Eye of the storm

From their hilltop monastery, the Carmelite sisters of Reno have weathered a tide of social change, diminished numbers and the growing pains of the Catholic Church

“God is not a God of history for us,”

Sister Maria joined the religious life in New Jersey nearly half a century ago. She’s a member of the Carmelite sisters whose monastery is off West Plumb Lane.

Sister Maria joined the religious life in New Jersey nearly half a century ago. She’s a member of the Carmelite sisters whose monastery is off West Plumb Lane.

By David Robert

says Sister Maria. “Our life is strongly based on prayer and solitude. The foundation of the day is prayer, but there is time for groups, individuals who come to the monastery.”

Prayer may be the foundation of life for Sister Maria, 63, but hard work is the bricks and mortar that compose it. Sister Maria’s day begins at 3 a.m., in the chilly predawn. She prays for two hours. After lifting weights to maintain her strength, she works until noon in the print shop of Carmel of Reno Cards, a gift-card business that helps to support the sisterhood. She also puts together the community’s newsletter and prepares portions of the liturgies. After lunch, she might rest for a while or finish up her work. Then vespers, dinner and another prayer service at night. Her day ends about 9 p.m.

Sister Maria is a member of the community of Catholic nuns at the Carmel of Reno monastery off West Plumb Lane. She’s part of Carmel’s leadership and a long-time nun, having entered the religious life at age 17.

Two of the nuns at the monastery, Sisters Rose and Jean, ages 83 and 85, helped found the 19-acre monastery in 1954. When it was established, the monastery sat on the fringes of Reno. Today, it’s near the center of town, an eye of calm in the hurricane of modern-day life.

In some ways, though, life at the monastery has not changed much in nearly 50 years. The sisters still live a life grounded in prayer, commitment and sisterhood. In other ways, it has changed dramatically. The nuns now take a greater interest in the outside world. Structures within the church and the order have become much less hierarchical. Even the nuns’ mode of dress has modernized.

At one time, the number of sisters dwindled to the point where the survival of the monastery was in doubt. Today, there are 16 nuns at Carmel, more than ever before. Still, life there is an enigma to most locals—some of whom drive past the monastery every day.

Maria says a life dedicated to prayer and silence has come easy to her—exterior noise has been much more troublesome to her than the long periods of silence required by her order. But you would never know it from meeting her—her oval face, framed with short, thick silver hair, seems permanently set to a welcoming grin.

“I think the contemplative life is a poetic vision, and if you have too many structures, you stifle that vision,” she says.

for evening vespers, half take seats in the rows facing north, and half take seats on the opposite side. All wear short hair and slacks, their appearances suggesting that their lives are too full to be concerned with exteriors beyond the most basic grooming. Outside, the afternoon light is fading. A sister lights two tall white candles.

The chapel is startlingly modern for those expecting somber, windowless, fortress-like chambers. The east wall, which stands maybe 30 feet tall, is made of glass. Treetops and rooftops sprawl out below; beyond them sits a cluster of casinos that truly seems to belong to another world. Gray clouds streak the sky. From the quiet chapel, the scene outside looks like something from a western—vast, fast-growing, untamed.

Vespers begins with silence; some sisters close their eyes in prayer, others fix their gazes to some interior spot. They sing softly, “Joseph is a fruitful vine, from him comes the savior of our people.” They turn Psalm to song, the sisters on one side intoning gently, “My love for him will endure forever, I will be faithful to the covenant I made/ with him, his name and his house shall endure as/ the heavens.”

The women on the other side respond with the next verses: “Never will I violate the covenant I made/ with him nor break the promise I/ have sworn.” There are fewer sisters on this side, so the singing is softer, and you can hear the age in the women’s voices. They sing beautifully because they have been singing these Psalms most of their lives, but their voices are no longer as steady and strong as they might once have been.

Sister Pat and the sisters help pay the bills with their greeting card business.

By David Robert

Silent prayer fills the spaces between songs. Supplications are spoken aloud at only one point, when a sister says simply that they pray “For the American soldiers in Iraq … for all those who call us and ask for blessing.”

After a short time—fewer than 20 minutes—the sisters file out again, leaving the chapel empty in the deepening evening.

Life as a nun was very different, much less open to poetic vision when Sister Maria first joined the New Jersey religious community in the 1950s.

“There was a time of great austerity,” she says. “There wasn’t enough to eat, not enough sleep. … It was very regimented.”

Sister Maria says that while she never had difficulty with the hours of silence, the severe regimentation and extreme cloistering got to her at times. Sisters lived by the bell that called them to prayer. Barely any contact was permitted with the outside world—certainly no newspapers. Family was rarely allowed to visit, and when they did come, the sisters had to speak to them through a screen. The sisters missed out on the excitement of watching cultural icons rise and social unrest unfold. To this day, Sister Maria has never heard the Beatles.

“Carmel had become a very mysterious place,” Sister Maria says.

But at 17, when Sister Maria entered the order, she had already done a lot of living. Her father was a New York City attorney who took her to art museums and to plays with his lawyer buddies. She first saw Faust at age 4. When she got older, she had boyfriends and aspirations to become a doctor. But at 17, she suddenly felt the call to religious life.

