The Motherhouse for the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm sits serenely on a bluff overlooking the majestic Hudson River, and commands an impressive view of the Catskill mountains. The scenic property of 86 acres was purchased by Mother Angeline in 1946 and renamed Avila-on-the-Hudson. Mother Angeline not only intended it to be a place for the administration of the community, and for the formation of future Sisters, but also a place of beauty and contemplation where the Sisters could be spiritually and physically renewed in their work with elderly.
Statue of St. Teresa, Avila Grounds
When the Sisters first acquired the property, there were wide lawns, groves of trees, and a large, white residence of 19 rooms. Certainly a suitable locale for establishing a Motherhouse. Over time, as the Community grew, more buildings were added: a Generalate, a Novitiate, and a gymnasium. However, the most important building, the building Mother Angeline was most eager to have completed was the Chapel. In the span of buildings that comprises the Motherhouse complex, the Chapel is located right in the middle, in the center of everything. This is hardly an accident of design. Rather it is an expression of Mother’s vision, her philosophy that prayer (both liturgical and private) must be at the center, at the core of all we do.
Saint Teresa’s Chapel Chapel
In the Carmelite Sisters’ nursing homes that I have visited, I have noticed that the Chapel is always located in a prominent location, a place that is centrally located and easy to find. This is not always the case in other nursing homes or hospitals, where the Chapel (if there is even one) is often tucked away in an obscure corner of the facility. Again, Mother Angeline’s values continue on in the homes her Sisters administer, as they hold fast to the belief that God must be at the center of all we do, He should be the focus of all our desires, He should be the One around whom we build our lives.
Buildings are quite literally concrete expressions of our values and priorities as a society, and if we take a cursory survey of architectural history, we see how our values have shifted over the years. For example, in medieval cities, the dominant structure was the cathedral, usually an impressive edifice of stone and glass which provided the medieval imagination with a taste of heaven. With the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, massive factories with towering smokestacks dominated the horizon. Wealth, and the acquisition of material goods, took on a new prominence in people’s lives. And now today, our cities contain glass and steel skyscrapers, where transactions of high finance are carried out, and where millionaires (and billionaires) take up residence. It seems that our cities no longer have a place for God; or maybe, more accurately, God no longer has a place in our lives. And as creatures of flesh and blood, we need concrete (or brick or stone) reminders of faith and worship; we need to constantly recall this world is just passing, and that we are meant for eternity. This is why the first building Mother Angeline constructed after she purchased the property for the Motherhouse was a Chapel. Without a firm and solid grounding in God, she knew all her plans and dreams were in vain, as she herself said, “Our work with the aging will only be successful to the extent that it is the fruit of our prayer”. Let Mother Angeline be a reminder to us about keeping what is truly important at the center of our lives, even in the midst of all the distractions around us.
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