Editor’s note: This is the second article in “Combat For Contemplative Life,” a series about the responses — inside and outside the cloister — to Pope Francis’s reforms of the contemplative life for women in various communities. In the first article, “A Praying Heart: How Pope Francis intends to save the cloistered life,” Mike Lewis provides an overview of the reforms, with responses and reactions from sisters around the world. In this, the second article, “The Parting of the Ways – Reactions and Responses to Cor Orans,” Carmelite Sr. Gabriela Hicks, a member of a cloistered contemplative community, describes how resistance to the reforms by some monasteries led to divisions between communities of nuns, culminating in the sudden departure of twelve nuns from the Philadelphia Carmel.

In his recent article, “A Praying Heart: How Pope Francis Intends to Save the Cloistered Life,” Mike Lewis gives a clear and balanced presentation of the recent documents concerning cloistered contemplative communities of women, Vultum Dei Quaerere (“Seeking the Face of God”) and Cor Orans (“Praying Heart”), and the various responses to those documents. As a member of a cloistered contemplative community, I can say that things looked a bit different from the inside!

When Pope Francis released his Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei Quaerere in June 2016, it was easy to recognize in it the concerns that we contemplatives had expressed in our responses to the questionnaire sent out to women in cloistered communities in 2014, and in meetings in Rome in 2016 that were attended by hundreds of contemplative nuns. We saw that Our Holy Father was calling us to go more deeply into our contemplative vocation and to witness to that vocation to a world which hardly even knew that we exist.

However, the content of Vultum Dei Quaerere was general, a text that applied to all contemplative communities, including my own Carmelite community in Flemington, New Jersey. There were few, if any, specific details in this 2016 document about how we would be called to live out the Holy Father’s recommendations. These details, we were promised, would be presented in an Instruction that would be issued in the near future by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL).

We held our breath.

When the Instruction Cor Orans finally came out in 2018, it was a blow to the solar plexus! We never expected this instruction to be so detailed, so organizational! In cloistered communities around the world, there was a stunned gasp of shock!

When at last we got our breath back, there arose a double chorus of nuns’ voices in response to the document. One chorus, shrill with fear, complained, “They want to turn us all into nuns of active life by preventing us from living the papal enclosure, the autonomy of the monasteries is endangered!”[1] and, “This isn’t our charism!”[2]

The other chorus, shaky but determined, said: “This is what the Church is asking of us. We’ll try to do it.”

Both choruses were heard within the organization to which my own community belongs, St. Joseph’s Association. Thankfully, the quiet voices of harmonious obedience prevailed, aided by the wise counsel and support of our Carmelite Friars, especially our beloved Father General, Fr. Saverio Cannistrà. In a series of letters to the Carmelite nuns, Fr. Cannistrà showed us that the demands of Cor Orans are indeed an expression of our Teresian charism (the charism of St. Theresa of Avila, the foundress of the Discalced Carmelites who renewed the spirituality and way of life of Carmel). He explained how, in putting the reforms of Cor Orans into practice, we will be helped to live more deeply and radically our vocation as Discalced Carmelite Nuns.

We went to work, and, at our first meeting and elections in Darien, Illinois, in March 2019, our St. Joseph’s Association updated our statutes to reflect the new Instruction. There are nine active members in the association, eight of which are in the United States, and the ninth member is the Carmel of Launceston, Tasmania, which was granted Vatican approval to join the association in 2019 when they promised to be present physically at our meetings and we promised to go there for their canonical visitations.

At the meeting, many of the voices of fear and resistance within our association were stilled, but not reassured. Additionally, not all of our member communities were present at this meeting. Among those absent was the Carmel of Philadelphia, one of the founding monasteries of the St. Joseph’s Association.

