Fairfield Carmelite Sisters Wait and Pray for an End to Their Saga

The Discalced Carmelites of Fairfield find themselves in the center of a controversy spawned by the 2018 Vatican document 'Cor Orans.'

A statue of St. Joseph and the Christ Child on the grounds of the Carmel of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Fairfield, Pennsylvania
A statue of St. Joseph and the Christ Child on the grounds of the Carmel of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Fairfield, Pennsylvania (photo: Courtesy of the Fairfield Carmelites)

FAIRFIELD, Pa. — Ten miles from the Gettysburg Battlefield, what appears to be the ruins of a monastery from the Middle Ages, whittled by time to its stone foundations, sits like a plunked-down anachronism in a rural field in Pennsylvania. But these are not ruins. The stones of a new monastery have been laid for months in the cold, hard winter ground of Fairfield, Pennsylvania. The foundation of the chapel is set. The walls of the refectory are rising. Money is being raised, and plans are set to continue the construction of a great stone monastery built to last a thousand years.

The monastery is being constructed of structural stone masonry, timber framing, lime mortar and reclaimed wood. This micro-village will be made up of several smaller buildings connected by covered cloisters, along with a working farm.

This countercultural spectacle of habited nuns walking through a construction site seems like something out of history books, but the Discalced Carmelite Sisters of Fairfield, Pennsylvania, of the Carmel of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, are bucking the trends of modernity. 

While so many monasteries and convents disappear due to a lack of vocations, this one was established just 11 years ago as an outgrowth of another Carmelite monastery in Valparaiso, Nebraska, which had grown past its limit of 21 sisters. Due to the increase of vocations, the carmel, with the blessing of the bishop of the Harrisburg Diocese, moved to Pennsylvania in 2009 and to the Fairfield location in 2018.

The Discalced Carmelites of Fairfield live out the centuries-old constitutions of their holy founders, St. Teresa of Ávila and St. John of the Cross. Completely in communion with the Catholic Church, the nuns trace their roots back to 16th-century Spain and 17th-century Mexico. They adhere to the practices of St. Teresa of Ávila, living a life of prayer and sacrifice and eschewing modern conveniences such as electricity or air conditioning. They pray by candlelight, cook with wood stoves, sleep fewer than six hours a night and fast often. 

Most importantly, they pray incessantly. Their very lives are prayers. The sisters wear a traditional brown wool habit with a large scapular, a white mantle and black veil. The very term “discalced” means shoeless. They wear hemp sandals of their own making. They attend the traditional Latin Mass, the same one that St. Teresa of Ávila, from whom they take their inspiration, did so many centuries before.

“Living a life of solitude, prayer, and sacrifice, the nuns’ primary mission is to pray for the Church and its priests,” reads their website.

Despite all this, or perhaps because of this, the sisters receive about 100 inquiries per year about possible vocations. There are more than two dozen sisters currently in Fairfield, with others preparing to enter. 

Bishop Gainer at Farifield Carmelites October 2020 -Diocese of Harrisburg
Bishop Ronald Gainer of Harrisburg, lays a stone for a new building at the Carmel for the Discalced Carmelite nuns in this October 2020 photo.(Photo: Chris Heisey,)

Bishop Ronald Gainer of Harrisburg told the Register that he has a “strong relationship” with the carmel in Fairfield and most recently offered a blessing on their grounds in December. 

“They have my greatest admiration as an authentic monastic cloister community,” he said. “They are the real thing.”

Bishop Gainer described them as a “powerhouse of intercession not just for the Church but for the world.”

“They are truly selfless in that they’re praying for all of us,” he said. “As the heart pumps life blood into the body, these nuns are the heart of the Church; grace can be pumped to the mystical body. They are a great benefit.”

These sisters may seem like something out of the past, but they share a great faith in the future, which is why they’re building a monastery that will resist anything that the outside world can level against it. They do, however, believe that recent internal changes within the Church could pose a very real danger to their existence. 

Anyone who has read Catholic websites over the past year has likely seen headlines about the Discalced Carmelites. Their story has taken twists and turns. They have been both celebrated and savaged. There have been dramatic headlines about Vatican conspiracies against traditional orders, conspiracies to abolish the Latin Mass, priests suggesting they may be “suicided,” and rumors of the gates of a monastery being locked to visitors from Rome. 

Much of the consternation is centered around a 2018 Vatican document authored by the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, titled Cor Orans, which means “praying heart.” Cor Orans is the practical implementation of Vultum Dei Quaerere, Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic constitution on the life of women contemplatives. 

According to a Vatican news release, “The document provides precise guidelines regarding all the practical, administrative, legal and spiritual aspects pertaining to the founding and running of monasteries for contemplative nuns.”

Reactions to the document vary wildly.

Discalced Carmelite Sister Gabriela Hicks of the carmel in Flemington, New Jersey, told the Register that Cor Orans is a necessary and valuable document that increases a sense of community between monasteries and offers a much-needed measure of oversight.

