Carmel of Port Tobacco aka Discalced Carmelites of MD, Inc.
Get in Touch!
301-934-1654 Mother Virginia Marie, OCD
La Plata (Port Tobacco), Maryland
Patron Saints/Famous Saints of the Community
Our Role Models – Our Saints
+ The Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Carmel
+ Saint Joseph, Protector of Carmel
+ Saint Elijah the Prophet, Spiritual Founder, 9th Century B.C. Palestine
+ Saint Teresa of Jesus, Doctor of the Church, 1515-1582 Spain
+ Saint John of the Cross, Doctor of the Church, 1542-1591 Spain
+ Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, Doctor of the Church, 1873-1897 France
+ Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, 1880-1906 France
+ Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Martyr, 1891-1942 Germany
+ Saint Teresa of the Andes, Patroness of Youth, 1900-1920 Chile
The Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Carmel
Carmel is all Mary's. One could also say that Carmelite nuns are all Marys. From the Mother of Jesus we learn to ponder the Word of God in our hearts. As she was the first and most perfect disciple of Christ, we follow Him by following her. Like her we let ourselves be overshadowed by the Spirit of God Who forms Christ in our souls. With Mary we contemplate the mysteries of salvation and so put on the mind of Christ. Wearing Mary's habit reminds us that she is our Mother and that we, too, are called to be mothers of souls through our apostolic prayer.
Saint Joseph, Protector of Carmel
Did you know that the Carmelites are the great promoters of devotion to Saint Joseph? Saint Teresa named her first monastery after him, and most of the present-day carmels, including our own, have the religious title Carmel of Saint Joseph. (We also go by Carmel of Port Tobacco because of our location.) As Saint Joseph protected and provided for Mary and Jesus in this life, he continues that mission for the Church, the Body of Christ, and for Mary's Order, the Carmelites. From him we learn that silence is so necessary for prayer. Saint Teresa also recommended that we ask Saint Joseph to teach us to pray, and, if we have no spiritual director, to ask him to be one for us. Here in Carmel, whenever anything breaks down or we need groceries, good Saint Joseph is the first person we turn to for help.
Saint Elijah the Prophet, Spiritual Founder, 9th Century B.C. Palestine
Carmel claims a long tradition that begins even before Christ. As we read in the Book of Kings in the Bible, Elijah the Prophet was the founder of a community of prophets centered on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land. By the late 12th Century A.D. some hermits had settled there, but archaeological evidence takes us back even farther. There was a chapel said to be the first dedicated to the Mother of God and to the Nativity of Jesus. It is from Saint Elijah that we develop a zeal for God's honor, and live the radical life that is a prophetic witness to our times. We trust God to feed us in the desert as we listen for that still, small voice that is God's.
Saint Teresa of Jesus, Doctor of the Church, 1515-1582 Spain
To Our Holy Mother Saint Teresa of Jesus belongs the glory of renewing the spirit of Carmel. Returning to our roots in the example of Elijah and the hermits of Mount Carmel, she formulated a way of living that would foster prayer, sisterly support, and a deep friendship with Jesus our Bridegroom. Her monasteries would have few nuns and few needs. Her practical mysticism inspires us to seek the things that are above while keeping our feet firmly on the earth.
Saint John of the Cross, Doctor of the Church, 1542-1591 Spain
This saint, when associated only with the Dark Night of the Soul, can be easily misunderstood. He is also one of the greatest poets who ever lived. In addition you might find him dancing at Christmas or designing an aqueduct. Saint Teresa knew his worth. He was persecuted for helping her to the point of being imprisoned and scourged for months until he made a daring escape – at night, appropriately. At his feet we learn to embrace our crosses knowing that the Resurrection lies hidden in them. If we meet the One Who loves us like a Bridegroom on Calvary, we will dance with Him at Easter.
Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, Doctor of the Church, 1873-1897 France
How did a twenty-four year old woman become a Doctor of the Church and Patroness of the Missions without ever going to university or to any mission country? By being as helpless as a child and as totally confident of her Heavenly Father’s love, daring enough to ask Him for everything, knowing she had nothing. She teaches us this great confidence and gives us the hope beyond hope that God wishes to do the same for us. Each of us can become a saint. All we have to do is become like a little child.
Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, 1880-1906 France
Have you ever stood before something so beautiful that it left you speechless? This was the interior life of another young saint. She gave up a promising career as a concert pianist to give herself completely to the adoration of the ineffable Godhead. The life of the Holy Trinity captivated her and amazed her. The only appropriate response was silence before such a mystery. She has not left us without directions to this beauty. They can be found in her writings, but most of all in her attitude towards the Sacred. Silence is prized in Carmel. May she teach us the interior quiet that we also need.
Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Martyr, 1891-1942 Germany
If you have ever been told that Carmel is anti-intellectual, Edith Stein will prove that wrong. Her search for truth took her through the heady atmosphere of philosophic circles and an emerging feminism to Catholicism and eventually to Carmel. There she published, among other works, The Science of the Cross. She knew that there was in Christ truth higher than any philosophy. She was strengthened by it to die for it, and die she did - at Auschwitz. Saint John Paul II has pointed us to her in these modern times by naming her a Co-Patroness of Europe, knowing that her example and doctrine have much in them to transform and Christianize our culture.
Saint Teresa of the Andes, Patroness of Youth, 1900-1920 Chile
It has been said of this unlikely saint that the television series of her life was longer than her life itself. Dying at the age of 19 and almost completely unknown except to family and friends, the Holy Spirit immediately began to draw young people to the grave of this teenager. Nothing can explain this except pure grace. Her posthumous writings reveal the intimate friendship that she had with Our Lord Jesus Christ. Like a quiet nuclear reactor that shows nothing of the power within, she took with her to Carmel a spiritual energy that, when released by death, transformed her country. Now that we have come to know of her, may we, too, be transformed by her total giving of herself and her exuberant joy.
Since the time of the Apostles there have been disciples who leave all to follow Christ in answer to His call. Like Him and at His suggestion, they are poor, chaste and obedient. As this vocation matured, these counsels became the more formal vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience.
There is nothing greater that we can do than adore God. It is what we will do for all eternity in Heaven. Some Religious have been called by the Church to apply themselves exclusively to this great work. They sit at the feet of the Master like Mary of Bethany. More than all other works done by the members of the Church, this is the most fruitful because it is love in the heart of the Church.
Our religious family, called the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, has ancient roots. Informally we can claim kinship with Elijah the Prophet who spent time on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land. Structurally we descend from a group of hermits who gathered on that mountain and who have lived by written standards called the Rule of Saint Albert since the 13th Century. This makes us semi-erimetical (half-hermits!) with an emphasis on solitude and silence.
Carmel takes its name from the Mountain range overlooking the Mediterranean. It rises above modern day Haifa in Israel. Elijah the Prophet whom we know from Sacred Scripture is revered to have lived in this land. Because he defended the faith of Israel in the living God on Mt. Carmel it has been a place where men of all faiths have come to pray.
In the 13th Century men from Europe came to the Holy Land to reclaim the early shrines of Christians, which had been confiscated by the Saracens (an early offshoot of the Muslims). They succeeded in reclaiming the area and some of the men decided to settle on the land. It was among these settlers that a group formed and began religious life. They lived in the caves on Mount Carmel but gathered periodically for community life. The Bishop of Jerusalem approved their rule and thus the Carmelite Order of men was begun.
In the latter part of the 13th Century the tide turned – the Saracens returned to claim “their land” and the ancient feud was rekindled. The Christians were routed and many fled to Europe – the Carmelite hermits among them.
It wasn’t until the 15th century that a Carmelite Friar named John Soreth formed a group of laywomen in the Spirit of the Order. Up until this time the Order had no female counterpart.