The Carmel of Philadelphia had been struggling since the 1970s to maintain a minimum number of Sisters in their community. By 2016, they were reduced to four sisters and a novice. There were serious discussions about the future of their Carmel, and most of the sisters, including the prioress, Mother Barbara of the Holy Ghost, hoped to find more nuns from other Carmels outside the United States. One of the sisters, Mother Pia of Jesus Crucified, however, was convinced that a return to a Latin liturgy and the Extraordinary Form of the Mass was an ideal to be pursued. For her, the Carmelite nuns of Valparaiso, Nebraska and Elysburg, Pennsylvania (which provided nuns for a new Carmel in Fairfield, Pennsylvania) were the best solution to their difficulties.[3] By the beginning of 2017, it was clear that there were no Carmelites outside the US who could come to help the Philadelphia community. Even a request for nuns from a Carmel in upstate New York was fruitless, because many Carmels were struggling with the challenge of shrinking communities.[4] So the transferal of Nuns from Valparaiso and Elysburg to Philadelphia was approved in 2018.[5]

The members of the St. Joseph’s Association, including its President, first learned of the arrival of the Valparaiso and Elysburg Nuns in Philadelphia from a news article in CatholicPhilly. This lack of communication between the Philadelphia Carmel and the rest of the St. Joseph’s Association would henceforth be the rule of their relationship.

One exception was when the Philadelphia Carmel attempted to withdraw from the association. In 2018, there was a rumor that the Santa Teresa Association in Spain would be granted an exemption from the demands of Cor Orans, and about a dozen Carmels in North and South America expressed the desire to transfer to that Association. The Carmel of Philadelphia, with the support of Archbishop Chaput, sent in their application for transfer.[6] Though the St. Joseph’s Association was “sorry to have one of the founding members leave,” our association’s president was “happy to know that Your Excellency [Archbishop Chaput] approves the desire of the Community to transfer to another Association.”[7]

However, Rome decided that “all applications for membership in the Santa Teresa Association from monasteries outside Spain have been refused”;[8] Considering that the Santa Teresa Association already numbered 52 Spanish Carmels as members, it is understandable that Rome would refuse to increase their numbers. This meant that the Philadelphia Carmel remained a member of the St. Joseph’s Association.[9]

Shortly after the arrival of the nuns from Valparaiso and Elysburg, the Philadelphia prioress, Mother Barbara, died. The novice left, and so did two of the nuns, who had come from other Carmels and who returned to their original communities. This left Mother Pia as the only remaining member of the original Philadelphia community.

Time passed, and the nuns from Valparaiso and Elysburg seemed to settle in. The St. Joseph’s Association continued to work towards applying Vultum Dei Quaerere and Cor Orans, and much of our progress was chronicled in posts on our Flemington Carmel website.

This seemingly peaceful though parallel co-existence ended abruptly on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 23, 2021, when the president of the St. Joseph’s Association got a phone call from Mother Pia at the Philadelphia Carmel asking if she could find some nuns to help close up the Carmel since the other nuns were planning to return to Valparaiso at the beginning of April and she would be left alone.[10] The president immediately contacted Philadelphia’s new Archbishop, Nelson Perez, since a Community cannot just walk out of a monastery for which they have taken responsibility.[11] Through Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, the auxiliary bishop responsible for institutes of religious life in the Archdiocese, Archbishop Perez delivered a letter to Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, the prioress of the Philadelphia Carmel, saying that the nuns were to remain in Philadelphia and that a canonical visitation would be conducted.[12]

The president of the St. Joseph’s Association named me to go with her as the treasurer-delegate for the canonical visitation, but that never happened. On Friday, April 9th, 2021, Bishop Fitzgerald phoned our president to say that the nuns had left that morning. The president phoned the Philadelphia Carmel that afternoon, and Mother Pia described their departure, saying that the sisters approached her right after Mass today to say they were going and left in a hurry, “not properly packed.”[13] In the same conversation, Mother Pia also said that “word is already out and people are coming to the turn[14]!”[15]

This would set the scene for the following months. Twelve nuns walked out, leaving an 80-year old sister alone in a large monastery, and they gave no explanation. The president of the association, another association councilor, and I arrived at the Philadelphia monastery on April 10 to see what the situation was. Everyone was asking why the nuns had left. The archdiocese didn’t know, the association didn’t know. The only ones who knew the answer, the nuns in Valparaiso, said nothing. In this information vacuum, speculation on the internet ran rife. Accusations were directed at the archdiocese, the association, and the Vatican. And the nuns in Valparaiso said nothing. Only a month later, in a private letter to some of their friends, did they mention the reason for the departure: “Due to the challenges of an urban setting for our sisters, we discerned to transfer back to our Carmel in Valparaiso, Nebraska.”

This seemed perfectly reasonable. All the nuns from Valparaiso and Elysburg had been used to living in the country. Moving to Philadelphia must have been quite a challenge for them. Though their departure was irregular, this explanation seems to make sense.

But there was much more to the story.

