Nun too soon
Carmelite Sisters set to mark 100th anniversary in Oklahoma City
When the last box had been packed and the nuns could linger no longer, they moved away from the historic Villa Teresa Convent that had been their home for 83 years.
They had closed the beloved Villa Teresa School in 2014 under the watching — and tearful — eyes of people across Oklahoma.
It might have seemed that the nuns disappeared, but they just relocated, Sister Patricia Ann Miller said recently.
Miller, the religious order’s general superior, said the religious sisters hope to reunite with their friends and supporters on Sunday. She said an open house will be held at the sisters’ new convent at St. Ann Retirement Center, 7501 W Britton Road.
It will be a day of celebration because the Carmelite Sisters of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus are celebrating their religious order’s 100th anniversary.
With a twinkle in her eye, Miller said the come-and-go event is being held, in part, to let their friends know the sisters haven’t “walked off the edge of the Earth.”
Sister Veronica Higgins, the musical nun who was the longtime principal of Villa Teresa, said she can’t wait to see the expected visitors from the community on Sunday.
“I think people grieved the loss of the school and possibly the presence of the sisters in the Midtown area. I’m excited and I think they will be excited as well,” Higgins said.
A busy 100 years
Miller, 67, said the Carmelite Sisters came to Oklahoma in 1917 to teach members of the Choctaw tribe in a little town near Atoka.
The sisters got their name from the Rev. Edward Soler, the Carmelite priest who founded the order for the Oklahoma Province of St. Therese. Soler was pastor of a parish in Hartshorne and he found a woman named Marie Loretta Cavanaugh from Rhode Island plus three other women from the Eastern part of U.S. to become the first Carmelite Sisters.
These first sisters set up a school in Gowen and eventually took over a school in Hartshorne from the Incarnate Word Sisters.
In 1928, Oklahoma Bishop Francis Kelley canonically established the Carmelite Sisters of St. Therese as a religious order because the sisters community had grown to 12. Marie Cavanaugh was elected their superior and she took the religious name of Mother Agnes Teresa.
Higgins said the religious order has the distinction of being the only one formed by the Oklahoma Roman Catholic entity that eventually evolved into the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.
Recently, Miller and seven of the other Carmelite Sisters discussed the religious order’s long and storied history in Oklahoma. There are currently 12 sisters living in the new convent that was completed at St. Ann Retirement Center in 2016. One of the sisters, Sister Gertrude Marie Kotthoff, lives in the St. Ann nursing home.
They said at one time, there were as many as 30 religious sisters helping to run Villa Teresa School.
Each of the current sisters said they felt called to be a part of the religious order because of their love for the Lord and their desire to serve Him and the people throughout Oklahoma cities and towns. Many of the Carmelite Sisters said they also felt led to teach, an attribute shared with their earlyday counterparts.
Miller said the sisters may be best known for Villa Teresa School in Oklahoma City, but they operated schools and served in parishes in more than 60 other cit- ies around the state. Sister Sylvia Negrete said they often conducted vacation Bible schools in remote areas where the youths did not have such opportunities.
“Everywhere we went, we touched people. You know that song ‘Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’? Well, we did,” Negrete said.
Miller said three of the Carmelite Sisters served in Latin America for 12 years and others also served at Bishop McGuinness High School and Little Flower parish in south Oklahoma City for many years. And currently, Higgins serves as a case manager at the Center of Family Love in Okarche and Sister Barbara Joseph Foley serves at a homeless food pantry that she founded in downtown Oklahoma City.
“A lot of what we did was when there was a need, we filled a gap,” Miller said.
Different paths converged
The religious sisters said they think women aren’t entering the convent as they did in previous years because there are many more ways for women to become involved in the Church these days.
Most of the current Carmelite Sisters said they knew early in their lives that they would travel the path to the vocational ministry.
Negrete, 74, said she met the Carmelite Sisters who served in California for a time when she was attending one of their schools in Riverside. She said she and her sister helped the nuns settle into their new home at her own home parish and she was immediately captivated by their devotion to the Lord and the people in the community. The parish priests also influenced her decision to pursue her vocation after high school.
“What caught me was their prayer life and their ministry so I started asking questions,” Negrete said.
Sister Susan Clark said she was raised in a devout Catholic home in Pomona, California. She said she knew nuns from three different religious orders and she knew she wanted to be a religious sister throughout her school career.
Her father initially balked at the idea and told her someone else’s daughter could join the religious order instead.
Eighteen and excited to pursue the path she saw for herself, Clark said she persisted, which was unusual for her.
“I told him if it had to be someone else’s daughter every time, then who would ever go?” Clark said.
She said her father eventually changed his mind but told her that she would be welcomed home if she decided she didn’t like her new life and wanted to return.
Clark said she headed to join the Carmelite Sisters living at Villa Teresa Convent and never looked back.
Miller was exception.
While the other Carmelite Sisters joined the order relatively young in their late teens or early 20s, Miller was close to middle age when she decided to pursue her spiritual calling.
She said she was 48 in 1998 when she became the one the last religious sister to join the order.
She said she is originally from Texas but lived in Colorado for 22 years before joining the Carmelite Sisters in Oklahoma.
Miller said she had been seeking a faith community but she wanted more than just a church and the Carmelite orders filled that need for her.
“I took the scenic route,” she said, smiling.
Several of the Carmelite Sisters of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus pose for a photo at that Oklahoma City convent. They are: front, from left, Sister Joseph Marie Gibbons, Sister Teresa Margaret Layman, and Sister Maria Francesca Forst; back row, from left, Sister Patricia Ann Miller, Sister Mary Frances Coker, Sister Immaculata Commet, Sister Susan Clark and Sister Sylvia Negrete.
This is a 1928 photo of members of the Carmelite Sisters of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus religious order in Oklahoma City.
This photo taken in the early 1960’s shows several members of the Carmelite Sisters of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus religious order with a car that was donated to them in Hermosa Beach, California.
A vintage photo shows a member of the Carmelite Sisters of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus giving a music lesson to children in Oklahoma City.
Sister Patricia Ann Miller, general superior with the Carmelite Sisters of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus, talks during an interview at the religious order’s convent in Oklahoma City.
Sister Susan Clark, middle, of the Carmelite Sisters of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus, talks with Sister Sylvia Negrete, at left, during an interview at the religious sisters’ convent at St. Ann Retirement Center in Oklahoma City.