My name is Brother Robert Chiulli. I am a Carmelite Friar and member of the Commission for the Cause and Charism of Venerable Mary Angeline Teresa McCrory. The Commission proposed having a Day of Prayer for Mother Angeline for several reasons:
First, it is an opportunity for members of the The Mother Angeline Society to come together in order to pray and socialize together; Second, we wanted to try a new way of spreading Mother Angeline Teresa’s charism. We have already created website, blogs, Bulletins, etc., and so this event is something different for us. Lastly, we want a special way of marking the significance of the 25th Anniversary of the Opening of Mother Angeline Teresa’s Cause.
I would say that most of us here are familiar with Mother Angeline Teresa’s story. She was born as Brigid McCrory in Ireland in 1893. She moved with her family to Scotland as a young girl and felt a call to religious life. She joined the Little Sisters of the Poor and came to the United States as a Little Sister of the Poor. She left this religious community to start a new one, the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm. It was Mother’s vision to establish Homes that were more homelike and reflected more of the American mentality. Since then, the Congregation has grown and has opened Homes all over the East Coast and the Midwest, including one in Ireland.
I have given you Mother’s story in very broad strokes. However, what we have been able to do in the past 25 years since her Cause for Beatification began is engage in a sustained, deep look at who Mother was. We want to discover what motivated her, to know more about the person that she was, and to explore her spirituality. The reason we do this is that we believe she has something to say to us today and that her message and witness are very much relevant. We have had this time and opportunity for research and I can say that we know more about Mother Angeline now than when we did 25 years ago.
How did we do this? First, we gathered a lot of information. We assembled and studied all her written works. We listened to people who knew her well and examined the impact she had on the care for the aged. We had the time to look at the entirety of her life and saw the grace, which operated in everything she did. It really does take time to examine another person’s life. These 25 years since the Cause for Mother Angeline opened, it has been like painting a portrait, one that has gradually become filled-in and detailed. Our hope today is share this portrait of Mother Angeline with you as incomplete as it still is. So what are some of the things we have learned? In what ways did we deepen our understanding of Mother Angeline? There are many. What I would like to explore is Mother Angeline’s Carmelite identity, and perhaps the reason why she chose to affiliate her new religious community to the Order of Carmel.
I stated before that Mother Angeline was originally a Little Sister of the Poor, a French religious community dedicated to caring for the indigent elderly. When Mother felt the grace of God calling her to leave the Little Sisters and start a new community, she knew that she was taking a risk, one she believed was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Nonetheless, it was a risk. In order to provide spiritual support for this fledgling community, she wrote to Cardinal Hayes the following: “Our only aim in requesting this affiliation (to Carmel) is that of leaning up our work, so young and inexperienced, against one of the greatest religious families in the Church.”
However, why Carmel? Why not the Franciscans as they are known for the service of the poor? Why not the Dominicans when in fact there was a Dominican convent right across the street from the home where Mother Angeline and her six companions were stationed? In fact, these Dominican Sisters first took Mother Angeline and her companions in after they left the Little Sisters of the Poor and sewed interim habits for them so they could still identify as Religious Sisters. Why not any other established religious community other than Carmel? Carmelites are known for being in the cloister and not for their active apostolates. It was not an obvious choice at all.
First, there was a personal connection with the Carmelite Friars living in the Bronx already at Saint Simon Stock Parish not too far away. In her last year with the Little Sisters of the Poor, Mother Angeline received a bouquet of roses on the Feast of St. Therese of Lisieux. The roses were brought to her by a Carmelite Friar, Father Larry Flanagan, O.Carm. Perhaps Mother Angeline took this as a sign and it might have been. However, I think that there were still other reasons for Mother choosing to become a Carmelite.
For those who do not know about the Carmelites, we are a religious community founded about 800 years ago, on Mount Carmel in what is now Israel. The first Carmelites were hermits who wanted to live lives of silence and solitude. They looked to Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, as their Protector. They also looked to the prophet Elijah as their spiritual founder because, as told in the Book of Kings, he withdrew from the world to live in silence and prayer. After some time, the Carmelites migrated to Europe and eventually established the female branch of the Order, the Carmelite nuns.
