Guest Author - Carleen D. Sanchez, PhD
Visitors to Santa Fe, New Mexico, generally spend their time sampling the wonderful food, perusing trendy shops, and enjoying the breathtaking scenery. Others flock to Santa Fe for spiritual renewal at any number of Alternative, Eastern, or New Age retreats finding inspiration in the spare landscape of New Mexico. However, Santa Fe has been a safe haven for spiritual and religious life for centuries. This article will focus on one of the lesser known institutions of the city – The Monastery of Carmel of Santa Fe and St. Teresa – a haven for women religious in the heart of Santa Fe.
The Monastery in Santa Fe, New Mexico was founded by six sisters including one Mexican nun who had fled her homeland due to changes in Mexican society after the revolution. This was a time of extreme anti-clericalism under the auspices of President Plutarco Elias Calles who viewed the Catholic Church as a hindrance to the modernization process. Mother Mary Teresa first fled to Texas, but in 1945 was among the nuns to establish Carmel of Santa Fe.
The Carmelite order is an ancient tradition based on the Prophet Elijah who, along with other like minded devotees, lived in caves found around Mount Caramel. Later in the 13th century, formal rules and community structures were created to bring the hermits together into intentional communities. It was not until 1452 that women were allowed to take on the enclosed life in the Carmelite tradition. The most important nun in the order was St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) who established thirty two convents and helped to return the order to a more ascetic rule of conduct. The Carmelite order was first established in the United States in Maryland in 1790.
The Monastery of Carmel of Santa Fe and St. Teresa covers six acres and provides an ample cloister for eight women who spend every day in isolation, devotion, prayer, and practical labor. Daily activities include attending mass (liturgy), reading, examination of conscience, and petitions to the Virgin for the souls of all people. Known as “discalced” since they wear no shoes (open sandals are permitted), these nuns are members of the Carmelite order.
Typically, women who wish to join the cloister spend at least 3 ˝ years in preparation to take on the black veil of lifelong commitment as a Bride of Christ. Thereafter, the women will spend nearly their entire lives within the enclosure. Visits outside the walls of the monastery are permitted for medical care and to attend religious conferences. Lay people, however, are prohibited from entering the grounds. A special room is available for nuns to receive guests – it is divided by an iron gate to remind all that the religious woman lives apart from the quotidian concerns of secular society.
Once a novice dedicates herself to the order, she will remain within the cloister for most of her life. Nuns are allowed to leave the community for medical treatment or to attend religious meetings. Carmelite nuns retain the old traditions of the Church including the wearing of habits and veils. Having accepted the contemplative life of a Carmelite nun, a woman voluntarily retreats from the distractions of everyday life.