Lafayette Foundation . . . an historic event and intriguing story
Over 75 years . . . “a lightning rod” for the
Diocese of Lafayette
It is significant that in this nation “under God” the first religious women to live under the Stars and Stripes were contemplative Carmelite Nuns, dedicated totally to the worship and praise of God and to intercessory prayer for the needs of the Church and all their brothers and sisters. Soon after the American Revolution ended, four daughters of St. Teresa, three of them American English, established a monastery at Port Tobacco, Maryland. This Carmel moved to Baltimore in 1831 and subsequently established communities in St. Louis and New Orleans.
In 1867 the beautiful Creole socialite, Louise Roman, niece of Governor A.B. Roman of Louisiana, entered the Carmel of St. Louis. On November 21, 1877, she led a group of four nuns back to her native state. In 1878 they located in a pre-Civil War cottage in the French Quarter in New Orleans. The permanent monastery dedicated to St. Joseph and St. Teresa was completed in 1895. It was this monastery which opened its doors to welcome Heloise Marie Caillouet (Mother Marie Dolores of the Passion) of Thibodeaux, Louisiana in 1919 and Lucy Mary Hermes (Mother Theresa Margaret of the Sacred Hearts) of Austin, Texas in 1934. They were to become the foundresses of the Lafayette Carmel.
When the young and enthusiastic Father Jules B. Jeanmard, a former chaplin to the Monastery, was named Bishop of Lafayette in 1918, he asked the nuns to bring Carmel to his budding diocese, the center of Acadiana culture. At the time the community, having already contributed members to two other foundations, was unable to do this. But Bishop Jeanmard, following the dictum of St. Teresa, “Patience obtains everything,” persevered until, seventeen years later (1935) negotiations for the monastery in Lafayette were begun. In May, 1936, four cloistered sisters and one extern sister left New Orleans and traveled the almost two-hundred miles to Lafayette (a five hour trip in those days). Mother Bernadine of St. Joseph, the Prioress in New Orleans, accompanied them.
The First Mass was scheduled for the feast of St. Simon Stock, May 16, but the chapel was far from ready. Workmen, priest-friends, and the nuns stayed up all night to complete the preparations. Despite wet paint on the newly remodeled altar, the loss and eventual recovery of the altar wine and various other disturbances, Bishop Jeanmard began the First Mass on time and with this Eucharistic celebration the new Carmel under the patronage of Mary, Mother of Grace, was officially inaugurated in the life of the diocese.
St. Teresa was confident that if her foundations began with the experience of difficulties and trials, they were bound to become a success. Certainly this proved true with the Lafayette Monastery. Chief among these trials was the decline in health of three of the Sisters, which eventually necessitated their return to the community in New Orleans. Mother Marie Dolores was left with the complex administrative duties of a new foundation while Mother Theresa Margaret was entrusted with the religious and spiritual formation of young aspirants. It is to this first Novice Mistress that many of the nuns of Lafayette Carmel owe their training in the basics of religious life and the ways of contemplative prayer.
As is usual with new foundations, applicants came and went, but eventually God blessed the community with growth, so much so that their miniature monastery became too small for its many occupants. In 1952 a new and larger monastery was proposed. Bishop Jeanmard received the idea enthusiastically and expressed his desire that the fund drive for the new building should be a diocesan affair. The drive was sponsored by twelve business men who initiated the Carmelite Guild, formed of twelve sponsors whose mission, in the words of the first President, Mr. Sid Ory, was “to make known the apostolate of prayer and penance as practiced by the Discalced Carmelite Nuns and to afford a channel for mutual exchange of material and spiritual benefits.” The Guild has grown from the first “twelve apostles” to about one hundred men. Since its initiation these men have faithfully come every First Saturday at 6:00 A.M. to honor Our Lady by praying the Rosary and participating in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. After Mass they enjoy a breakfast of home-baked bread and coffee, followed by a conference by a priest or layman. Often about 20-25 men will stay to help with yard work after this.
After much searching for suitable property, ten acres were selected on Highway 94, now Carmel Drive. The land belonged to the diocese and was located just outside the city limits of the rapidly growing Lafayette of the 1950’s. Auxiliary Bishop Maurice Schexnayder persuaded the diocesan consulters to make it available for the monastery and one of them, Monsignor A. Francis Garneau of Gueydan, promptly offered the cost as his gift to the nuns.
