New Carmelite Monastery of Jesus, Mary & Joseph in Fairfield, Pennsylvania

Many readers will be happy to know progress is being made with the construction of the new traditional Carmel in Fairfield, Pennsylvania (near the historic Catholic town of Emmitsburg, Maryland).  The monastery is set up as a cloistered convent for Carmelite nuns, a foundation of the Carmel of Jesus, Mary & Joseph in Valpariso, Nebraska.  The founding sisters number about 10.  While numbers are not the priority, the future is bright with a new up-and-coming generation of vocations that are coming from crops of homeschool families, a boom in vocations already unfolding in traditional orders.  Although the chapel has not yet been constructed, the above image illustrates the general plan for the finished monastery campus with twelve buildings, including a chapel to be built at a later date.  Masonry stands the test of time.  For that reason natural stone quarry has been selected for the outside walls.  The first buildings already built include the refectory building, the recreation building, the guest cottage and the maintenance shed, all styled in beautiful masonry.  Construction is expected to take about fifteen years.     

The building seen in the photos is the recreation building.  It has been constructed on the top of the hill where the finished monastery will stand, located in a clearing on wooded acreage in a rural area of Pennsylvania.  A temporary chapel has been set up in the new building for the time being to suit the needs of the sisters.  In many ways the monastery will be off the grid in a traditional sense, even heated by their own cast iron wood-burning stoves.  The sisters have no phone or email.  The property even has its own rain water cistern and root cellar.  All of this brings to mind the foundations that St. Teresa of Avila built during her own lifetime in the 1500's.  In short, it is a bit like living in previous centuries, a fascinating experience.        

There is no electricity, electric heating or running water.  Stacks of wood can be seen because wood is the sisters' only source of heat, the fuel they use for their cooking as well as how they heat water for laundry and cleaning.  Needless to say, this is a unique construction project which all parties involved, including the builders and contractors, find inspirational and feel a need to share.  The photos are from the Facebook page "Building a Carmelite Monastery."  As a cloistered convent, the nuns are cut off from the outside world.  They mail out a quarterly newsletter to alert their friends and benefactors of their news, musings and the progress of construction.  Even from outside the cloister, the draw of the contemplative life is clear -- especially considering this interesting lifestyle that the nuns are pursuing as a life calling.  

The buildings themselves are an inspiration and radiate creativity, a rare glimpse of a past generation of building techniques.  In an age when stonework is only a veneer facade on a steel frame, all the buildings are set to be made of structural masonry with quarried stone, bricks and lime mortar, seen in the exterior and some interior photos.  The floors and roof structures are made of timber frame construction.  The roof is made of traditional slate with flashing and gutter work in beautiful copper.  Even the doors and windows are being made with traditional mortise and tenon joinery, used by woodworkers for hundreds of years, locking into place without nails.  Door locks are antiques, traditional German/PA Dutch door locks used on exterior doors made of traditional cast iron, an obvious choice considering their durability and ease of use (they are also called elbow locks, because the doors can also be opened by pressing down on the handle with elbows, handy for those with their hands full, for example when carrying bushels of firewood).   

These traditional materials have been selected because they have already proven to stand the test of time.  The builders on the job site call it "Mother's thousand year specification," as buildings this old have survived the ages, the result of time-honored principles of construction.  The Reverend Mother is fond of pointing out that one aspect of designing a monastery is driven by spiritual realities, saying, "If it looks like a stone wall then it should be a stone wall."  The point being, it is difficult to form the interior life of a young sister if the nuns are living in hollow walls made to look like something they are not.  

Thankfully the week before Christmas the sisters received occupancy to their new recreation building.  In addition to recreation time, this building will temporarily house their choir (a prayer room).  Above is an image of the temporary chapel, located presently in the guest cottage.  While some interior walls reveal the natural stone work, others have been white washed, with plaster walls painted with milk paint.  Windows have been finished with milk paint on the exterior and tung oil on the interior, a drying oil made from pressing the seed of nuts from the tung tree.  The solid wood doors are antiques that have been refurbished.  The attic louvers bring in fresh air while preserving the look of past centuries. 

The biggest challenge is that building anything well today comes with a price tag.  Funding is a challenge that nuns face with great courage and trust.  These projects are pricey, especially when done right.  Extensive lead times are part of the challenge, with funds needed to be allocated oftentimes months in advance.  The funding issue also impacts quality and the timetable of construction.  If funding is available, construction can proceed as expected and will take more than a decade.  Meanwhile, the sisters have put their absolute trust, faith and confidence in God that He will provide the needed funds for this great project, as Our Lady wills it.  

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