves at an impressive rate. The ravages of Superstorm Sandy the end of October had left barely a patch of ground of the entire 3 acres uncovered by branches and leaves. It quickly became apparent that we would need the entire group working at full force.

I raked leaves for 1-2 hours before switching to the large leaf blower. I put the backpack on and began blowing leaves into piles with a deafening roar. One young boy who was there with his father asked that I blow the leaves into one large pile so he could jump into it. His request fulfilled, he jumped into the pile with abandon. I enjoyed seeing him so happy.

At one point the Mother Superior of the Convent inspected the progress of our work and even spoke briefly to a few workers. She must have been satisfied with what she saw because she disappeared as rapidly as she had come on the scene. I took a break after several hours of work and sat on a wall in front of the cloister walk to rest for a few minutes. I spied a nun surveying the frenetic proceedings from a window with much curiosity. She may have seen me watching her because she too disappeared quickly. It almost became a side sport trying to get a glimpse of the elusive sisters!

At lunch one of the men well-acquainted with the monastery told me that there was a crypt on the property that contained the remains of many deceased nuns, one of whom was incorrupt! The Church teaches that the bodies of some saints are preserved from decomposition as a miracle of grace as a testament to the holiness of the saint. This is purely a gift of God for the benefit of the Faithful. Countless canonized saints are not incorrupt and some are preserved even though they may never have been formally canonized by the Church. Sister Stanislaus of the Blessed Sacrament falls into the latter category. She was only 31 when she died in the Philadelphia Carmel in 1911 from tuberculosis, the same disease that claimed St. Therese. She was greatly influenced by St. Therese and began to translate the Autobiography of the recently deceased Little Flower. She so reflected Therese’s teachings of humility and purity that Sr. Stanislaus became know as the “Little Flower of the Philadelphia Carmel”. It was a great joy for me to pray at this holy nun’s tomb.

By mid-afternoon the Sea Cadets, seminarians, and the rest of us had cleared the last piles of leaves and parted after a good day’s work. I was so happy to serve the Carmelite nuns who were living the same hidden life of holiness that St. Therese had lived more than a century ago. I plan to return next year for the annual workday at the monastery and hopefully I’ll be able to persuade some willing recruits to join me.

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