When it was built in 1902, the monastery of St Joseph and St Anne stood in farmland in the Oak Lane district of Philadelphia. But sometime later the sprawl of the city meant that 66th Street bisected their property, leaving it on the edge of a busy road. There it stands today, surrounded by granite walls, an oasis of contemplation separated from the world not just by physical boundaries, but also by the desire of those within to seek above everything else the face of the crucified Christ.
Founded within five years of the death of St Thérèse of Lisieux, it was from this monastery of Discalced Carmelites that devotion to her spread right across the United States even before she was beatified. One of the foundresses, Sister Stanislaus of the Blessed Sacrament, had corresponded for several years with Mother Agnes of Jesus, Thérèse’s older sister, in the Lisieux Carmel, and from her received one of the earliest French editions of The Story of a Soul. She translated it and introduced the “Little Way” not just to her Sisters but to those who visited too (she was the portress).
Like her inspiration, Sister Stanislaus was to die at an early age. The Philadelphia Carmel’s contact with Lisieux meant that it could import thousands of pictures and booklets promoting devotion to the young French Carmelite. A letter dated 1910 from the Carmel speaks of “devotion to Sr Thérèse among rich and poor, priests and bishops”, which is cited in the cause for beatification as evidence of her cult.
Nevertheless, the Philadelphia Carmel had reached a low ebb with just three Sisters left in it, until two expanding Carmelite monasteries in other parts of the country sent Sisters to revive the foundation. At the request of these Sisters, the chaplain is from the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter, and Mass is celebrated exclusively in the Extraordinary Form.
The reinvigorated Philadelphia Carmel has celebrated the solemn professions of three new Sisters in the past year alone. (Go figure, as they say round here.) In contrast to the apostolic order I stayed with who, for all their attempts to be relevant, haven’t had a vocation in 25 years, this Carmel attracts large numbers of young women who seek a life of self-sacrifice and who recognise in all that “old stuff” a wisdom greater than that of contemporary fashion.
The monastery chapel is beautiful, in an Italianate style with fine stained-glass windows of Carmelite saints designed by a disciple of the New York artist Tiffany. In a side chapel stands a new shrine containing relics of St Thérèse and her parents. It is the only reliquary which is known to contain the relics of a family. Made of gold, its design intertwines the Little Flower’s roses and the parents’ wedding rings. The high altar is decorated with mosaics of Elijah and Elisha on one side and Our Lady of Mount Carmel on the other. To the side of the altar is the grill into the enclosure which opens for the Sisters to receive Holy Communion.
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