Teresian Carmelite nuns Sister Jennifer and Sister Jocelyn exchange appreciation for the beauty that surrounds them as they walk through the garden of their new home in Toronto.
Their brown robes complete with scapular blow gently in the wind, but it is their kind eyes that capture attention.
Ordinarily, the two nuns spend the better part of their day in silence and only leave their home for necessities. Visitors to their new abode are infrequent, and their connection to the outside world comes mostly through watching ABC news in the evening.
While many of us struggled with physical isolation brought on by lockdown measures introduced during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, for these two women it was a key component of a life they each sought at seven years of age.
It was then that Sr Jennifer first learnt about the Teresian Carmelites. Her maternal grandmother, who was not Catholic, asked her to borrow a book about St Therese of Lisieux from the Sisters of St Joseph at St Joseph’s School Toronto.
“I knew then I wanted to be a Teresian Carmelite, and when I finished school at age 18 I joined the Order,” says Sr Jennifer.
The Carmelites originate from a group of Christians who, seeking a deeper way of life, settled on Mount Carmel in Israel 800 years ago. In the 1560s, in Spain, St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross began founding new communities of Carmelite women and men who sought to return to the simplicity and passion of their forebears on Mount Carmel.
Sr Jocelyn’s journey to becoming part of the cloistered, contemplative order was not quite so straightforward.
“When I was seven, I first learnt about monks, and thought that’s what I wanted to be in life,” she says.
Although Sr Jocelyn attended an Anglican school in Sydney, her family was not religious. Despite this, over the years her fascination with religious life intensified and at age 23, after completing a degree in science at the University of Sydney and while a medical student at the University of NSW, she became a Catholic.
Over the next two decades, Sr Jocelyn travelled abroad on many occasions for work and to observe and take part in Carmelite culture. Then, at age 47, after years of waiting for “the call” to join the order, she received a letter from Sr Jennifer informing her of the death of a mutual friend.
While the two had never met, it was this letter that reaffirmed Sr Jocelyn’s reflection, and she began the process of becoming a Carmelite. It took six-and-a-half years and throughout this time Sr Jocelyn continued to ponder whether it was the right decision, “but they kept allowing me to progress, so I thought if the Carmelites think I am suitable, I must be”.
It was a significant change for Sr Jocelyn, who had spent more than 20 years working as a palliative care doctor.
That was 20 years ago. Now they live together in a community of six Carmelites, with another Sister taking up residence in a nursing home located nearby. Sr Jocelyn describes their move to the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle during the pandemic as being “absolutely providential”.
Before moving, the group lived on the outskirts of south-west Sydney in a monastery that included more than 100 rooms and a chapel and was set on a 4.5-hectare block.
Once brimming with a large community of nuns, as their numbers began to dwindle and the needs of the remaining cohort grew with their age, it became impractical for the Sisters to remain in the former monastery.
“It was tiring,” says Sr Jennifer, describing their life in Varroville. “The upkeep of the house and its sheer size exhausted us and took away from our contemplative life.
“Then, earlier this year, we went to a Catholic Religious Australia (CRA) event and the organisers asked what our top priority was,” she says. “Finding a new home was at the top of our list.”
Member congregations of CRA offered four options, one of which is their new home in Toronto that is owned by the Sisters of Mercy, who had otherwise been preparing it for sale.
As with any move, the Carmelites’ relocation has been a catalyst for change, including to their daily routines. However, their charism remains the same, and they continue to devote themselves to the spread of Christ’s kingdom.
“Although we no longer have a chapel where people can come and pray with us, we continue to pray for others. Our prayers are informed by what we see on the news, the emails and letters we receive, and hopefully, phone calls too when our lines are back up and working,” says Sr Jennifer.
Overall, they describe the move to Toronto as life-giving.
“It has allowed us to live more contemplatively,” says Sr Jennifer, who, as with all Teresian Carmelites, holds Mary the Mother of God as a special companion and guide.
She explains, “Many people think we are on our knees all day,” she says, “and they ask us what it is that we actually do. But our focus is on ‘being’, rather than doing’.”
The Carmelite mission is in the service of the Church and of all humankind. Their prayers and contemplation are directed to the support, welfare, and apostolic fruitfulness of all those engaged in the work of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Our life is simple, but it has a lot of depth,” says Sr Jennifer.
Lizzie Snedden is the editor of Aurora.
Republished with permission from the December 2020 edition of the Aurora Magazine, the news publication of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.