That summer, the nuns at Elysburg all moved to the Carmel in Fairfield, Pennsylvania. On June 19th, Mother Stella-Marie of Jesus, the Prioress of Fairfield, sent out an email to their supporters, claiming that the nuns left Philadelphia because attempts were being made to not only interfere with but to obstruct their way of life.[16] They added that, “The Carmel of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in Valparaiso wishes to extend their fullest support and confirmation of what we have related herein.”[17]

On July 16, I sent a letter to Mother Stella-Marie asking her to prove her insinuations that the nuns had been “interfered with and obstructed.” I also posted this letter on the Philadelphia Carmel Facebook. I never received a reply.

Three months after the nuns left the monastery, there was still no clear indication of why they had departed. Rome ordered an Apostolic Visitation to discover the reason.

When the Fairfield Carmel learned of the apostolic visitation, they sent out this email on September 21 to some of their friends:


Please pray for our Carmelite Nuns in Fairfield and throughout the World (See a Call For Prayers & Travel Announcement below):

This coming weekend, we ask that you pray in a special way for our Nuns. More than ever before, they are in need of your love and your support.

In August, they received the news they would be subject to an Apostolic Visitation and the dates have been scheduled for Sep. 25-28, 2021. A Visitation consists of interviews of each sister and a detailed scrutiny of the nuns’ daily life. It includes an evaluation of their application of the Carmelite charism and their monastic customs.

It is for this reason, we are asking for your prayerful support as they undergo this difficult and stressful trial. We pray that the nuns may quickly return to their quiet monastic observance.

If you are able, would you join us for a prayer vigil at their property? From 9am-5pm beginning Saturday and ending Tuesday, all our friends are welcome to stop by to say a Rosary or just a few prayers at the gates or in the cemetery. Your presence and support will be felt deeply by the nuns and they will be eternally grateful.

On September 29, the Chapel will reopen at 9am for a glorious Solemn High Mass. Mass will once again be open to the public after that date.[18]

With this email, the firestorm against Pope Francis was ignited throughout the traditionalist world.

To be continued…

Click here for part three, by Carmelite Sister Gabriela Hicks.


[1] Quote from Letter of Archbishop Jose Carballo to the Discalced Carmelite sisters, Nov. 1st, 2020

[2] Heard in my Community

[3] Letter May 4th, 2016 from Fr. Gabriel O’Donnell, O.P. and the accompanying Canonical Visitation Report to Archbishop Chaput

[4] See exchange of letters December 2016 to January 2017 between Archbishop Chaput, Bishop Matano of Rochester and Mother Therese of the Rochester Carmel.

[5] Chapter Acts of the Carmels of Philadelphia (July 10th and 11th, 2017) , Valparaiso (June 30th, 2017) and Elysburg (June 30th, 2017)

[6] Letter October 1st, 2018 to Archbishop Carballo signed by the 4 Council members of the Philadelphia Carmel; also Letter October 22, 2018 from Madre Lourdes del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus,OCD, President of the Santa Teresa Association to Archbishop Carballo

[7] Letter October 9th, 2018 from Mother Therese Marie of Jesus Crucified, OCD, President of the St. Joseph’s Association

[8] Letter November 9th, 2019 from Archbishop Carballo to Sr. Mary Elizabeth of the Trinity, OCD, President of the St. Joseph’s Association

[9] Ibid.

[10] Email March 25th, 2021 from Sr. Mary Elizabeth, President of the SJA to the Association Council

[11] Cf. Cor orans # 66, which among other norms, demands that the request for a Community to transfer elsewhere be submitted to the Holy See

[12] Letter March 26th, 2021 from Archbishop Perez to Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, OCD, Prioress of the Philadelphia Carmel.

[13] Email April 9th, 2021 to Bishop Fitzgerald et aliis from Sr. Mary Elizabeth, President of the SJA

[14] “The turn” is a half-barrel shaped rotating wooden divider (similar to a revolving door) frequently found in a monastery’s reception and visiting areas, allow the sisters speak to visitors and receive items from outside while remaining in the cloister.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Email June 19th, 2021 from the Fairfield Carmel, sent to their supporters and posted on the Philadelphia Carmel website – later removed.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Email shared from friends. See also https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/traditional-carmelites-in-pennsylvania-announce-apostolic-visitation/

Image: Group Photo of Sisters of the St. Joseph’s Association – Darien March 2019

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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