Life in the cloister: Inside the peaceful world of southeast Michigan's Discalced Carmelite Nuns

A novice studies in the quiet solitude of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns' Monastery of St. Therese in Clinton Township. The cloistered community of nuns, who currently number about 15 women, rarely leave the monastery, where they work, worship, socialize and offer their prayers for the Church and the world. (Photos courtesy of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns)

Living as hermits in community, sisters are dedicated to a life of prayer, contemplation and study in Clinton Township monastery

CLINTON TOWNSHIP — For most people, daily life is a series of trips: Go to work. Go to school. Go to the grocery store. Go home. 

Often, one finds meaning for one's life by going out into the world. However, a group of 15 women in Clinton Township have found even more meaning by never leaving home.

The Discalced Carmelite Nuns are a cloistered, contemplative community serving the Church and the world through prayer and self-sacrifice. They serve Christ and the world as a spiritual powerhouse, praying for the world and its needs. As with any powerhouse, the monastery is largely closed off to the public in order to keep out elements that would distract from the work that goes on inside.

The Carmelite Monastery of St. Therese and its residents dispel the common myth that cloistered nuns only sit and pray all day. The truth is that convent life is very busy, and the nuns are very involved in the world around them.

The Discalced Carmelite Nuns are dedicated to a life of prayer, following the example of the Desert Fathers who lived on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land, especially the biblical prophet Elijah. In the 13th century, a group of hermits gathered on Mount Carmel to live a life of prayer. Their chapel was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Eventually, St. Albert of Jerusalem, at their request, wrote a rule of life for them to follow, which is the basis for Carmelite life today.

A sister prays at the foot of the crucifix on the grounds of the Monastery of St. Therese in Clinton Township. The nuns are allowed two periods of “recreation time” each day, punctuated by periods of prayer, study, work and meals.

Over the years, many aspects of the rule were loosened, but St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross drove the restoration of the Carmelites to their more primitive roots, creating the Discalced Carmelite order. That order spread throughout the world, and today there are four Discalced Carmelite Monasteries in Michigan: in Clinton Township, Grand Rapids, Traverse City and Iron Mountain. All of them are committed to the Carmelite charism of contemplation and prayer, particularly for priests and for the conversion of sinners.

Life in the monastery's peaceful solitude

The nuns live a carefully ordered life that is similar to St. Teresa of Avila’s in the 16th century. However, many aspects of the life have changed for practical reasons. For example, although “discalced” means “shoeless,” the nuns do wear sandals or simple shoes with socks in order to face Michigan's winters.

The nuns’ day begins at 5:25 a.m. with Morning Prayer (Lauds) from the Liturgy of the Hours, the official prayer of the Church, followed by personal prayer time at 5:45 extending until Mass at 7 a.m. and midmorning prayer at 7:45, all before breakfast at 8.

The sisters cook breakfast in the monastery kitchen. Friday meals are penitential, consisting of little more than bread and water, in honor of Jesus' sacrifice on Calvary on Good Friday.

Following breakfast, the sisters work or attend various formation classes. The work is varied — maintaining the six-acre enclosed portion of the 12-acre monastery grounds, cleaning, cooking, gardening, sewing or repairing the various portions of the Carmelite habit (including an underskirt, a tunic, a toque or collar, a scapular — larger than the versions worn by lay people — and a veil) and other tasks.

Sr. Maria of the Immaculata, the monastery’s extern sister who was recently advanced to the novitiate, has a particularly busy life, responsible for some 18 different aspects of the monastery, including cleaning the chapel, handling sales of rosaries, books, cards and other items, and managing all the correspondence — a surprisingly large amount that comes from all over the world. Many of those correspondents request Spiritual Treasuries — beautiful cards that acknowledge the nuns are praying for specific intentions. The cards include delicate illustrations that were first created by a 97-year-old nun and are now recreated in a computerized process as a source of income.

The nuns pray and sing together during one of their five periods of community prayer each day. “You have to live with deliberate humility, detachment and charity,” said Sr. Mary Elizabeth, the community's novice mistress.

While any phone call or visitor is an interruption to whatever task is at hand, they automatically become the sisters’ priority. Just as Jesus made Himself available to all who came to him, so do the sisters, in the spirit of forgetting self in order to serve others.