Jesuit Father Robert McTeigue, who has helped a number of cloistered orders navigate the new rules, called Cor Orans the “No Child Left Behind” of Church documents — that is to say, it is intrusive and heavy-handed. He said it is written as if it were “oblivious to the sacrosanct quality of the enclosure (the separateness) of cloistered communities, especially carmels.”


Autonomy Issues

Two of the main concerns about Cor Orans expressed by many are a loss of autonomy and the length of formation required to become a fully professed sister.

In Vultum Dei Quaerere, Pope Francis stated that autonomy “favors the stability of life and internal unity of each community, ensuring the best conditions for contemplation.” However, he added, “autonomy ought not to mean independence or isolation, especially from the other monasteries of the same Order or the same charismatic family.” Cor Orans stipulates that “all monasteries must initially enter a Federation” and that “the Federal Council has jurisdiction over what is attributed to it by this Instruction and what may be established in the Statutes.” Those that refuse to join a federation will be forcibly enrolled. 

Benedictine Sister Nancy Bauer, a canon law professor at The Catholic University of America, told the Register that “Before Cor Orans, about one-half of the world’s approximately 4,000 monasteries already belonged to some form of federation, association or congregation, which means that about one-half did not.”

Catherine Bauer, a spokeswoman for the Fairfield Carmelites and sister to the subprioress Mother Therese, said the document clearly poses an existential threat to their cloistered community, as it could end their autonomy. Bauer, who is unrelated to Sister Nancy, points to a quote from the 1972 book The Teresian Charism, which states that “the crowning element in Teresa’s educational method is a positive exhortation to holy freedom, (which is) this broad-based autonomy that Teresa had given her daughters.” 

Catherine Bauer said a loss of autonomy is unacceptable to the Fairfield Carmelite sisters, citing the difficulties that arose in their dealings with the Association of St. Joseph after Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, in a bid to save a Carmelite monastery in the city that had been reduced to just three elderly sisters, contacted the Valparaiso and Pennsylvania Discalced Carmelites and asked them to send sisters in 2015. 

There was great excitement when nine sisters arrived there, but they soon became troubled. The nuns experienced a culture shock, coming from rural areas and finding themselves in one of the largest cities in the country. But more importantly, the Philadelphia cloister already belonged to the Association of St. Joseph. “The sisters,” according to Bauer, “came to feel they were being interfered with, especially after Cor Orans was released.”

Sister Gabriela, a council member of the Association of St. Joseph, said that Cor Orans establishes regular canonical visitations of monasteries by the religious superior or the local bishop, together with the president and treasurer of the association. She said that several canonical visitations had taken place in other monasteries and had been “a very positive experience.” She said a canonical visitation was scheduled to the Philadelphia carmel, but the sisters suddenly left the monastery in Philadelphia and returned back home to Valparaiso.

When asked if the subsequent apostolic visitation to the Philadelphia, Fairfield and Valparaiso carmels was necessary, Sister Gabriela said, “Yes, because cloistered nuns don’t walk out of their monastery en masse unless something is seriously wrong.”

Catherine Bauer said, “The nuns had to leave because they were not being permitted to live the life they had come to Philadelphia to live,” adding bluntly that “they cannot follow the rule of St. Teresa of Ávila and Cor Orans” at the same time.

Due to the sisters’ sudden and surprising departure, the Vatican did send apostolic visitors (two Carmelite nuns who are the president and previous president of the association and one Carmelite father) to their monasteries to ask questions about their life.

Sister Gabriela says that if anything can be learned from Church history, it’s that some level of oversight is necessary or abuses can fester. “Thanks be to God that the Holy Father is aware of and cares about what happens to us contemplatives! There are those who say that we should suffer in silence, like St. Thérèse. I’ve been told that, as if what happens to women religious doesn’t matter.”

Pope Francis recently spoke to members of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life and made it clear that oversight was necessary by calling for “attention to how the service of authority is exercised, with particular regard to the separation of the internal and external forums — a theme that worries me so much — the duration of mandates, and the accumulation of powers; and attention to abuses of authority and power.”

When the apostolic visitors arrived in Nebraska, they were told that the gates of the monastery in Valparaiso were locked and that they would be arrested if they attempted to pass the gates. However, they eventually relented to allow the three visitors to meet with the prioress and subprioress of Valparaiso and the former prioress and subprioress of the Philadelphia carmel. 

The visitation at Fairfield, however, took place in late September, and all went well. It included interviews of each sister. The Fairfield sisters fully accepted and cooperated with the visitation that lasted four days. 

The sisters, in a letter to donors, called it a “stressful trial.” Fairfield spokeswoman Bauer told the Register that “the official reason” for the visit was an investigation related to the nuns leaving the Philadelphia convent, but she believes the real reasons had more to do with the sisters’ resistance to implementing Cor Orans.

