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Carmel In The Heartland ~ Carmel In The Heart

Call of the Heart

Even in a country you know by heart

It's hard to go the same way twice.

The life of going changes.

The chances change and make a new way.

Any tree, or stone, or bird

Can be the bud of a new direction.

...Wendell Berry, "Traveling at Home."

One day in the year 1888, the prioress of Baltimore Carmel remarked at the community recreation, "perhaps there will one day be a Carmel in Dubuque, Iowa."

These simple words became the "bud of a new direction" for Mary Elizabeth Nagle, a young postulant in the group and a native of Dubuque. She pronounced her vows in Carmel May 16, 1889, becoming known as Sister Clare of the Blessed Sacrament, and began to work towards bringing Carmel to the midwest.

A second midwesterner from Deerfield, Minnesota, Anna Heiker, pronounced her vows in Carmel, May 4, 1893, receiving the name Sister Aloysius of Our Lady of Good Counsel. She and Sister Clare were destined to work together in bringing about the foundation in Davenport.

Although there had been a firm invitation from the Archbishop to come to Dubuque, this was reversed, and it began to appear that no bishop in the upper Central States would be able to accept Carmelites into his diocese. It was through the persistence of Joseph Nagle, Sister Clare's brother, that Bishop James Davis agreed to welcome Carmelites from Baltimore into his diocese of Davenport. The bishop made a personal visit to the Maryland Carmel, and a formal agreement was reached between the diocese and the nuns.

Cardinal James Gibbons appointed Mother Clare prioress of the new Carmel and Mother Aloysius sub-prioress.

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Journey Of the Heart

On the feast of St. Cecilia, November 22, 1911, Mother Clare, Mother Aloysius, Sister Gertrude McCarthy, a native New Yorker, and Sister Gabriel, a novice who later left the Order, departed from Baltimore escourted by Mother Clare's brother and sister-in- law, Joseph and Elizabeth (Liz) Nagle. Riding to the train in "horseless carriages" was a novelty to the sisters. Unabashed, in spite of living twenty years in one place, they carried in their hearts the zeal of Elijah, the faith of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the blazing spirit of St. Teresa of Avila, together with their own unique pioneering fire, flavored from life at the Baltimore Carmel.

Arriving in Davenport the following day, they were met at the station by Father Garrett Nagle and taken to the little Queen Anne cottage on the corner of 15th and Brady. Here Mother Clare's younger sister, Hanna, welcomed the travelers. Having readied the house, filling the pantry shelves with simple Carmelite fare, she now enjoyed the privilege of presiding over the first meal the sisters had in their new home.

Open House ~ Open Heart

The next day, the feast of the great Carmelite saint, John of the Cross, November 24, 1911, Holy Mass was offered by Father Garrett Nagle. This officially inaugurated the new monastery.

For three days, open house was held. Such great crowds descended upon the sisters that there was alarm the floors would give way. When Bishop Davis began the solemn blessing of the house and grounds, it was estimated at least 5,000 had gathered to witness the event, Mother Aloysius said, "We were a curiosity to them."

Nevertheless, the sisters made a favorable impression with their prayerful friendliness.

The nuns themselves breathed a sigh of relief when the bishop formally locked all the outside doors, symbolizing separation from worldly pursuits in order to pray for the needs of all. The first contemplative monastery of nuns in Iowa was now a fact of history.

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Brief Rest Along The Road

The Queen Anne cottage was small by any standards. Bishop Davis donated adjacent property for the erection of a chapel, nun's choir, sacristy, and six bedrooms. Because the bishop usually offered Mass for the nuns whenever he could, the architect, Mr. Arthur Ebeling, designed a covered walk leading into the chapel from the bishop's door. Although Midnight Mass on Christmas was the first Mass, the dedication did not take place until February 11, 1913.

At the sisters' request, the chapel was dedicated to the Heavenly Father, and became known as Pater Noster Chapel, with its titular feast on Trinity Sunday. At the same time, the monastery was named in honor of the holy prophet Elijah, but re-named in Bettendorf, REGINA COELI or Queen of Heaven, with the liturgical feast on Our Lady's Assumption, August 15.

Bend in the River ~ Shift to the Hills

With the chapel completed, plans went forward to expand the monastery with additional rooms and sufficient dormitory space, allowing twenty-one sisters to each have her own room, as specified in the Carmelite rule.

Unfortunately, 15th and Brady was less than ideal. The sisters were forced to look elsewhere for their third building. Driving along River Road one day after another fruitless search, Mother Clare addressed her companion and motioned towards Bettendorf: "I feel as though there is a place for us among those hills somewhere."

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Pius Mohr found land available just where Mother Clare had pointed, and Bishop Davis bought it for the nuns April 3, 1915. Carmel on the Mississippi would soon become a reality.

Situated on a height of 691 feet overlooking the undulating waters of the mighty river, surrounded by woods and farmland, this was a perfect setting for a life of prayer, far from the noise and bustle of the busy city.

Arthur Ebeling modeled the building on that of Baltimore Carmel in a double cruciform of gold mottled brick trimmed with Bedford, Indiana limestome. The town council provided a water hydrant. Electricity would come later. A telephone was not introduced until priests ordering altar breads required it. A professional landscaper planned the garden and grounds in an artistic arrangement allowing varieties of flowers to bloom all summer long.

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Quo Vadis ~ Whither Goest Thou

Very few of the sisters' friends knew that the move would occur after the center unit was completed. On June 29, 1916 two automobiles drove the little community of nine to their new home. Realizing that the vehicles would never make it to the crest of the hill on 14th Street, the sisters trudged up the perpendicular incline with their luggage, all the while lamenting horses were no longer at their disposal. This also put new meaning to the biblical: "Take up your bed and walk!"

