Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, celebrated Mass at the Carmel chapel on Oct. 1. Seminarian Mario Rizzo, left, served at the Mass. The Carmelites are the only contemplative order in the Diocese of Oakland.
The nuns visit the chapel at the carmel; the room was more of a hunting lodge living room.
All: Michele Jurich/The Catholic Voice
The power of the ministry of the Carmelite Sisters can be told in little slips of paper. A woman borrowed a page from a reporter's notebook to request prayers for a child in her parish, afflicted with a brain tumor.
He thanked them, "in a special way for the intercession you give myself and my brother priests."
A woman recovering from a brain hemorrhage also sought their prayers.
The bishop of Oakland told them of the prayer slips that he had put in the bowl at the Carmelite monastery in San Francisco over the course of his life.
The Carmelites are the only contemplative order in the Diocese of Oakland. Theirs is a ministry of prayer, silence and seclusion — and great joy.
With the nuns praying and singing behind a grille lined with a dark curtain, and about 50 guests in an enclosed porch that serves as chapel seating, the Most Rev. Michael C. Barber, SJ, celebrated Mass at the Carmel of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Canyon, on Oct. 1, the Feast of St. Therese of Lisieux.
"Dear Carmelite Sisters, your vocation is very much like that of St. John: You are the ones who recline next to Christ at his breast at the table at the Last Supper, you are the ones who have that intimate place with him, by giving your life to him and coming into the walls of this monastery. You are the ones that people, priests and bishops come to" to ask for favors of Our Lord, he said.
"You, like St. Therese, are love in the heart of the church, you are love in the heart of the Diocese of Oakland," the bishop told the Carmelite Sisters.
The sisters arrived from Nebraska to start a new foundation in California in July 2012. Their little sign off Canyon Road with the simple word Carmel, the bishop said, says to all: "There are women, 500 years after St. Teresa of Avila, who are still giving their all to God."
Their prayer is appreciated, he said.
"I want to thank you publicly, on behalf of the whole Diocese of Oakland, on behalf of our priests, all of our seminarians, all of our dedicated lay people, for your life of dedication to almighty God, through love, reverence and prayer. "
"Your prayers are like shields surrounding us," he said.
Bishop Barber told them that when he was a little boy, after attending Mass at the Jesuit church, his grandmother and aunts would take him to pray at the Cristo Rey Monastery in San Francisco.
He noticed the bowl next to the statue of St. Teresa. You write your prayer requests on slips of paper and put them in the bowl, he was told.
"At night, when the monastery doors are closed, the nuns come and take out the littler slips of paper and pray for them," he was told.
"The first time I wrote an intention was when I was 19 and applying to the Jesuits — that I would get into the novitiate," he said. "And my wish was granted."
The second: "Twelve years later, when it was time for me to be considered for ordination, and my application was in — and there were some bumps along the road in the seminary. I put in my slip of paper. The provincial wrote to me and said, 'We approve you for ordination.'"
"The third was 10 years ago, 2003, when I was chaplain for the Navy and Marine Corps, I was to going over to Iraq. I wrote a slip of paper that my Marines and I would be safe.
"I was chaplain to 3,000 Marines. Not one of my Marines was killed, thanks be to God and the intercession of St. Therese."
For the past year, the sisters have quietly made their home on a remote, rented property. Their chapel is in a room that one can easily envision was once a welcoming living room of a hunting lodge, with large fireplace and wood-paneled walls.
There are six candles on the altar that are lighted at each Mass. The seventh is lit only when the bishop is celebrating Mass. It burned brightly Oct. 1.
"They are here to stay and are looking for a permanent place," Bishop Barber said in an interview several days after the event. They are seeking "land on which to build a new monastery or an existing building that could be converted."
The hilly property is a far cry from the 20 flat acres the sisters left in Valparaiso, Nebraska, when they came westward to found this carmel in California.
"They come with what they have in their little satchels," and depend on generosity of benefactors, said Msgr. Timothy Thorburn, chaplain to the Carmelites in Nebraska since their arrival in 1998, as well as vicar general for the Diocese of Lincoln. He was in Canyon for the Oct. 1 Mass, at which he, Father Wayne Campbell, pastor of nearby St. Monica Church in Moraga, and Father Robert Herbst, OFM Conv., judicial vicar and vicar for clergy, concelebrated.
Once the number of sisters reaches 21, the Carmelites make plans for a new foundation. The Nebraska carmel has set up two: one in Elysburg, Pennsylvania, and the Canyon carmel.
"The sisters like the agrarian existence," Msgr. Thorburn said. "They like to raise their own vegetables."
In Nebraska, he said, the sisters have a couple of cows, a pair of sheep, 40 chickens and a dog. There's also a little vineyard on the property.
The cows provide milk, and the sisters make cheese. The chickens provide eggs.
"The simple life is attractive to them," he said.
The sisters in Canyon, too, are vegetarians and are accustomed to a simple life. They look forward to growing their own vegetables, and would like to have some farm animals.
The sisters are praying for a permanent home for their new carmel, and benefactors who would be willing to provide them with a building that would include a chapel, kitchen, chapter room and sewing room, in addition to individual cells for the sisters.
For now, they live in a cabin, and cross an enclosed area to a larger house for chapel, kitchen and other community needs. They are looking for room to grow.