“Your work is not the thing in your way,” novice mistress Sr. Mary Elizabeth told a Detroit Catholic writer. “Your most important job is whoever is coming through the door at this moment.”

“Your work is not the thing in your way,” novice mistress Sr. Mary Elizabeth told a Detroit Catholic writer. “Your most important job is whoever is coming through the door at this moment.”

Those sisters still in the formation process receive daily coursework in Carmelite spirituality, theology, Scripture, and the practical aspects of the liturgy and monastic living.

The morning work period ends with Midday Prayer at 11 a.m. followed by “dinner,” the biggest meal of the day at the monastery. The monastery dinners are simple affairs comprised of a starch, a vegetable, a protein and a salad. Originally, meat was forbidden, but is now permitted in certain circumstances. There is still a “preference for non-meat,” said prioress Mother Mary Therese, adding that Friday dinners are always penitential, consisting of bread and water. The sisters offer various prayer intentions at those meal times.

After dinner, the sisters have a period of recreation time that can be used for playing games, working on craft projects or enjoying one another's company.

Following dinner is a recreation period, during which time the nuns can talk with each other while working on crafts or playing a game, such as badminton, ping-pong or even basketball. On other occasions, the sisters may watch a DVD together, but they do not watch TV except in rare circumstances, such as the recent beatification of Blessed Solanus Casey. 

“The Carmelite life is not easy,” Mother Mary Therese said. “Many of us are introverts and actually our recreation times can be challenging. Sometimes it can be pleasant to simply watch a program together.”

The afternoon recreation period is followed by a one-hour siesta, and then Midafternoon Prayer, a spiritual reading time, another work period, and more prayer time before a light supper at 6 p.m. and a second recreation period. The day ends with Night Prayer at 8 p.m.

Visits from family once per month

The daily schedule or horarium only varies in minor ways throughout the year according to the liturgical calendar. The sisters can write to family members or receive a visit with them in the monastery parlor once a month. They generally do not leave the monastery, but depending on circumstances may be able to visit family in the case of the pending death of a parent.

The Discalced Carmelite Nuns laugh and converse during a special feast day celebration in the monastery refectory. 

The unchanging schedule can certainly cause a candidate to re-consider her vocation. 

“When you live with each other 24/7 in a relatively small space, there’s no getting away from each other,” Sr. Mary Elizabeth said. “You have to live with deliberate humility, detachment and charity.”

Relatives and friends sometimes find visiting the monastery difficult. They are not permitted into the monastery proper and are limited to the parlor, a comfortable room split in two by a metal grille — a fence through which they can see the sisters.

Unlike other religious orders, Carmelites live as hermits in community. Much of the day is spent in silence, broken only the words of Mass, the seven offices of the Liturgy of the Hours and the two recreation periods.

Daily periods of prayer contribute to a “peaceful life” in which the cloistered sisters focus on the spiritual gifts of faith, said Mother Mary Therese.
A newly professed nun smiles during her profession day. Though the community is small, the sisters' love for one another and for Jesus shines through their daily life.

“It is a very peaceful life,” Mother Mary Therese said. “We have sisters here who have lived with each other for 70 years. I am struck with the love they have for each other.”

Far from the dour image often presented about nuns in today’s media, the Discalced Carmelite Nuns present a calm, peaceful, happy outlook that comes from being in love with their Spouse, and His people. While they have forsaken the world for the solitude of the monastery, they are fully committed to offering their prayers for the world and its needs.

As the monastery’s website says, “St. Teresa summarizes the demands of Gospel living in the three virtues of humility, detachment and sisterly love. The fruit of these virtues is a community life based on sincere respect and trust, mutual service, honest communication, and authentic Christian freedom.”

Learn more about the Discalced Carmelite Nuns

For more information, contact the Carmelite Monastery of St. Therese, 35750 Moravian Drive, Clinton Township, MI 48035; (586) 790-7255 or visit

EWTN segment to feature local community

The Discalced Carmelite Nuns will be featured during a special half-hour segment at 5:30 p.m. Friday, July 26, and again 2:30 a.m. Saturday, July 27, on the Eternal Word Television Network. The documentary, “Unleashing the Gospel in Detroit,” offers a glimpse of what life is like behind the walls and grilles of a cloistered community.