California Carmelites Battle Culture of Death While Caring for the Elderly

Maintaining a traditional Catholic environment and offering residents a rich sacramental life is central to the mission of the Carmelite Sisters’ Santa Teresita facility.

DUARTE, Calif. — Long-term care centers often have a negative stigma attached to them. Some see them as a place where the elderly, no longer able to care for themselves, go to die.

Not so at the Carmelite Sisters’ Santa Teresita retirement facility in Duarte, Calif. Located in Los Angeles County in the foothills below the San Gabriel Mountains, Santa Teresita’s philosophy is that growth, development and personal improvement occur at all stages of life, including one’s final years.

“We respect the dignity and beauty of each individual and recognize the value of every human life,” said Sister Mary Clare, who has worked at Santa Teresita for the last seven years. She explained that the sisters try to create an environment where residents can continue to live and grow as persons. “We want our residents to understand that life isn’t ending when you come here, but from a supernatural perspective, it’s just beginning,” she said.

Catholic Environment

Maintaining a traditional Catholic environment and offering residents a rich sacramental life is central to the mission of the sisters. Residents have the opportunity to attend daily Mass at a chapel on the grounds, go to confession regularly, participate in Bible studies, Rosaries and other devotions, and receive the sacrament of the sick.

“When one of our residents nears the end of life, we surround him or her with loving care,” said Sister Mary Clare. “We sing, pray the Rosary and console the family. This is the time they need our help the most. After a resident has died, we often receive letters of appreciation from their families thanking us for our support.”

Ultimately, she stressed, it is the sisters’ desire to prepare souls for heaven.

Mother Maria Luisa Josefa of the Most Blessed Sacrament, or “Mother Luisita,” founded the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Mexico in 1921. Persecution in Mexico brought the sisters to Southern California, where they established Santa Teresita as a sanatorium for women with tuberculosis in 1930. They named the sanatorium for St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a Carmelite who herself succumbed to TB at age 24 in 1897.

Mother Luisita died in 1937, but her community flourished. The sisters’ motherhouse is located in Alhambra, Calif., not far from Santa Teresita. The community has 131 professed sisters, with 18 young women in initial formation. They practice the spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. The sisters combine contemplation and action to deliver an apostolic service to the Church. They also are faithful to the life and charism of Mother Luisita, who was declared venerable by Pope John Paul II in 2000. The sisters have joyfully maintained the full habit, a traditional prayer life and steadfast loyalty to the magisterium of the Church.

Their apostolates include operation of health-care facilities and retreat centers.

‘The Real Need’

In 1955, Santa Teresita became an acute-care general hospital. In 2004, it was converted to a continuum-of-care center, offering both short-term and long-term care for seniors, including independent, assisted living and skilled nursing.

Today, Santa Teresita is comprised of a 119-bed manor, which offers skilled nursing, and the 44-bed Bethany Assisted Living Facility. While most of its residents are female, an increasing number of men have come to call it home as well. The staff includes 30 sisters, 200 lay employees and 60 volunteers.

Santa Teresita strives not just to offer its residents quality health care, but much more: the feeling of being loved, accepted and welcomed. Mother Regina Marie, superior general, explained, “The real need for our seniors is not simply good health care, but community.”

Jim Boyett, 86, has enjoyed the love and support of the sisters and staff for three years. “I live like a king here,” he commented. “They take good care of me. They even scratch my back when I need it. The sisters are always nice and cheerful. Seeing them happy makes me happy.”

Boyett has no family in the area, so the sisters fill the void.

The sisters’ day is centered on the Eucharist, both attending Mass and in adoration as a community and individuals. They have a monthly day of recollection, which includes making a preparation for their own deaths. Sister Madonna Joseph noted, “When we are prepared for death ourselves, we’re better able to help others.”

Jim Graves writes from Orange County, California.