Sister Maria came into the monastic life, she says, simply not knowing what to expect, and in many ways that made things easier.

“I was there for quite some time when I found out there were vows. [I thought], ‘Oh well,'” she recalls half-jokingly—or perhaps in utter seriousness. “The setup of life was fairly overwhelming, so I couldn’t look back.”

It wasn’t until she was in her mid-20s that “reality hit"—the reality of her own life and, before long, the reality of the changing world outside. Vatican II—an historic Catholic reform council in Rome—began to stir her community’s sheltered life. For Sister Maria, one of the most significant changes was the loosening of the hierarchical structure.

“It was as if suddenly graduate students could take over and set the standards for the Ph.D.s,” she says. “I never had doubt that I knew what would be best for us,” she adds, smiling.

In 1970, Sister Maria, Sister Pat Kelly and another member of the Carmel of Reno community, Sister Marie-Celeste, left their New Jersey community for Reno. Change was in the air for everyone at the time—it was a time of renewal, Sister Pat explains, and the nuns felt Carmel of Reno would provide the kind of newness they craved, as well as more freedoms, although Sister Pat is careful about how she uses the word. Living in the Reno community meant working for their own income, and they “wanted to be in solidarity” with the working poor of the world. Carmel of Reno also afforded more opportunities to pursue education.

But most important, says Sister Pat, Carmel of Reno “was a place where you could have an authentic prayer life.”

Sister Claire moved to Reno about a year and a half ago.

By David Robert

contemplative orders, the Carmelite nuns focus their lives on prayer. The order traces its origins back to the 12th century, to a group of hermits living on Mount Carmel in modern-day Israel. In 16th-century Spain, St. Teresa of Avila began the reform movement that continues to be carried out by such communities as Carmel of Reno.

Although their dedication to a life of prayer and contemplation remains, much has changed for the Carmelite sisters of Reno. Many of these changes resulted when Vatican II rocked Catholic life in America to its core.

“Vatican II wrought changes that have proved to be healthy for the church,” writes John J. Fialka in his new book, Sisters, “but two in particular posed unappreciated hazards for groups of religious women.”

Fialka writes that increased responsibilities among the laity kept many women satisfied with a life of serving God outside of strict vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Another change, which “required religious groups to review their basic rules to make them harmonious with the needs of the poor,” had manifold consequences. One of these, Fialka writes, was that many sisters did less teaching in parochial schools and more social work in the larger community. As fewer Catholic schoolchildren were exposed to nuns as teachers, fewer girls had an opportunity to dream of following in their instructors’ footsteps.

Vatican II isn’t singularly responsible for changes to the sisterhood. If Vatican II had cracked open the door to the outside world in another era—the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1880s—things might have been different: “[The sisters in America] had survived wars, plagues, frontier life, numbing poverty and mindless bigotry, but something about the tumultuous 1960s was beginning to destroy it,” Fialka writes.

Between 1962 and 1992, “orders of sisters shrank by 42 percent. The orders had shut down 23 percent of their hospitals, 15 percent of their universities and colleges and 42 percent of their elementary schools,” Fialka notes. There were 179,974 sisters in America in 1968; today there are fewer than 81,000, and their median age is 69. As those women age, few will be there to care for them in their infirmity. No matter how you look at it, this poses something of a crisis.

sisters at Carmel shrank to fewer than 10, closure was a not-so-distant threat. But today that worry is a thing of the past.

So is their former obligatory reliance on authority and their enforced distancing from society.

Today, the sisters’ decision-making process is democratic. The community’s prioress, Sister Ann Weber, along with a leadership team of three other sisters, brings issues before the community. Those issues are discussed in a group setting, and everyone’s vote counts equally.

The sisters also frequently make trips into town and welcome members of the outside community inside their walls. The sisters have even gone into business: The greeting cards must help augment donations, since Carmel of Reno receives no money from the diocese.

That interaction with the outside world has given the Carmelite community an even more extensive list of things to remember in prayer. Sister Pat, 65, who joined a New Jersey Carmelite community in the 1950s at age 19, says that separating oneself for prayer makes sense up to a point, especially if you are praying for “abstract entities” or those far removed from you.

“When you get down to flesh and blood people,” she says, “it makes sense to interact.”

“For us as Catholics, our understanding of prayer is a part of who we are,” says Brother Matthew Cunningham, chancellor of the diocese of Reno. The Carmelite sisters of Reno, he says, pray on behalf of those “who don’t have the call to spend a life in prayer.

Inside the chapel overlooking Reno, the sisters gather for prayer and study.

By David Robert

“They’re the engine that keeps us going. Since Vatican II, they have become available to the community as spiritual confidantes. People can go to talk about their spiritual life, their struggles with faith.”

Helen Barnet, a longtime friend of the Carmelite sisters, expresses similar sentiments.

“They reach out to everyone, regardless of religious station,” she says. A retired nurse who converted to Catholicism in her 20s, Barnet got to know the community in the mid-'80s. She has attended prayer groups at Carmel from time to time, and she regularly attends Mass there in the mornings. She also seeks out the sisters, sometimes called “women religious” for spiritual guidance, particularly Sister Pat.