The sisters in Fairfield await the visitation’s verdict with trepidation. 

“Fairfield is now on the chopping block if we don’t implement Cor Orans,” said Catherine Bauer. “But they can’t implement something that will change the charism.”

She added, “They are being asked to do something that is not good for their home, their faith, their order or the Church at large.”

Catherine Bauer said that a federation or association can require a monastery to surrender money and sisters at any time to other monasteries that have need. In an age where many other monasteries are starved for vocations, she fears that could happen.

In fact, Article 92 in Cor Orans states: “The federation in accordance with this instruction and its statutes in the distinctiveness of its own charism, promotes contemplative life in monasteries, guarantees assistance in initial and ongoing formation, as well as the exchange of nuns and material goods.”

Catherine Bauer expressed concerns that some federations could be seen as having a financial incentive to sell off certain properties and consolidate nuns into fewer houses. Additionally, she said that the federation can visit and inspect the monasteries at any time — and for any length of time.

Cor Orans stipulates that the house be visited by members of the federation and that sisters in leadership must also attend regular meetings. “They will be made to attend meetings just like school boards,” said Bauer. “Mother Prioress would have to attend trainings constantly.”

This, on top of quotes from Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, secretary for the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, raises some concerns for the sisters of Fairfield. He reportedly said Nov. 21 the Vatican is encouraging cloistered sisters “to not entirely separate themselves from the world” and said, “We are in the era of the network; we must collaborate, open ourselves.” 

Catherine Bauer said that, to the sisters, that sounds like the Vatican wants cloistered vocations to end.

Sister Gabriela said, “St. Teresa of Ávila reminded her nuns that they are not just nuns, but hermits, but it works both ways. We’re not just hermits. We’re nuns. You have to learn to live in communion. How that is expressed will vary. We send out Christmas cards to all the carmels. Getting to know one another is so enriching. We have the same spirit. We have to learn to express it in a way that will get across to people out there. How do we want to get ourselves to communicate what we are and what we do to those who need to hear it? People write to us about their concerns, and we write back, assuring them of our prayers.”


Formation Concerns

On top of the concerns for autonomy, there is the massive change mandated by Cor Orans concerning the rules of formation of sisters.

Sister Nancy Bauer said when she first read the requirement that formations would last a minimum of nine years and go to a maximum of 12 years, “my eyeballs almost fell out.”

“I don’t know if I could’ve persevered that long,” she admitted.

Sister Nancy said she believes that rule was written with some poorer countries in mind, which tend to see many very young, uneducated girls joining who might need more time in formation. She said that such a long formation period could “seem excessive” in countries such as the U.S., where many women discern their vocation in their early 30s.

Before Cor Orans, nine years was the maximum allowed. In many cases, this would double the length of formation. 

“Imagine being engaged for nine years,” said Catherine Bauer. “It’s unfair to require young girls to wait that long to become a full member. It’s cruel.”

Bauer suggested these rules seem almost made to ensure a drying up of vocations. “Why?”

Father McTeigue suggests that the modern Vatican is uncomfortable with cloistered nuns and the traditional Latin Mass. He said, “I don’t see how Cor Orans leads to the flourishing of the contemplative monastic life.”

The sisters continue to pray that the Vatican offers them a dispensation from Cor Orans.

Bishop Gainer said, “One cannot foresee all the unintended consequences of documents. The Church has a long history of dispensations, just because the law should not become burdensome to the faithful. In this case, the sisters are following the ancient rule. They use the Divine Office in Latin, and they use the traditional Latin Mass, and it’s working for them. My prayer is that the Holy See will see that this would be a burden … and the sisters would receive a dispensation.”

But some don’t believe Pope Francis seems particularly flexible on this issue. 

Sister Nancy Bauer said, “I would say that Francis means what he says in Vultum Dei Quaerere, and he expects nuns to implement the new law in accord with Cor Orans. A monastery cannot ignore it.”

“Some monasteries have sought dispensations from the obligation of federating,” she said. “We have learned that the Holy See is not inclined to grant such a dispensation.”

“My advice,” she concluded, is “do the work. Cor Orans is not going away.”

But that doesn’t diminish Bishop Gainer’s hope. “I am praying daily that they receive a dispensation,” he said, adding that he has written the Holy Father once on the matter and several letters to the Congregation for Religious.

The Fairfield sisters know that Bishop Gainer of Harrisburg has been so supportive of their work but also know that he is now 74 years old and facing retirement. They fear that his replacement may not support them.

“I hope the next bishop would see the blessing and importance of the carmel in this diocese,” Bishop Gainer said.

In response, they wait for the Vatican to act. They wait and pray. They pray incessantly.

In the meantime, the stone walls continue to rise. The great monastery built to last forever can be seen from great distances. But what will happen to it is unclear. They wait to hear. They pray and wait and pray.