In 1562 an indomitable woman named Teresa from the walled city of Avila in Spain reformed the Order of Carmel that had grown somewhat lax due to mitigations necessitated by the black plague that ravaged Europe. She established a group called the Discalced Carmelite – literally without shoes (sandals). She had been a nun for twenty-eight years in a monastery of some 180 people but Teresa aspired for something more dedicated to God and felt a smaller group would be more effective. For a life of prayer would thrive in solitude with fewer numbers. This endeavor was most successful and the Order spread quickly. By the time she died in 1582 she had established seventeen monasteries of nuns in Spain. She initiated a reform for the men in the Order as well.
After the death of Teresa the Order spread through France and early in the 17th century to Belgium. Here is where the American story begins. Although America was founded on the principal of religious liberty, the living situation turned out quite differently. There were deep pockets of prejudice in the new world – they apparently brought their bias with them. Depending on the Governing party – your faith expression might be the privileged one.
For years Catholics were forbidden to practice their faith in public. Instead of dying out the faith grew stronger by being practiced in the homes of devout Catholics. Obviously there were no convents in America so a young lady would have to travel to Europe to embrace this form of life.
England would seem the obvious choice because of language but its doors were closed to Catholics. They had left there for religious freedom. Some had come to America but others fled to the lowlands – Belgium and France. There were English speaking convents and seminaries in these countries. And so the first American women and men seeking religious life traveled abroad.
The Matthews family had three illustrious female members among this migration to Europe. Mother Bernardina Matthews and her two nieces Sister Mary Aloysia and Sister Mary Eleanora Matthews. In God’s Providence they, along with an English woman, Mother Clare Joseph Dickenson were to form the nucleus of the 1st monastery of nuns in America – then the 13 Colonies.
After the Declaration of Independence, when peace was established with England and Maryland returned to the original ideal under Lord Baltimore, around the year 1783, Fr. Ignatius Matthews wrote to his sister in Belgium, “Now is your time to found in this country, for peace is declared and religion is free.” It wasn’t until 1790 at the invitation of John Carroll, the first Bishop of Baltimore that they finally made the arduous passage with Fr. Charles Neale and Fr. Robert Plunkett, serving as their chaplains.
The journal kept by Mother Clare Joseph of the passage is very humorous. She details “ye stingy Captain gave us rotten eggs to eat.” Then she tells of the pig that fell through the ceiling of their cabin. They traveled in lay clothes because of the prevailing prejudices. This too must have ignited much laughter.
On July 2nd their little ship reached New York. Without delay they left immediately for Norfolk, which they reached on July 9th, They proceeded through the Chesapeake Bay and up the Potomac River to Brentfield or Brent’s Landing arriving the evening of July 10th . This was the home of Robert Brent, brother of another Carmelite Nun who had originally been scheduled to bring the first group of nuns to America. An interesting aside – this property is today owned by Larry and Sherrie Sanders.
The first Mass was offered the next day July 11 a Sunday. After a brief rest of about 10 days at Mount Air - the home of the young Ignatius Matthews brother of the two younger nuns - they proceeded to their first dwelling Chandlers Hope overlooking Port Tobacco. It was the family home of Fr. Charles Neale He gave this property to the nuns. They lived there from July to October. This was long enough for them to discover that the busy Port was not conducive for a monastic life style dedicated to prayer. Father Neal bargained with Baker Brook, a prominent Catholic layman, for the exchange of his property.
On October 15th the little band of women forming the first monastery here in America came to this property. They lived the monastic life in an agrarian setting and set themselves to their purpose of being – a life of prayer for the Church and for the whole world.
1831 the nuns moved to Baltimore. This was occasioned by financial loss, threat of lawsuits and the death of Fr. Neale – their advisor in both spiritual and temporal affairs. The farm was purchased by the Sanders family and remained in their possession until 1933 when Mrs. Talbott and her daughter Mrs. Hagerty came looking for the graves of relatives. They discovered the names of many well-known Southern Marylanders and decided to establish a group of lay people to see what they could do to restore this piece of history – The Bethlehem of Religious life in America. Thus the group known as “The Restorers of Mount Carmel” was born.