“She is a personification of peace, of acceptance and understanding. She’s just a very holy lady. Not to say they’re not all. … My experience [there] has been love, right down the line.”

"[Women religious] have been the spearhead of much of the change in the Church in the last 50 years,” says Thomas Sheehan, Stanford religious studies professor. “It’s not unusual to see nuns at the head of a picket line protesting war [or] for labor unions.”

Nuns, he says, have traditionally been closer to the lay community than priests, often more in tune with its needs. Many women religious also picked up on the burgeoning feminist spirit of the 1960s and ‘70s—in fact, these singularly female groups were in many ways the ideal breeding grounds for feminist thought and action.

“Those orders have brilliantly refashioned themselves,” he says.

Sandra Schneiders, a nun who joined the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, of Monroe, Mich., in the 1950s, is now a professor at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., and author of a trilogy on women religious. Schneiders says that the sharp decline in the sisterhood’s numbers in fact reflects some positive changes that have taken place among the orders.

“There are going to be fewer religious, that’s for sure, but it’s probably going to be a different quality. … People are not going to enter unless they’ve thought about it pretty thoroughly. They’re talking about burning a lot of bridges. This is not something people are doing lightly today. … It doesn’t look as drastic because they’re wearing their own clothes, [but] in a lot of ways it’s a much more radical commitment.”

She notes that many women entering religious orders today have been to college, have lived in the world, and have found something lacking.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘I love God, I want to give myself to God’s people.’ Well, a lot of people would say, ‘Who doesn’t?’ [Nuns today] are more focused about their motivations.”

seems to be describing Sister Claire, Carmel of Reno’s youngest and newest member. When she entered the Seattle, Wash., Carmel community in the early 1980s, just shy of her 28th birthday, Sister Claire was a professional cellist with a bachelor’s degree.

“I wasn’t satisfied with what I was finding,” she says. “I continued to get better jobs in better orchestras. … I was more and more dissatisfied with myself.”

In this 1954 photo, the Carmelite sisters dedicate their new monastery on the outskirts of Reno. 2

One must use imagination to conceive of a Claire fraught with restless discontent. Her face is filled with quiet loveliness. She walks with none of Sister Maria’s purposefulness; if her graceful, almost reed-like frame looks resilient, it is only because she seems to have cultivated qualities of invisibility and inner silence that make her unaffected by outer tumult.

“The lifestyle didn’t seem that radical,” she says, recalling her early years as a nun. “But what did seem radical was the total dedication to a life of prayer and God. When you have that intent, you’re kind of willing to do anything that goes along with that [desire]. … I found it very difficult, and at the same time I loved it. Can those two things go together? They did.”

But something shifted for Sister Claire over the years.

“When I came in, I was so conservative. It wasn’t so hard when I entered. Over the years … your values change. New wine needs to be put in new wineskins, otherwise, both are lost.”

Sister Claire explains that she began to develop a “feminine consciousness,” then rethinks the statement.

“Feminist, you could even say that. You become aware that you’re living a lifestyle that was imposed … largely because of the fear that men had of women.

“I couldn’t do it anymore,” she continues. “There’s a lot of symbolism of wearing veils that is very negative to women. Nineteen years in a cloistered community, you’re put on a pedestal by [laypeople] as holy, and without realizing it I had taken on that consciousness, and that’s nonsense. I’m the same as any other human being … which, like many other people, is rather non-impressive. It’s good enough for God.”

A year and a half ago, Sister Claire decided to leave her Seattle community and come to Reno. Since coming to this community—a group much more open and collaborative than her Seattle community—she has experienced rapid inner growth.

“You’re challenged by love” in the Reno community, she says. “That’s the real obedience, rather than rules.”

Sister Claire says that everything about her decision to move—even down to the day she chose to leave—seemed eerily fitting.

“When I entered the Seattle monastery originally, it was Dec. 7. So, on Sept. 11 [2001] … somebody said to me, 30 seconds before I drove away, ‘There was a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Jets have been flown into them.’ Well, I was shocked. I got into the car and turned on the radio. … Peter Jennings said, ‘People are calling this a second [Pearl Harbor Day]. Well, I can’t tell you what that did to me. It just made my decision to leave for a new monastery so significant.”

Sister Claire arrived in Reno three days later, on Sept. 14—designated the National Day of Prayer.

“Sometimes God comes into your life with a subtle whisper,” she says. “And sometimes with an earthquake. This was the earthquake.”

It’s a trembling that was felt, and continues to be felt, all over America in various ways. The seismic shifts rocked some sooner than others and some harder than others; some, like Carmel of Reno, stood through the unsteady times and eventually drew nuns from other groups that were less open to change.

Carmel of Reno, like other communities of sisters, is preparing for more uncertain times ahead. It can’t ignore the fact that the sisters face the physical deterioration that comes with age. A new infirmary wing has recently been added to the monastery.

“Regardless of what happens, there’s a readiness," Sister Claire says. "[The sisters] are not afraid to look at it, talk about it, plan for it."