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Mesmerized by Mt. Carmel Monastery

Story by Christine Reese
Photography by Michelle Brosco Christian

Tucked away behind an iron gate in La Plata is a beautiful place of peace. Mt. Carmel Monastery, established in 1790, is situated at the top of a gently rolling knoll surrounded by trees.

The monastery is home to 14 cloistered nuns. Occasionally, you may catch a glimpse of a nun's traditional habit from behind the surrounding fence, or hear some rustling through the leaves, but the Carmelite nuns will not greet you in person upon your visit to the monastery. They have separated themselves from society "in order to focus and concentrate on God, praise, love and prayer" shares Mother Virginia Marie, a Carmelite nun living at the monastery.

Separation from society in today's world may seem difficult for some to understand. Perhaps a clearer understanding of this separation is found in a quote from the Carmel of Port Tobacco website: "As the heart is enclosed in the body and hidden from public view, so are contemplatives within the Church. The heart performs a vital function-pumping blood to the other parts, even though it is not seen. The hand and foot are readily seen carrying out their works; but the heart works best when left alone, enclosed and hidden from view to do its work. The life of prayer and sacrifice is indeed the life-blood of the Church."

The nuns live in small hermitages and rise each morning around 5:30 a.m. to begin their day with prayer. Before many people have risen from bed, the nuns begin their daily Mass at 7:15 a.m., and then have breakfast and a mid-morning prayer, an hour of spiritual reading and work.

Around 11:45 a.m., the nuns have a mid-day prayer, examination of conscience, dinner, mid-afternoon prayer, and resume their work. Their days continue as such until about 9 p.m. when they have their nightly prayer.

In addition to their devotion to prayer, the Sisters also work making handmade items such as rose petal rosaries, baptism gowns and original sculpture for the gift shop, which helps support the monastery. They also maintain the monastery buildings and grounds with the help of volunteers.

The grounds of the monastery still include the historic original monastery buildings built in 1790. The monastery is not only a place that offers prayer-it offers an extensive lesson in Southern Maryland history.

Mt. Carmel is the first convent of religious women established in the 13 original colonies. Four Carmelite nuns, under the guidance of Father Charles Neale, a Jesuit priest, founded the monastery also known as Carmel of Port Tobacco.

Prior to the Declaration of Independence, religious freedom had been denied to Catholics. Women and men wishing to enter into a religious vocation had to do so by leaving America and heading for Europe. Convents in Belgium and France were devoted Americans likely destinations as even England had anti-Catholic laws at the time.

Three of the founding nuns of Mt. Carmel, Mother Bernardina, Sister Mary Aloysia and Sister Mary Eleanora along with Father Neale, were all natives of Southern Maryland. Mother Bernardina was a descendant of one of the first families in Maryland and Sisters Mary Aloysia and Mary Eleanor were her nieces.

The founders had made the arduous trip to Europe and after the Revolution ended, returned to Southern Maryland to enjoy religious freedom and to bring Carmel to America and to their original home.

When Father Neale and the Sisters returned to Charles County, they stayed originally at what was then Father Neale's family estate, Chandler's Hope in Port Tobacco (Chandler's Hope is where both Father Neale and Archbishop Neale were born). But the estate lacked the seclusion needed for the Sisters and so Father Neale exchanged Chandler's Hope for 860 acres about three miles north of Port Tobacco. This is where the original monastery buildings were constructed.

After a very long history, and through many struggles for survival and revival, today's monastery is on nearly 80 acres, bordering the Mt. Carmel Estates neighborhood, less than a half-mile from the College of Southern Maryland's La Plata campus.

Recently, with the help of two volunteer groups, the nuns have opened a new building at the monastery. The 8,220-square-foot building includes a larger gift shop, which in addition to the nun's handmade items carries hard-to-find religious books and articles.

Among the old and the new at Mt. Carmel you will find solitude and serenity. "We welcome people to come for a quiet moment of prayer," says Mother Virginia Marie. In addition to several isolated spots for reflection, an inviting brick chapel is open to the public for prayers, meditation and Mass.

Through their prayer and hard work and with the help of many volunteers, the Sisters of Mt. Carmel are able to maintain the monastery and share this place of prayer, peace and quiet with the outside world.

The Mt. Carmel Monastery's gift shop is open Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. and Sunday, 8 a.m.-1 p.m.

The monastery's annual fundraiser, the "Pre-Christmas Sale," is Saturday, Oct. 21, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Refreshments will also be available for sale; the Sisters are known for their home baked treats. All proceeds go directly to the nuns to help with the expense of the new building.

You can find out more information by visiting their website at http://www.carmelofporttobacco.com/ .

For another perspective of the Carmel of Port Tobacco, see:

American History in Charles County: Carmelite Nuns of the Carmel of Port Tobacco

We also have more photos in our Multimedia Gallery.

This site contains select articles from our hardcopy magazine from the past ten plus years.
As such, some of the information in this particular article may no longer be current.

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