The original group had chapters in Charles County; Saint Mary’s County, Baltimore, Washington and as far flung as New York and Boston. This group is still alive and well today although only one Chapter is still active. It extends over the whole of Maryland. This group had kept the flame of hope alive “to bring the nuns back”. This was also the dream of every Carmelite Monastery of nuns in America. It was the Restorers who purchased the original 6 ¾ acres, which included a small cemetery used by the Catholics of Port Tobacco & Pomfret. They restored the remaining buildings (which had been used by the tenant farmers for their living quarters). In 1954 this group of faithful friends built the redbrick chapel, which is still in use today. In 1968 The Restorers built the “Pilgrim Hall” for the purpose of accommodating visitors to this site. This building we are in is an “add-on” to the Pilgrim Hall. It was completed in 2006. The Gift Shop and Parlors continue to welcome visitors. But I am getting ahead of the story.
1973 – A group of American women who had been helping out in the Missions of Korea, Japan and Africa formed the core group that would reestablish the Monastery here. Cardinal O’Boyle gave them an empty convent on the property of Little Flower School at Great Mills, Maryland. It was there that they became a cohesive group.
1976 –The Bi-Centennial Year of America - The nuns were permitted to return to the site of their original home and re-establish monastic life on Mt. Carmel in America. Instead of building a Convent where the community all lived together they decided to build individual hermitage in the spirit of the first hermits on Mount Carmel.
It was May of 1976 when the nuns moved from Great Mills to our present site but it was not until October 1st that the individual hermitages were completed and Cardinal O’Boyle, Cardinal Baum with many priests, family and friends gathered for the solemn blessing of the hermitages and the enclosure was officially established.
Their first beginnings were rocky. The physical effort to develop the property and maintain the buildings took its toll. By 1982 the novices who had joined all left and several of the original nuns returned to Africa. Archbishop Hickey – later Cardinal Hickey – asked the Association of St. Teresa to lend a helping hand. He said it would be a shame to let this new shoot die out.
Mother Mary Joseph was Coordinator of the Association at that time. She accepted the challenge in December of 1982 and brought several nuns with her. Two nuns from Carmel California came on a temporary loan; Sr. John from Springfield and myself from St. Louis Carmel came with an idea of permanent transfer. Under Mother Mary Joseph’s skilled leadership we formed a cohesive group and by January of 1985 we began receiving novices. The hoped for monastery was on its way.
We have grown to as many as fifteen at one time. But as with any group the numbers fluctuate. Two have died, several have departed for health reasons - and at present we are ten with many inquirers.
Our objective today is the same as it has been for the past centuries – to maintain a house of prayer where profound faith is lived and to create an atmosphere of peace where people of all faiths can come and find an oasis in contrast to the noise and bustle of the city not so very far away.
And that brings us up to date.
Prayer as friendship with Christ is the typical Teresian way of living our vocation for God alone in community. Prayer is our apostolate. We are blessed with the opportunity of living together in community with others who are seeking the same ideal.
We observe the traditional three vows: Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, professed by all religious in the Church. Saint Teresa wrote a book of guidelines for her nuns and in it she gave her reason for founding the Discalced Carmelites, “I was determined to follow the evangelical counsels as perfectly as I could, and to see that these few nuns who are here should do the same.” (Way of Perfection 1,2)
As Carmelites our day is ordered and combines the necessary elements of prayer, work to support ourselves as well as we can, meals in common, recreation and rest.
