By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
IOWA CITY — Three years ago, Lindell Joseph stood outside her pastor’s office at St. Patrick Parish wondering if she was out of her mind. “I felt called to start a Lay Carmelite community,” she said.
Joseph had been part of a Lay Carmelite community in Orlando, Fla., before moving to the Iowa City area in 2013 to take a teaching role at the University of Iowa. She missed the order that had drawn her in “like a magnet” with its call to prayer, community and service in the tradition of St. Teresa of Avila. “I just felt so at home there,” she said.
She hoped Father Rudolph Juarez, the pastor, would help her figure out whether the calling had any merit. “I thought he’d say, ‘Who is this crazy girl?’”
He didn’t call her crazy. After taking his advice and calling the local province in the Chicago suburbs, Joseph opted to start an informal group at St. Pat’s, just to see if people were interested. The province said it could take years to get a core group of eight people necessary to apply for community status, Joseph recalled.
She put notices about a monthly Carmelite spirituality book study in Iowa City-area parish bulletins. People responded. Some stuck around; others did not, which Lindell expected. A core group of about a dozen people formed out of the book study. This core group included Catholics from St. Mary and St. Patrick parishes and Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City; St. Bernadette Parish-West Branch; and St. Thomas More Parish-Coralville.
“For me, it was a validation that I wasn’t hallucinating, that it really was a call of the Holy Spirit,” Joseph said with a laugh.
Two years after the first book study, the group decided to apply to become a formal community. They had to complete an application and get a recommendation from a priest — which Fr. Juarez provided — and signatures from the core group members.
Expressing his support for the group to The Catholic Messenger, Fr. Juarez said, “I have been an admirer of St. Teresa of Avila for a long time. She was a holy and powerful woman. Her way of contemplation, prayer and service is worthy of imitation. When these women bonded together to seek sorority under the inspiration and example of St. Teresa, I felt the need to support them and their efforts. In a hectic and fast-paced world, the need for contemplation and prayer is even greater because it puts our sense of direction and service in right order. There is joy in following the way of St. Teresa — man or woman — for it is the way of the Christian life, and what greater aspirations can we have than to serve Christ and his church with joy and determination?”
The group received approval from the province in September 2016, taking the name Our Lady of Mount Carmel Lay Carmelite Community. With formal approval, the group began a structured study intended to help community members complete the first stage of individual formation. To enter formation, an individual — male or female — must have a calling from the Holy Spirit, be in good Catholic standing and be 18 years of age or older.
Nine women were received into the community last month at St. Pat’s, following a year of formation: Elizabeth Aragus, Maria Delfina Dix, Alicia Higgerson, Teresa Judge-Ellis, Graziela Kalil, Bertha Martin, Linda Murray, Clara Oleson and Freyja Stolz. Each woman received a brown scapular, which is seen by Lay Carmelites as a sign of consecration to Our Lady and her way of life. By wearing the brown scapular, one enters into a covenant of love and trust with Mary as mother, sister and patroness.
For the next two years, these women will continue their formation and, upon mutual discernment, make a free and deliberate choice to profess temporary promises as a Lay Carmelite.
The Lay Carmelites in Iowa City will also be working on how to live out their community’s postulate – helping vulnerable women and children. “We haven’t hashed that out yet,” said Joseph, adding that the group will begin strategic planning sometime this month. So far, they’ve addressed vulnerable women and children through prayer. They regularly volunteer at Catholic Worker House, which helps a variety of people in need of safe, temporary housing.
Freyja Stolz, a member of the Newman Center, began participating in the group in December 2014 after hearing about it from a friend. “I received an invitation to the first meeting by someone in my Bible study who was passing along verbal invitations. She said, “If you are called to prayer, you should check this out!”
She is grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the Lay Carmelite community. “I value this community so much. It’s unlike any group I’ve ever participated in before. We are all so different yet unified in our beliefs and priorities. It’s been very humbling and inspiring to get to know the women in this group.”
The Carmelite tradition of contemplation and action are a good fit for me and I noticed this from the start,” said Teresa Judge-Ellis. She cherishes the relationships she has formed and looks forward to the next stage of formation. “We are a joyful family.”
What is “Carmel?”
The Order of Carmel is a way of life in which members try to be aware of the presence of God in the most ordinary, everyday things. They are contemplative, but live out their service in the world. They are prayerful, but also practical. Carmel was founded 800 years ago, but members’ feet are firmly planted in today’s problems and concerns.
What is a Lay Carmelite?
The Lay Carmelite is called to the Family of Carmel to be deeply involved in the mission of the church, to contribute to the transformation of the secular world. A Lay Carmelite does this by sharing in the charism of the Carmelite Order. By entering the order, the Lay Carmelite takes upon him/herself the Carmelite charism of prayer, community and service to others.