When Brigid McCrory was a young woman and was ready to leave Scotland to join the Little Sisters for the Poor, her pastor invited her to take any book from his shelves. The one she chose from all the books present was the Life of Saint Teresa of Avila. Perhaps this too was a sign that, like Saint Teresa, Mother Angeline would be involved in establishing a new religious community.
Saint Teresa of Avila was a 16th century Spanish Carmelite nun who spent her early religious life living in a large convent. She had difficulty praying and felt that busyness and activities in the convent were not conducive to contemplative life and prayer. Her intent was not to start a new Order but rather wanted to return to a simpler Carmelite ideal of contemplative prayer thus imitating Carmel’s original roots.
From this perspective, I think that Mother Angeline felt a natural kinship with St. Teresa because both experienced a feeling of having one’s vocation hampered by one’s circumstances. Both felt compelled to create something new in order to be authentic to one’s original call from God. Teresa had to be both a woman of deep prayer and an effective leader, if this new venture was to succeed. Again, I think Mother Angeline very much identified with her. Starting something new is rarely easy and there are usually many trials, misunderstandings, false starts, etc. Both St. Teresa and Mother Angeline experienced these and I think that Mother Angeline saw in the Saint an example of how to persevere through them. In a way, I think St. Teresa provided a necessary model, an inspiration for Mother Angeline as she thought, “How do I do this?” “How do I start a new community?”
Another Carmelite Saint who helped steer toward an affiliation with Carmel was St. Therese of Lisieux known as the Little Flower. When Mother Angeline left the Little Sisters of the Poor, St. Therese was only canonized four years and was an immensely popular saint. The appeal for St. Therese for so many people is this idea that God can, and does, use the weakest and smallest among us to do great things (if we let Him). It is in the small things in life, the small gestures, and the kind words that truly lead to sanctity of life. Given this example, it is easy to see how Mother Angeline would be attracted to this perspective. Mother Angeline never considered herself a bold personality, and only reluctantly became a Foundress. Like Saint Therese, she allowed herself to be used by God for His will. She was well aware of her own limitations. About the ministry to the elderly, this spirit of St. Therese of doing small things with great love, was the real guiding principle in Homes she founded. I think it is an interesting coincidence that just as Therese was the youngest Sister when she joined the Carmel of Lisieux, Mother Angeline was the youngest in the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm when it was founded. So, perhaps here was another Carmelite model for Mother Angeline that God can work through the youngest in a community.
An essential aspect of Carmelite spirituality is the importance of prayer. If the Franciscans are known for poverty and the Dominicans for preaching, the Carmelites are known for prayer, particularly contemplative prayer. By affiliating her new community with the Carmelites, Mother Angeline sought to build into this fledgling community a life and love of prayer. In her writings over the years, Mother Angeline constantly reminded her Sisters on the importance and necessity of prayer. She encouraged them on how everything they do, any success achieved, should done through prayer. Working hard is fine and necessary. Yet, if it is not rooted in prayer, if it is not oriented towards God, then it is essentially hollow. Her words, “Do not neglect prayer, for if you do, you will not succeed in accomplishing in a whole day that which you could have done in one hour, and your work will be imperfect.”
The Carmelite Order does not have a historical Founder like St. Francis, St. Dominic or St. Ignatius. Rather, we look to Mary and Elijah as our spiritual founders. Both of these figures had a profound attraction for Mother Angeline in her life as Carmelite. Certainly, Mother Angeline was deeply devoted to Our Blessed Mother before she became a Carmelite as any good Catholic should be. However, as a Carmelite, she looked to Mary, as St. Therese did, as “more Mother than Queen.” Our Lady of Mount Carmel is a very maternal, protective image of Our Lady, as she holds the Scapular along with her Child. This simple and humble view of Mary is one that Mother Angeline was very much attracted to. She wrote, “Our Blessed Lady practiced poverty and knew its blessings as not another creature could know them. It is significant that in the moment of her glory when she gave Jesus to the world, Mary had not even the ordinary comfort of an ordinary poor woman. She was surrounded by poverty that was actually abject. But she had Jesus, and He was all to her. Let us learn from her so that we may truly abandon all things and find Christ.”