St. Teresa of Avila
When Saint Teresa founded the first monastery of Discalced Carmelite Nuns, her objective was "All my longing was and still is that since He has so many enemies and so few friends that these few friends be good ones." This theme of friendship is woven in through Saint Teresa's writings. Her prayer and what she teaches her nuns (and others) is based on friendship with Jesus. If you give this some thought you get a pretty good view of the charism of Carmel. Teresa came to know Christ by pondering different incidents from the Gospels. She loved the story of the woman at the well. Her narrative about this and other Gospel stories are warm and human. From her insights intimacy of friendship with Christ flows naturally.
Saint Teresa tells her nuns that one of the main reasons she brought them together and they have withdrawn from the world is to pray for priests. She explains that preachers and theologians are often so busy that they do not have time to pray. This is truly a serious neglect but we can help them by our prayers. As St. Paul tells us we are all connected in the Body of Christ and as such the interior organs—the heart and lung—fortify the active parts of the body: the mind, speech, hands and feet, etc. The body would not be alive without the enclosed organs and therefore these hidden parts need to be healthy too. What keeps this spiritual structure healthy: it is contact with God and that is maintained in prayer.
A Day in the Life
It is 5:30 in the morning. A strange sound comes over our intercom system, the ancient monastic alarm clock, two pieces of wood being struck together. It is hard to sleep through the “clapper” and there is no snooze button. Within minutes individual nuns leave their hermitages and make their silent way to our Prayer House (the oratory. Lauds (Morning Prayer) is chanted together. Our work of prayer has begun.
Private prayer (sometimes called mental prayer) follows either in the Prayer House, the hermitage, or in some other quiet place. This one-on-one with the Lord Jesus prepares us for Mass in the chapel at 7:15 a.m. (8:00 a.m. on weekends). A silent time of adoration and thanksgiving having followed Mass, Tierce (Mid-morning Prayer) is chanted. The Sisters take a light breakfast before taking about an hour to do some spiritual reading.
Then each Sister takes up her work for the day. This can be the usual domestic chores of any household like cooking, cleaning and gardening, but there is also computer and library work, the creation of quilts and other items to sell, and the care of Jennie, our black English Labrador. The Sisters in formation have classes with the Novice Mistress in the novitate building.
A tower bell rings at 11:45 a.m. to call the community to the Prayer House again to continue the sanctification of the day with the chanting of Sext (Midday Prayer). As both tower bells mark the Angelus or Regina Caeli at noon, the cook of the day is setting out our main meal in the kitchen. We eat together in the refectory (dining area) while one Sister reads aloud from a spiritual book.
Fortified by a good meal, it is back to work after dishes, and in the time-honored Teresian spirit, a siesta! At about 3:00 p.m. each Sister takes a few minutes to pray None (Mid-afternoon Prayer).
As the sun sets (more or less) the bell rings out again for Vespers (Evening Prayer). In addition to this Hour of the Divine Office, we anticipate tomorrow with Matins (the Office of Readings). A hour of private prayer and a half-hour of Scripture study follows. Yet another bell and another gathering together, this time for the Litany of Our Lady and prayers to our Saints at 6:20 p.m. Supper follows with reading as at noon.
After a short period of free time, at 7:30 p.m. our evening recreation begins and so does the hilarity. Saint Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta), among others, testified that she had never laughed so much as at Carmelite recreation. What do we do at recreation? After a day of silence, we talk! Some bring sewing and craft work along, or we might fold novenas and stuff envelopes for our next mailing. On Sundays we usually watch some entertaining or educational video.
Recreation ends with a prayer and another walk to the Prayer House. It is now 9:00 p.m. We end the day chanting Compline (Night Prayer). The very last official act of the day is the seasonal antiphon of Our Lady. Carmel is all Mary’s and we place ourselves in her keeping for the night. The Grand Silence settles over the monastery. The day is ended and given back to God with hopes for eternal fruit.
A Visual Day in the Life
If you would like a deeper look into our daily life, you may order “Heaven on Earth” which is a 15 minute DVD video of a day in the life of a nun at the Carmel of Port Tobacco. It also includes testimonies and a rare view inside our papal enclosure. The DVD is available through our Gift Shop.