The Beginnings

Around the beginning of the thirteenth century, a small group of European hermits settled on Mount Carmel near the present-day city of Haifa in Israel.  St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, gave them a “way of life” which charged them with a life of simplicity, community and especially prayer.  They built a chapel in the midst of their hermitages and dedicated it to Our Lady.  Soon they were known as the Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, or simply as Carmelites.

When the Carmelites came to Europe later in the thirteenth century, they adapted their style of life to the mendicant movement, so that they could live in cities and minister to the needs of the people.  Nonetheless, they never lost sight of the contemplative dimension of their lives, although they often struggled to maintain its integrity in the midst of a busy and turbulent world.

Restoring the Contemplative Life

In 1562, a Spanish Carmelite nun, known to history as St. Teresa of Avila (St. Teresa of Jesus), sought to restore the emphasis on contemplative life, first among the nuns, then later among the friars.  In this she was ably assisted by St. John of the Cross.  The two established a vibrant new family from within Carmel, dedicated to single-minded search for God in prayer at the service of the Church.  Because they wore sandals, the footwear of the poor, they were popularly known as barefoot or Discalced Carmelites The nuns led an enclosed contemplative life of prayer and sacrifice for the needs of the Church.  The friars shared their spirit and life of prayer, but added to it the care of souls in a varied ministry, particularly in helping others develop a strong relationship with God though personal prayer.

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The Washington Province of the Immaculate Heart of Mary

Although Discalced Carmelite Friars had been among the early explorers of what is now the western United States, they did not establish a permanent community until friars came from Bavaria to Wisconsin in 1906 to staff the National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians. (This Shrine in 2006 was honored with the distinct privilege of Minor Basilica status as part of its centenary celebrations). In 1914 they added a parish, St. Florian’s in West Milwaukee, to their responsibilities.

In 1942 they came to Brookline, Massachusetts, to open a novitiate to accommodate the growing number of applicants. (This community transferred to Brighton, Massachusetts, in 1989.)

In 1947, these monasteries were joined to a 1916 Spanish foundation in Washington, D.C., to become the first Discalced Carmelite Province in the United States: the Province of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Washington Province. Father Thomas Kilduff O.C.D., the provincial at that time, consecrated the Province to the Immaculate Heart of Mary at the grotto at Lourdes.

That same year, the new Province sent six missionaries to the Philippines to help re-establish the Church in Infanta. Two friars of the Province, Father Patrick Shanley and Julio Labayen, later served as bishops of Infanta. In October 2015 the Philippines officially were proclaimed their own province.

Other foundations followed: a residence in Youngstown, Ohio, meeting the spiritual and pastoral needs of the area and a minor seminary (later retreat house) in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Eventually these houses closed as new needs emerged elsewhere. In 1968, the Province established a community of hermits in Hinton, West Virginia, which recently closed to meet the new needs of the province.

Thus the varied possibilities of the Discalced Carmelite way of life were all present in the houses of the Province. To maintain that, we are looking at establishing hermitages at one of our current houses.

The next step in the history of the Province came in the summer of 1995 when it assumed responsibility for the Discalced Carmelite House of Studies in Nairobi, Kenya, which to this day we currently serve and has expanded to include four other houses. The Province continues to grow, serving the Church with all the wealth its spiritual patrimony has to offer.

The evolution of the province has been geographical also spiritual. The Holy Spirit continues to lead the Province of Discalced Carmelites to maintain its charism of seeking the face of the living God and to hear His word deep within. We continue to adapt to maintain and enhance our contemplative prayer by entering into communion with God the Father, through Christ His Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Holy Hill’s Beginnings

The Carmelite story in the United States is interwoven with Holy Hill. The history of Holy Hill, though, predates our story.

1838 – Holy Hill was originally Indian property owned by the Menominees, who lost their property rights in Wisconsin after the Black Hawk War and were cruelly expelled from the state in 1838 and forced to seek new homes beyond the Mississippi. European immigration into the area was rapid, and the new Catholic population of southern Wisconsin was composed largely of people from the Rhineland and Bavaria.

1855 – Twelve years after the establishment of a bishopric in Wisconsin, Father Francis Paulhuber purchased the property at Holy Hill from the government and erected a large white oak cross on the summit of the hill, the highest elevation in southern Wisconsin.

1862 – A log cabin chapel was built on at Holy Hill became a pilgrimage site over the years, especially after a wooden, hand-carved statue, made in Germany and exhibited at the Philadelphia Exposition of 1875, was carried to the hill and installed there in 1878.