As for Elijah, it relates to another aspect of Carmelite spirituality that Mother Angeline adopted: prophetic vocation. Prophets are those who have the task of bringing people back to faithfulness to God. This is a powerful theme in the Old Testament. Carmelites, who look to the prophet Elijah as their spiritual founder, see this as part of our charism and tradition. Mother Angeline, with her role as Foundress and advocate for the elderly, was prophetic. I have wondered why it was Mother Angeline, what was it about her, that allowed her to see that the old people in the Home she was serving deserved something better? What did she see that others did not? She believed that the old people should be living in places more homelike, less institutional, that married couples could be together, and that people should have things from home to make their room more welcoming. Nothing radical, at least in our modern way of thinking. However, this was not done 90 years ago. It was radical enough idea that Mother Angeline felt that she had to leave her religious community, one that she deeply loved, in order to bring it to fruition. For a prophet, the message is never about themselves, it is something carried out in obedience to God (and not always willingly, and usually never without a personal cost). To follow this call for a new type of ministry to the aged, Mother Angeline had to give up the security of the Little Sisters of the Poor to venture out into the unknown. She had six companions with her but no money and no guarantee of success. All this at the beginning of the Great Depression. It was by no means easy and I can imagine that Mother Angeline wondered in those early days if she was really doing the right thing. Maybe she had made a mistake. Maybe she should go back to the Little Sisters of the Poor. Yet, her call was strong enough to see her through these doubts and helped her persevere.
Interestingly, and indicative of Mother Angeline’s character, she never saw the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm as “her” congregation, as it flowed from her imagination and that she alone was responsible for its success. Rather, while she recognized that she was the Foundress of the community, she knew that her role was in service to the congregation and its charism. That it was more important than she was. She was a strong leader and an effective and efficient one, but she never identified herself as the community. It was like, “It is not about me. It is about the old people. It’s about treating them as you would treat Christ.”
It was necessary for Mother Angeline, as it was for the new Sisters who joined the community, to develop a Carmelite identity, to learn what it was to be a Carmelite. Therefore, as the Foundress, while she was busy establishing new homes for the aged, she herself was learning what Carmel was all about. It becomes evident in her writings that she does take on this Carmelite identity as she constantly reminds her Sisters about the importance of prayer. It has been said that Carmelite Spirituality is about transformation, a lifetime of transforming our wills to God’s will. It is learning to see as God sees so that we become attuned to the activity of grace all around us, in the joys and sufferings of life, and not necessarily in the extraordinary circumstances. I would say that this certainly was Mother Angeline’s perspective, particularly in the ministry to the aged. She encouraged her Sisters to be attentive to the residents’ moods and to make their golden years happy ones. Even though old age is marked with decline, illness and infirmity, she saw that God’s grace was still active, that His love was present among the residents, staff and the Sisters. If we can learn to see as God sees, then we can perceive the priceless value in those that society says are less useful.
Mother Angeline had to move from knowing about the Carmelites to being a Carmelite. She had to do this as the community was just taking shape. She was responsible for imparting a Carmelite character as she herself was also learning about the Order, its heritage, its charism. By joining Carmel, it provided the community with a spiritual identity, a connection to a history, a tradition. However, Mother Angeline also knew that it was a challenge of having to live up to this identity. We have to be who we say we are. We just cannot look like Carmelites. We have to be Carmelites. Carmelites with this active apostolate.
I wonder if she wanted to fuse this desire for a new apostolate for the aged with a spiritual tradition. It came from her experience from the Little Sisters of the Poor, of something she felt was lacking in her previous community. I think that her choice of being a Carmelite was more than a way of establishing some kind of legitimacy for the community, of being pragmatic, but a reflection of Mother’s genuine desire for her community, her Sisters to be Sisters who prioritized prayer, who sought God in all that they did in their work for the aged, and to keep that focus on God and on doing his will. It is significant and telling that we are honoring and remembering this woman known for her work with the aged in a very Carmelite way- a Day of Prayer. What we are doing today is a result of her legacy, her vision, which is of uniting care for the elderly with a spirit of prayerfulness.
Each of us in our own way feel a certain gratitude and admiration for the life and legacy of Mother Angeline. Perhaps the best way we can honor this legacy is to follow the example she has provided for us. With these words of Mother Angeline Teresa, I think we would do well to remember them and to live by them.
“I would ask that you make God the very center of your existence. The human heart is made to love. God should continually be in our thoughts.”