The carmel at Canyon already has welcomed its first postulant. The young woman, in her 20s, is from the Bay Area and had been attending Mass at the carmel.
A second postulant, also from Northern California, is expected in the new year.
The process begins with correspondence, said Mother Sylvia Gemma, who is the supenor of the Canyon carmel.
"We correspond through mail, getting to know them through letters," said Mother Sylvia Gemma. "If it seems like they're interested and have a vocation in carmel, they come for a visit."
The visit may last two or three days, but is conducted with Mother Sylvia Gemma on one side of the grille, and her visitor on the other.
In addition to the two postulants, others have expressed interest. Finding room for them will be a challenge.
A little more than a year ago, before the Canyon carmel was enclosed, the sisters attended a Mass at St. Monica Church, where more than 800 people prayed with them, and wished them well.
"We couldn't imagine such a warm welcome," said Mother Sylvia Gemma. "We didn't know what to expect. It's an almost overwhelmingly warm welcome, beyond all expectations."
She said she returned to the carmel that day with an "overwhelming sense of the being the mothers."
"I felt like such a mother," she said. "All these people are all our children."
Like all mothers, they are praying for their children.
A daughter finds her vocation; it changes her father's life
After his divorce, Mike Skapura raised his daughter by himself in Columbus, Ohio, where he worked as a contractor for the Postal Service, driving truckloads of mail between postal facilities.
"When she was 19, almost 20, she hit me with, 'Dad, I want to become a nun,'" Skapura said.
"I was a respectful hard sell," he said "I wanted to be sure it was an informed decision.
"I wanted my daughter to make a good decision, think things through," Skapura said. "She found within the Catholic Church what really interested her."
She wasn't sure about which order, so she started learning about various orders; some were Carmelites. She began to study the Carmelite saints intently.
Then the young woman from Columbus, Ohio, began a written correspondence with Mother Teresa, the prioress of the Carmel of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Valparaiso, Nebraska.
They had a good discussion about religious life, Skapura said.
Dad had some words of advice for his daughter, telling her she would have to develop a good rapport with the superior.
"This isn't one-sided," he told his daughter. "They'll have questions for you."
After a time, he said, she came to him and said, "It looks like the place I'd like to go visit."
Then she asked what he called the ultimate question: "Dad, is it OK if I go?"
"I said yes," he said.
He knew that she would have to learn, "What does prayer life mean?"
She had received guidance in her vocation from her pastor, Father Kevin Lutz, at Holy Family Church in Columbus, Monsignor John Cody, and members of the Third Order of Carmelites.
She entered the Carmel of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Valparaiso, Nebraska, "May 29, 2003, at 8:31 Central Standard Time," her father said. She became Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity.
He recalls the significant dates: She received the holy habit on Jan. 20, 2004; first vows on Aug. 6, 2005; and made her final profession on Aug. 6, 2008.
"I'm happy about it," he said. "My daughter's happy. She's content. It's the best a parent could hope for."
He had to get used to speaking to her through the cloister grille. "That was hard," he said.
But, he noted, "I still have it better than most parents" of adult children. He receives one letter a month, three phones calls, and twice a year, he visits his daughter at her carmel.
"I'm a happy camper," he said.
In 2009, Sister Elizabeth was among the sisters who left Nebraska to start a new foundation in Pennsylvania.
Mike Skapura has become a pioneer, too.
"My life has changed drastically since my daughter entered religious life," he said. Mother Teresa asked him if he would become the guardian and caretaker for the nuns she was sending from Nebraska to Canyon, California, last year.
He moved their belongings 1,700 miles in three days, and has adapted an old family home off the beaten path into a temporary carmel. Those grilles he had to get used to? He's built some of those, too.
He lives in an apartment over the garage with his 17-month-old golden retriever, Jackson.
"I have a calling, I guess you could say."
St. Monica Parish is good neighbor
If a sure sign of a strong parish is that the newcomer — no matter how invisible — is welcomed, then St. Monica Parish in Moraga is living its mission.
Fifteen months ago, when the parish learned that the Carmelite sisters would be moving into a house in nearby Canyon, it offered hospitality.
Father Wayne Campbell, pastor of St. Monica, found "Every time there has been a need — freezer, stools, benches, tables," parishioners have handed him checks.
One Sunday, he recalled, he had three pages of needs. All were filled by the third Mass. Then people added to the list.
"That's God," said the pastor.
Jack Dice, who participates in the parish's Muffin People ministry, which distributes food, has made the sisters one of his stops. "They're so holy and have such little need," he said.
The sisters' gratitude touched Rosalie Dice. "They put a whole new slant on unconditional love," she said. "They are so joyful about the smallest things. They make me want to be more like that."
Diane Neveu was touched by the simplicity of the lives of the nuns. "When they first came, a woodburning stove kept them warm," she said. "It's been very inspirational."
Her husband, she said, went to Carmelite schools, with brothers and priests at his high school. He, too, has been involved in helping the sisters. "I have never been involved with a group you have a feeling you can't do enough," Ron Neveu.
"You never tire of doing what you do out of love," said Father Campbell.
St. Monica Parish has set up a guild to assist the sisters, and the parish office — 925-376-6900 — provides information on the Mass schedule at the carmel.
"They're going to be friends of the community forever," said Father Campbell.
— Michele Jurich
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