By Emily Stimpson Chapman, Jan. 3, 2018
Ninety years ago, in 1927, three women arrived in Los Angeles. Like many others, they had come from Mexico, seeking asylum from the intense religious persecutions that accompanied the Cristero War.
Unlike other refugees, however, these three women were Carmelite sisters. Led by their founder, Venerable Maria Luisa Josefa of the Most Blessed Sacrament, the women had fled not so much to save their lives as to save their community.
Founded only six years earlier, the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart were unique among Carmelites. While most Carmelite women serve the Church in the cloister, through prayer, “Mother Luisita,” as the sisters called her, founded her community for active service in the Church.
The service-minded charism of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart sprang from Mother Luisita’s own long years of service in her western Mexico community. The daughter of a wealthy landowner and the wife of a prominent doctor, Mother Luisita and her husband had founded a hospital for the poor and administered it together. After his death, Mother Luisita briefly entered a Carmelite monastery, but returned to the hospital at the request of her bishop, who felt she was more needed there than in the cloister.
It was also at her bishop’s request, in 1921, that Mother Luisita finally established her own religious community, committed to serving the poor.
For five years, the sisters thrived, administering the hospital and caring for and educating children in the orphanage they also established.
When the Cristero War broke out, however, the community’s 55 sisters were scattered.
They sought shelter in friends’ and supporters’ homes and moved frequently to escape capture. Hoping to secure the safety of her sisters and the future of her fledgling community, Mother Luisita decided to travel north to Los Angeles with two sisters to try to establish a house there.
Her hopes were realized. Within a year, 30 sisters were safe and serving in the archdiocese. That’s not to say the sisters had it easy.
As the community’s current superior general, Carmelite Mother Judith Zuniga explained, “As all immigrants, the Carmelite sisters faced the frustration of not being able to communicate in the language of the country. They experienced real poverty as well as the uncertainty of not knowing if they would be allowed to stay in the U.S.”
They also, she added, had to cope with “the knowledge that they were able to live in freedom, enter churches, receive the sacraments and practice their faith openly. Their sisters in Mexico, on the other hand, were still in hiding, deprived of the consolation of the sacraments. The atrocities of war were still taking place, and they were well aware that their sisters were in the midst of it.” In time, peace was restored to Mexico, but the Carmelite sisters remained in Los Angeles, running Santa Teresita, a rest home for young women with tuberculosis that had been entrusted to them by the archdiocese. In order to sterilize the dishes and linens, the sisters had to build fires three times a day, and in order to build those fires, the sisters also had to chop down and collect their own wood.
“Mother Luisita was a diligent worker who told us not only: ‘Let God do his part,’ but also: ‘Now get to work. More actions than words!’” said Mother Judith.
The Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart will still cut down the occasional tree when the need arises (one of their sisters received national attention for cutting down fallen trees with a chain saw in Miami after Hurricane Irma), but they have other work to keep them busy now.
The community, which celebrated its 90th anniversary this past year, now consists of 136 sisters, ranging in age from 26 to 100, and has three primary apostolates: health care, education and retreats.
In Southern California, the sisters administer a senior living home, assisted living home, and a skilled nursing care center for the elderly, as well as a child care center, two elementary schools and a high school. Elsewhere, in Colorado, Arizona and Florida, they administer three grade schools and a high school. And in the midst of it all, they run a large retreat center in Alhambra, California, with retreats held nearly every weekend (and often on weekdays, too).
The sisters’ busy life of apostolate is made possible, in large part, by the community’s large numbers and their ability to attract younger sisters. While most women’s religious communities in the United States have been plagued with the twin problems of shrinking numbers and aging sisters, the Carmelites’ numbers have steadily grown. They also have a large number of younger sisters, with 26 under age 40.
One of those younger vocations, Sister Isabelle Mason, said that part of what attracted her to the community was “their prayerful presence, joy, beautiful habits and jingling rosaries.” “I think it was an attraction of the Holy Spirit moving me in that direction,” she continued. “When I first heard one of the sisters speaking about Carmelite spirituality, it resonated in my heart.”
Sister Isabelle also recognizes, however, that it’s not easy for most young people to hear a call to religious life when it comes.
“There are more distractions, with cellphones and computers, that can make it difficult to hear God’s call clearly,” she explained. “This takes silence, reflection and prayer. Also, our popular culture does not acknowledge God, nor does it value a life of chastity completely devoted to him. Basically, to follow the call, you have to radically reject the popular culture and be rooted in God’s truth given to us through his Church.”
A Vocation of Joy
In their own way, the Carmelites model that rejection of the popular culture with their long, traditional habits and rigorous schedule of work and prayer.
They rise at 4:55am and, along with their work, fill their days with Mass, a Holy Hour, Rosary and the Divine Office.
They also maintain the tradition of the “Grand Silence,” which calls for total quiet between the close of night prayer and Mass the following morning. During that time, Sister Mary Scholastica Lee explained, the sisters “prepare our hearts for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass” and “commune only with the Lord.”
The rejection of popular culture, however, doesn’t mean the rejection of joy. The sisters are immensely joyful, both in ways that the world can understand (playing an occasional game of volleyball during their evening recreation time) and in ways that are far more mysterious.
“Joy is what drew me to our community,” said Sister Mary Scholastica.
“When you are of one heart and mind like this, though we each bring our own personalities and family background to the table, you cannot help but be grateful and thank God for the many blessings he has given us.”
That sense of joyful gratitude was at the heart of Mother Luisita’s vision for her community in Los Angeles when she first founded it 90 years ago. “She discerned the presence of a great spiritual poverty co-existing amidst affluence in the U.S.,” said Mother Judith.
For this reason, she continued, Mother Luisita set out “to promote a deeper spiritual life among God’s people while guiding them to learn about and experience God’s goodness, mercy and bountiful Providence.”
As the community finishes celebrating its 90th anniversary and looks forward to more years and more vocations in Los Angeles, Sister Marie Scholastica hopes the sisters can spread that message to all they serve.
“If someone, whether they are married or a consecrated religious, is truly living their vocation and loving it,” she concludes, “they cannot help but communicate joy by their very presence.”
Emily Stimpson Chapman writes from Pittsburgh.