"We live a hidden life," said Mother Agnes, the superior of the five trail-blazing Carmelite nuns who have been making themselves at home in the Diocese of Oakland.
It has been a place of prayer since late July, when the nuns arrived from Valparaiso, Nebraska, to make a new community in the Diocese of Oakland.
"We have a very high opinion of our bishop, even though he was just made archbishop of San Francisco," said Mother Agnes, who is the community's temporary superior.
"The community we're from in Nebraska had so many vocations we had to make a foundation," Mother Agnes said. "We already made a foundation in Pennsylvania. At that time we were 33 sisters and we sent 11 to Pennsylvania. In those three years we got up again to 37. We're not supposed to be more than 21. Why not go west, because we'd already gone east, and we're in the middle?"
In coming west, the Carmelites were coming home, said Rev. Wayne Campbell, pastor of St. Monica Church in Moraga, who is now the sisters' pastor as well.
Carmelite sisters who left Mexico during the Cristeros War settled into a convent on the Saint Mary's College campus in Moraga, Father Campbell said. They lived there for two years, before resettling in Southern California in 1930. As a student at Saint Mary's, Father Campbell lived in a dormitory that had once been the Carmelites' home.
The Carmelites are living a quiet, rural life, faithful to their 450 years of tradition. They wear traditional clothing — floor-length habits of dark brown and white, with black veils cascading down their backs. They live a life of solitude, prayer and "a lot of silence."
"We see ourselves as the heart in the church because we remain hidden," said Mother Agnes. "We pray for the church."
They have a particular intention. "Our Holy Mother founded Carmel really to pray for the church, to pray for priests in particular. That's really our life, to give our lives for priests, and for the faithful."
Their days begin at 4:30 a.m., and includes prayer, Mass, silent visits to the Blessed Sacrament ("We go see our Divine Spouse," said Mother Agnes), work completed in silence, simple meals eaten in silence, while one sister reads, dishes washed by hand as they pray for the souls in purgatory, and two hours a day during which they do handwork and speak to one another. They begin the next day's prayers before going to bed at 10:30 p.m.
When an additional five novices arrive later this month, Mother Agnes, a native San Franciscan, will return to Nebraska, where she is the novicemistress. "There, under my care, I had 20 young women, 18 to 29. They're looking for a life that has a lot of the traditional signs of the old orders. It's a challenge for them. It's not an easy life. They see our life has a lot of traditions and customs, and shows a lot of reverence toward God.
"They're pretty stable vocations. They stay. They persevere," she said. Formation in the order takes about five years.
Mother Agnes entered the order 46 years ago, when she was 25. "It's a wonderful life, I always tell them when they come and inquire. We don't make ourselves known. We don't advertise. We don't have a website."
To those in the world beyond the cloister "We're a reminder that God actually exists, that he cares for us. When people look at us, they think, 'Why would they give up their lives?'
"We're saying we love God so much that we give our whole life for him."
The call to the contemplative life may be hard to understand by those outside the walls. "The sisters who come are very gifted," said Mother Agnes. "They could have been teachers or nurses. They're very talented young women."
The sisters have heard this thought, Mother Agnes said, "What a waste, these people will be tucked away behind bars for the rest of their lives."
But that's not how the nuns see it. "Why not give God the best?" Mother Agnes said. "He's worth it."
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