Those moving from Davenport besides Mother Clare, Mother Aloysius and Sister Gertrude were: Sisters Mary Enright, Teresa Seelbach, Magdalen Heun, Joseph Angerer, Paula Doersching, and Veronica McGinty.

The next day, feast of the Sacred Heart that year, the first Mass was celebrated by Father N. Meinhardt. The room for Mass later became the library and chapter room.

The Same Way Twice

On the sisters' fifth anniversary of their arrival in Davenport, Friday, November 24, 1916, Bishop Davis consecrated the monastery bells before they were hoisted into the bell tower. The large bell was appropriately christened VOX DOMINI (the voice of the Lord), and the small bell, PATER NOSTER (Our Father). The blessing prayers beg God to grant assistance to all who hear them ring. (When the sisters moved to Eldridge, the large bell moved with them and is temporarily mounted on a small pedestal outside the chapel.)

Now the arduous task of dismantling the permanent chapel and transporting it to Bettendorf was begun through the generosity of Mr. Frank Lewis of Chicago. Three years later, the work was finished. On the feast of Pentecost, 1919, the chapel was re-dedicated. The remainder of the building was up by 1921, with only the brick enclosure wall to be done. After years of scrimping and saving, there were sufficient funds to finish the wall in 1937.

Mother Clare did not live to see the brick wall erected. God called her August 18, 1923, leaving Mother Aloysius to guide the community through good times and bad until her death April 24, 1955.

The loyalty of these two sisters to the ideals of prayer and sacrifice, as well as the Carmelite traditions learned in Baltimore Carmel, has left an indelible mark on everyone who was ever privileged to know them or to live with them.

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Cross of a Different Kind

With the completion of the monastery, the sisters looked forward to following their Carmelite Rule in peaceful contemplation. The Ku Klux Klan had other plans. Choosing the Carmelites for the focus of their hostility against all things Catholic, they erected fiery crosses in a farmer's field opposite the monastery and created a wild disturbance intending to drive the frightened nuns out of the area. Instead, this roused the townspeople to their defense, with the police restoring tranquility and protection to the entire neighborhood. Good came from this event, as it won for the sisters many faithful friends.

A Legend is Born

As the ecclesiastical superior of the Carmelites, the bishops of Davenport always took a friendly interest in the sisters. Bishop Henry P. Rohlmann, later Archbishop of Dubuque, stopped one day to chat in the parlor with Mother Aloysius and inquired about the health of the sisters . Mother told him that with the changeable Fall weather, several sisters were suffering from severe colds. This was meant to be the signal for the Bishop to refrain from asking to see the entire community.

Just then, the five-o'clock bell for the hour of prayer began to ring. As the Bishop prepared to leave, he asked, "Mother, what do you have on now?"

Mother Aloysius, wishing him to realize that she was taking good care of the sisters, replied in all simplicity, "Winter habits, your Excellency!"

His roar of laughter was heard clear across the monastery, and until the day he died, he repeated this conversation wherever he had a new audience. He would have been even more amused had he known Mother was truly mystified at his humor even after it was explained to her.

Through the years this story has filtered back to the Eldridge Carmelites with variations to the point that the Poor Clares become the subject, and even the Trappistines!

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Iowa ~ A Place to Grow

Three foundations (new Carmelite monasteries) were made from Bettendorf: in 1922 to New Albany, Indiana which later moved to Indianapolis, led by Mother Teresa Seelbach and Sister Hilda Ammann; in 1940 to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which later moved to Pewaukee led by Mother Paula Doersching, Mother Grace Meade, Sister Joan Meyer, Sister Elizabeth Kinsella, and Sister Ann Mezera; and in 1961 to Sioux City, Iowa led by Mother Agnes Dwight, Sister Michael Skelley, Sister Magdalen Heun, Sister Raphael Baker, Sister Marie Schuman, and Sister Clare Lafferty.

The Life of the Going Changes

Sioux City Carmel was founded on the eve of Vatican II. After that, together with several deaths, vacancies were not filled as was usual after the other foundations. Each Carmel is limited to twenty-one sisters, a quota always quickly reached in the years before the Council. Because the physical resources of the remaining sisters were taxed to the limit maintaining such a large building, innumerable discernment meetings convinced everyone that the problem could be solved in a smaller building. A ten-acre piece of farmland near Eldridge just north of Davenport, and a fifteen minute drive from Bettendorf, was purchased.

The first concern was the transferring of the deceased nuns from the crypt to Mount Calvary cemetery, where the ten were given a new resting place in a section of the priests' circle. To the happy surprise of the nuns, the priests already buried there were well-known to the community. Since St. Teresa has enjoined her Carmelites to pray earnestly for priests at all times, the symbolism was very significant.

The new building was ready for occupancy November 24, 1975, coinciding with the opening date of the Davenport monastery in 1911. It seemed just the right thing for a small community and a site which would allow for expansion. The open farmlands teeming with corn, expanded the human spirit, and the rigors of the changing seasons served the Sisters' life of prayer.

In the Heart ~ In the Heartland

There is an old Carmelite saying: "Carmel is all within. Carmel is in the heart."

The "life" of the going changes" for the Carmelite nuns of Eldridge. The new ways have become the buds of a new direction. Carmel lives in Davenport because, as Father Paul Marie of the Cross expresses it, Carmel "has long been able to exist in a free, spontaneous, elementary way and to subsist through the sheer power of its spirit." (...Carmelite Spirituality)

What does it mean to be a Carmelite nun? It means to seek God with all one's heart, and to be at peace.

As the Carmelite Sisters of the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa approach the year of 2,009, they know that the mission of Carmel continues to live both in the Heartland and in the human heart. With eagerness, they remain open to being carried into the Future of God.

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