Frs. Elesius and Kilian

Kilian, Englerbert, Columban

1905 – Two friars from the monastery at Regensburg in the Bavarian province, Eliseus of the Sacred Heart (John Mekina) and Kilian of the Mother of God (Franz Gutmann), traveled through the midwestern and northwestern parts of the United States in 1905 seeking a suitable site for a foundation, particularly in the areas settled by German immigrants.

Archbishop Messmer of Milwaukee offered Eliseus and Kilian a property called Holy Hill, a well-known Marian pilgrimage site about thirty miles northwest of Milwaukee.

1906 – The Carmelites took formal possession of Holy Hill in 1906 with a small community of four friars: Eliseus, who was appointed first superior, Kilian, and two lay brothers who had been sent from Bavaria. They used a renovated farm house as the first monastery.

  • Eliseus, a native of Holland who had joined the Bavarian province, had previously spent fourteen years on the Carmelite missions in India, where he wrote five books in English about Christianity and language on the Malabar Coast. He eventually returned to Europe, dying in the monastery at Geleen in 1941 at the age of seventy-eight.
  • Kilian, from Grafenrheinfeld, Bavaria, succeeded him as superior at Holy Hill, and remained for the rest of his life in America, where he acquired a reputation as an astute moral theologian. He died in Milwaukee in 1942 at the age of seventy-nine.
Carmelite Friars at Holy Hill in 1907.
Friars at Holy Hill in 1920

1912 – Other friars were sent from Germany to staff Holy Hill, and in 1912 they also accepted a parish for German-speaking people in the city of Milwaukee, where they built a church and monastery dedicated to St. Florian.

1920 – A brick monastery was constructed on Holy Hill in 1920, and in the following year a novitiate was established and American vocations began to apply for admission to the Order.

1931 – A large shrine church was built on Holy Hill and it was formally dedicated by Archbishop Stritch of Milwaukee.

1938 – A massive, six-story monastery was constructed adjacent to the church.

1956 – A new wing was added to the church to serve as a shrine for the original statue of Our Lady of Holy Hill, which had been brought to Wisconsin in 1878.

1962 – Holy Hill celebrated its first centenary. Each year hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and tourists visit the shrine on Holy Hill.

Discalced Carmelite International Growth

Another group of friars located in the state of Arizona in 1912: Spaniards from the Catalonia province founded houses at Tucson, Phoenix, Sonora, and a number of mission stations to care for the Spanish speaking residents of the state.

1916 – Friars from Arizona established a monastery in Washington, D.C. Joseph Mary of Jesus (Isasi), a former missionary in Cuba, led a group of friars from Tucson to the nation’s capital, and on October 15, 1916, a monastery was formally established in the area near the Catholic University.

1940 – The monasteries in Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., were detached from their European provinces and combined into the Washington semi-province. After the war in 1947, this union was canonically elevated to the status of a province under the title of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and further foundations were made in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, and New York.

1947 – The Washington Province made their contribution to overseas expansion. In 1947 six friars from the province established a mission on the island of Luzon in the Philippine Islands. Other friars from the province followed, and three years later the mission territory was separated from the Lipa diocese Lipa and established as the prelature of Infanta, a three-hundred mile strip along the east coast of Luzon and the entire island of Polillo.

1950 – The Holy See entrusted the prelature of Infanta and its almost seventy thousand inhabitants to the Washington Province on April 25, 1950.

1953 – Fr. Patrick Shanley, one of the original friars who went to the Philippines in 1947, was consecrated the first bishop of Infanta in 1953.

1966 – Fr. Julio Labayan, O.C.D. succeeded Bishop Shanley as bishop of Infanta. In 1980 the Carmelite presence in the Philippines was reorganized into a Commissariat under the General administration, bringing the involvement of the Washington Province in the Philippines to an end. Although some of the Washington Province’s friars continue to work in the Philippines.

1968 – The Province officially established a “Desert” community at Hinton, WV on June 24, 1968.  The new community was called “Christ on the Mountain.” In the tradition of the Order the ‘deserts’ are hermitages, dedicated to prayer, silence and solitude.

1992 – The Order officially inaugurated the house in Nairobi, Kenya, on February 2, 1992, for the express the purpose of being a formation center for the English-speaking students of philosophy and theology, coming from Kenya, Nigeria, Malawi and Tanzania. The house remained under the General administration of the Order until June 1995 when responsibility for it pass to the Washington Province.

1995 – The Washington Province opened a house of studies in Chicago, under the patronage of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein). In 2007 the house in Chicago was closed.

Discalced Carmelite Friars Today

Friars in the Washington Province, 2012
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