Mother Theresa Margaret and Mother Dolores worked together to draw up floor plans suitable for cloistered Carmelite living and the architects Harold Lagroue and Hal Perkins managed to put a roof over the building by adding towers at strategic points. J.B. Mouton and Sons was the generous construction / contractor.
The dedicated efforts of the “twelve apostles” enabled the Community to break ground December 8, 1954, the Marian Year. By January 1956, the monastery was completed. After several days of Open House the nuns transferred from the old Monastery to their new home on January 22, amid crowds of onlookers and a traffic jam that required a police escort. The Mass of the Espousals of Mary and Joseph was celebrated the following morning. The Community was ready to begin a new phase of its cloistered, Carmelite life.
Because of insufficient funds, much of the interior of the building was unfinished. There were ceilings to be painted, “miles” of walls to be sanded, stained and varnished, the oak wood floors of choir and the chapter room to be sanded and stained, and, of course, windows, cupboards, offices and closets to be cleaned and arranged. The Monastery grounds, too, had to be planted with trees, shrubbery and flowers and an organic garden prepared. While the nuns did much of this work themselves, generous assistance was also given by the neighboring Christian Brothers and other devoted friends.
Once they were finally settled in their permanent Monastery, the Community prepared to make Solemn Vows. Because of historical circumstances, Solemn Vows had been suppressed in the Church since the time of the French Revolution. Pope Pius XII restored Solemn Vows to all nuns able to maintain Papal enclosure.
Under Mother Theresa Margaret’s leadership the Community grew in numbers and spirituality. Even before the Vatican Council she discerned the need for updating some aspects of Carmelite life. Minor changes to adapt better to the contemporary situation were introduced. Outdated customs were dropped, while the emphasis on solitude, silence and prayer remained uppermost. Continuing education was fostered by conferences, classes and instruction by Scripture scholars, spiritual masters and others on subject pertinent to the religious and spiritual life of the Sisters. Bishop Julio Xavier Labayen, Carmelite Bishop of Infanta in the Philippines, who has been a friend and visitor to the Community since 1961, called Mother a future-oriented visionary: “the past did not constrain her. She moved into the future, one with her Mother, the Church, following the lead of the befriending Spirit of the Risen Lord. Her faith in Jesus Christ, intensely, responsibly and conscientiously lived, manifested itself in her free spirit. As a leader, she knew how to lead persons firmly along the way of truth and of the cross without depriving them of their consciousness of God’s mercy and compassion. . . .” With this spirit-filled, faith-filled leader were the members of the Lafayette Carmel enriched.
The Community Hermit Day was begun in 1962 as an aid to a more intense and solitary prayer life. On these days, after Mass, each Sister is free to take her hours of prayer, meals, etc in private, at the times she finds best. Hermit Days are spiritually enriching and a wonderful help toward keeping a more prayerful and silent atmosphere on other days. This idea was subsequently adopted by several other Carmelite communities.
Recognizing that a community grows in mutual understanding and unity by communication and sharing, Mother Theresa Margaret introduced Sunday Agape, in which current theological or spiritual ideas, liturgical innovations, areas of personal or community renewal were discussed. These Agapes clarified questions, sparked interests and resulted in an authentic and beneficial community consensus on issues relating to our life as cloistered religious in a Church already involved in the process of renewal and in a world of constant change.
The years following Vatican Council II were a time of renewal, but also of experimentation, innovation and sometimes division in the Church and in Carmel. To rectify this situation the then Father General, Finian Monahan, called for national meetings of Carmelites in various countries. Mother Theresa Margaret and Sister Alberta were our Community’s delegates to the historic United States meeting held in St. Louis, Missouri from October 5-9, 1974. Under the General’s leadership, questions concerning Carmelite life and customs were discussed and resolved and suggestions given. On their return Mother and Sister shared all with the Community and we sought to implement some of the ideas gleaned from the meeting. It was from this that associations and communications with other Carmels began.
This brief history of Lafayette Carmel would not be complete without mention of those heroic and generous Sisters who were such strong columns in our Community, and who now lie at rest in the consecrated ground of our cemetery: Mother Marie Dolores and Mother Theresa Margaret, our foundresses, Sr. Mary Grace and Sr. Gabriel, our first loyal Extern Sisters, Sr. Elizabeth and Sr. Marie, “queen of cooks,” and Sr. Mary Lourdes, the faithful (and first) infirmarian. Our Community has been built of this firm foundation. Our duty is to be faithful to it.