CLARK, Wyo. — Something is on the rise in Wyoming, and to many it’s more majestic than the state’s Rocky Mountains.
It’s the Catholic Church.
In 2006, the sparsely Catholic-populated state made headlines with the newly formed Wyoming Catholic College, an ambitious, 14-square-mile campus that will become just the second four-year college in Wyoming.
But there’s another, quieter community taking wing in the Cowboy State — the Monks of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. Founded just three years ago, the cloistered Carmelite monastery already has seven monks and several times that waiting to don the order’s habit and hard life.
So what’s going on in Wyoming?
“That’s something I’ve been wondering a lot about,” says Cheyenne Bishop David Ricken. “The Holy Spirit is blessing us. The Church in Wyoming is over 100 years old, and maybe it’s now time for Wyoming to start to grow and to have the full complement of what it takes to make the Church whole. Catholic education and contemplative houses of prayer, those two things have been lacking. But the Spirit is saying it’s time to grow these things in your own midst.”
The monastery is the inspiration of Father Daniel Mary of Jesus Crucified, M. Carm., previously novice master in the Carmelite Hermitage of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Lake Elmo, Minn. Feeling called to found a new monastery in his native Wyoming, the 39-year-old Father Daniel Mary established contact with Bishop Ricken.
Bishop Ricken, it turns out, had been having the same inspiration.
“When I became bishop here I found out that there was no exclusive contemplative community, and I know that for a diocese to be truly fruitful and successful it has to be bolstered and supported by constant contemplative prayer,” Bishop Ricken said. “So I was praying for a monastic contemplative community of men and women, and Father Daniel approached me as I began those prayers. I think the Lord was preparing the way for this for quite some time.”
By Father Daniel’s count, the two branches of the Carmelite order in the United States have about 60 houses of nuns and around 40 houses of friars. He refers to Carmelites as being “love in the heart of the Church,” and from this role Bishop Ricken expects a steady pulse of prayer, especially for priests and vocations.
“This monastery is needed now perhaps more than any time in recent history because the need for prayer is so much greater,” Bishop Ricken said. “At a time when society and family is disintegrating and at a time when there is a scarcity of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, the most effective way to approach the problem is through intercessory prayer. And prayer united especially to the sacrifice of monastic life.”
There is no shortage of sacrifice at Carmel of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Formally founded Oct. 15, 2003 (feast of St. Teresa of Avila), the Clark, Wyo., monastery sits amid a landscape at times as harsh — and as beautiful — as the life known by St. Teresa and fellow Discalced Carmelite founder St. John of the Cross. It is mostly isolated, surrounded by farmland, rolling prairies and the shadow of Yellowstone’s Beartooth Mountains. An abandoned rectory once intended for retired priests serves as home. “A couple of priests who tried to live there found it a little too isolated for them,” Father Daniel said.
They were ideal, though, for Carmelite monks.
“We believe that the best thing we can do is to really get far away from the influence of the world and live in a very austere place and in the wilderness,” Father Daniel said. “And that you have in Wyoming.”
The community strives to live the authentic, contemplative charism of Carmel, including a revival of the eremitical tradition. Monks wear a brown habit over tunic and cincture, and tunic and strap sandals onto bare feet — even in winter. Underneath their cowl are heads shaved bald or with a thin ring of hair (a corona). They fast, sleep on straw and perform up to six hours of manual work a day. Their days begin at 4 a.m. and include Mass, chanting, two hours of contemplative prayer, the Rosary, spiritual study and much more before concluding at 9:30 p.m.
“It’s very austere,” Father Daniel said. “But the reality is that the more austere we live — and it’s not like it’s unbearable — and all the penances we do actually invigorate our souls and spirituality. In reality, the cloister is like a paradise to these monks.”
And paradise — even with the Carmelite’s strict life — is calling loud and clear to many young men interested in entering the cloister. The community that began only with Father Daniel now includes one postulant, three novices and two in temporary vows. More than 300 inquiries into the community have been made from all over the world in the last three years. Of those, 25 to 30 are “prime candidates for our life,” said Father Daniel.
“We keep all the ancient customs of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, and I think this is why our community is flourishing,” said Father Daniel, a Carmelite for 15 years. “I think that’s what’s drawing young men right now.”
Added Bishop Ricken: “I didn’t expect this kind of interest so fast. I know there’s quite a hunger among young people for authentic religious life and for a beautiful but simple liturgy and for community life. I see that as a very hopeful sign that this generation of young men is willing to make the sacrifice to help promote the spiritual mission of the Church.”
Among those making the sacrifice is Brother Simon Mary, at 22 the youngest in the community. Raised Catholic in upstate New York, he is finishing his second-year novitiate and hopes to profess his temporary vows on the solemnity of the Assumption. He discovered the community while conducting an online search.
“Oftentimes when people think of monks, they think of old monks,” Brother Simon said. “We’re all very young. Our joy would surely amaze you, to hear the laughter and to know the peace of the brothers. I think since I entered Carmel I’ve only known God’s blessings. It’s as though it’s a constant chipping on your soul, but none of that is really difficult. Our Lord sustains you and Our Blessed Mother takes care of us.”
The community is holding off adding members until it secures more space. That day is coming. A donor purchased 42 acres for the monks on land adjacent to the rectory. The monks have been building a new home that, when completed, will house 16 brothers.
Donations and prayers are sought by the monks (details at their website carmelitemonks.org), who at present are allowed more interaction outside their cloister in order to promote the start of their efforts.
Once more strictly cloistered, though, they expect to become even more powerful.
“My face is hidden,” said Brother Simon, “and yet the power of this life goes far beyond these walls.”
Anthony Flott is based in