An apostolate of prayer

Lay Carmelites celebrate 50 years in Oswego
By claudia mathis / SUN staff wrtier

The lay Carmelites in Oswego have two reasons for celebrating. The first is that this year marks the 50th anniversary of their apostolate since it was established in 1957. A special consecration Mass for the chapter was held on July 16 at St. Mary’s Convent and was celebrated by Father John Smegelsky, pastor at St. Michael’s in Central Square. Secondly, on July 14, they formally received a new member. Eileen Sprague, a parishioner at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Oswego, was welcomed to the group at a Rite of Reception ceremony at St. Mary’s after completing 12 months of initial Carmelite formation. During the ceremony, Sprague was vested with the Carmelite’s brown scapular, a symbol of the bond between the Blessed Mother and the Carmelite Order. “The ceremony was nice,” commented Sprague. “My twin sister Elsie, who is a member of the Franciscans in Chesterland, Ohio, came to support me, along with other family members.”

Sprague said she almost entered the Carmelite Order when she attended high school in Cleveland, Ohio. She joined recently because she was attracted to the order’s charism, or spiritual focus, which is prayer. “I wanted to put more prayer into my life,” said Sprague.

Members of the lay Carmelites meet once a month. The meetings provide opportunities for the members to develop solid Carmelite family ties. Carmelites are expected to pray the Liturgy of the Hours daily, attend daily Mass when possible and read the Scriptures and other spiritual readings. “Looking back on the last 12 months of formation, I realize how nice it is to belong to a group of people with the same interests, desires and goals,” said Sprague. “I’m hoping to complete the remaining two stages of formation.”

John Alejandro, community director for the lay Carmelites, said the group is primarily an apostolate of prayer. Their profound experience of God through prayer empowers them to live out their other charisms — community and apostolic work. “The Third Order of Carmelites is an international community sanctioned by the Catholic Church with the purpose of working towards Christian perfection and of dedication to the apostolate,” said Alejandro. “Some of our members collect cancelled stamps for the Carmelite missions overseas. Others attend Mass or assist at Mass and pray the rosary every day in response to requests for intercessory prayers and also for the salvation of many. Still others visit nursing homes and perform other apostolic works such as distributing rosaries and scapulars. In the words of St. Therese of Liseux, ‘we can do no great things, only small things with great love.’ Any small thing done for love for God and neighbor is worth more than a great thing done for personal reasons.”

The lay Carmelites, also known as the Third Order Secular of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, is the lay branch of the Carmelite order.

The Carmelite way of life began in Palestine at the end of the 12th century on Mount Carmel near a spring known as the “fountain of Elijah” at the opening of a canyon. The spiritual father and root of the Carmelites is traced to the biblical prophet Elijah, who is known for what transpired on Mount Carmel in the confrontation with the prophets of Baal.

The original Carmelites assembled as hermits. They lived apart from others in order to deepen their conversions to Christ and to be transformed by a life of personal prayer and meditation on the Scriptures and by hospitality to pilgrims. Around 1209, they were established as religious. Their standard of conduct, which has been modified over the years, still serves as a guide for Carmelites today.

The Carmelites took Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as their patroness, and they gradually became known as the Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The brothers moved from Mount Carmel into Europe. Their contemplative life attracted many to join their ranks.

In 1452, Blessed John Soreth was authorized by the papal bull Cum Nulla to establish Carmelite communities of women. These monasteries spread quickly throughout Europe. Cum Nulla also officially incorporated lay people into the ranks of the Carmelites.

The Carmelites first arrived in the U.S. in the latter half of the 1800s. One group, from Germany, settled in Kansas in 1864, and the other, from Ireland, made its home base in New York in 1889.

In 1957, the first lay Carmelite community in Oswego was established at what was then St. John the Evangelist Church on Erie Street. On June 12, 1960, the first profession of vows took place, to Father Kilian J. Healy, prior general of the Carmelite Order. Anne O’Brien was the first prioress.

Alma Daley, a member of the group since it first began, enjoys being a lay Carmelite. “I like the fact that our daily work is sanctified,” said Daley. “Being a Carmelite has made me more aware of God’s presence. It’s a means to sanctify the sacredness in our lives.”

Rose Barsi, parishioner at St. Joseph’s Church in Oswego, has been a member of the community since the 1960s. Barsi said that her spirituality has been enriched through her participation in the lay Carmelite order. “I’ve always been devoted to Our Lady,” said Barsi. “I say the rosary three or four times a day.”

Rosemary Hanagan, formation director of the lay Carmelites, has been a member since 1994. She said she has always had a call to contemplation and prayer. “I have achieved great peace of mind through my involvement,” said Hanagan. She said she especially enjoys bringing Communion to the sick. “We try to bring religious piety to the community,” she said.

Since the lay Carmelites are members of a religious order, they pass through a formation period that somewhat parallels that of the sisters and friars of the order. It consists of three phases. During phase one, in 12 monthly sessions, the history of the order, the rule, provincial statutes, prayer life, devotion to Our Lady, Carmelite saints and praying the Liturgy of the Hours are studied. At the end of the first 12-month period of discernment, a candidate who is ready will be received formally into the Carmelite family and the local chapter.

The second phase consists of a two-year period, which entails intense study of Carmelite spirituality, roots and traditions, the responsibilities of the laity in Carmel and in the church at large, prayer, living in the presence of God, Elijah and Elisha and sacraments and sacramentals. Also studied are Carmelite saints and blessed among the Ancient Observance, discalced and lay people in Carmel. At the end of this period of learning and discernment, the member who is ready will make temporary promises.

Phase three of the formation is a three-year period that provides the candidate an opportunity to advance in Carmelite spirituality. Topics that are commonly studied include the writings of Carmelite saints and present day authors, including those who are lay Carmelites. At the end of this period of discernment, a member who is ready will make final promises. This is a serious commitment, one that is made for life.

Any Catholic 17 years or older may become a lay Carmelite. For more information about the lay Carmelites of Oswego, contact John Alejandro at (315) 216-6727 or email him at gatekeeper@oswegocarmelites.com.

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