Discalced Carmelite Monastery of Our Mother of Mercy and Saint Joseph

The liturgical arts are alive and well at the Carmel in Alexandria, South Dakota.  Each year Our Lord leads various Catholic women here on the road to discernment, while others perhaps stumble upon it while on a road trip to see nearby Mt. Rushmore, a national memorial in the Black Hills region of South Dakota.  The Carmel is rightly hidden, a cloistered community known as the Monastery of Our Mother of Mercy and Saint Joseph.  This quiet monastic gem was established in 1997 and heaven has blessed it with vocations.  

Today the community is filled with a dozen sisters who are young and enthusiastic followers of the Carmelite tradition.  Professed members are vested in the traditional habit and they are 'discalced' (meaning, without shoes).  The enclosure was built in the 1990's and includes a small chapel and gift shop open to the public.  

Since July of last year the daily convent liturgies have been offered in the EF (usus antiquior).  Why is this so important?  In short, because it is the tradition of the Western Church and it is deeply rooted in Catholic identity and the monastic Carmelite tradition.  Also because the Mass and Office are sung together by the community - there is an optimal musical status and ability of Latin on account of its vocal richness and melodic flow and rhythmic fullness.  Latin is better suited than English in the area of musical meter, prosody, declamation, idiomatic musical expressions, sung sentence structure and tonic accent.  

The Church in her wisdom, too, sees value in Latin.  The Vatican Council stated in no uncertain terms (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Article 36): "The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites."  In contrast to various misleading translations of this injunction, it must be observed that the official text of the document employs the subjunctive 'servetur' and therefore expresses a command and not merely a recommendation.      

Across the street is a parish church, seen in the photo above.  This is the church of St. Mary of Mercy, built by mostly German immigrant farmers between 1905-1907 of native granite in the style of the Romanesque Revival.  The parish is attached to a nearby outdoor shrine that is dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima.  The story of the shrine began with a local priest who had great Marian devotion by the name of Fr. Robert Fox.  In the 1970's he began leading youth pilgrimages to Fatima, Portugal in answer to a call he felt to do more to help spread the message of Fatima.  Later he had his own show on EWTN and wrote books and was a popular speaker at Marian conferences.   

Fr. Fox's apostolate of pilgrimages to Fatima gave birth to many vocations and it grew into what became known as the Fatima Family Apostolate.  The shrine was formally founded in 1986 while Fr. Fox was assigned to St. Mary of Mercy in Alexandria.  There he built a parish center in 1987 and gradually decorated outdoor gardens for the next several years, creating the Fatima Family Shrine, dedicated in the Marian Year 1987.  Each year during the third week of June he hosted here a National Marian and Family Congress.  Fr. Fox passed away in 2009 and is buried in the parish cemetery just down the road from the shrine.        

Fr. Fox was also instrumental in establishing the Carmel directly across the street from the shrine.  Over the years distinguished priests of the shrine have served as chaplains to the Carmel.  Our good friend Fr. Dana Christensen was the most recent chaplain to the sisters.  For several years he played a key role in confirming the sisters in their Faith and providing outstanding leadership and spiritual guidance.  As a chaplain and master-of-ceremonies of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, he was well versed in the rich patrimony and historical roots of the Carmelite Rite, the original Rite of the Holy Sepulchre that was used for centuries by the Knights of the Order and carried by the Carmelites from Jerusalem to their monasteries across the world.   

Currently, the nuns' chaplain is Monsignor Charles Mangan, an eminent canonist and mariologist who is a graduate of the Pontifical Gregorian University and Carmelite Teresianum institute of spirituality in Rome.  He will soon be returning to his alma mater to teach at the seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.  The new chaplain is slated to be Fr. Lance Oser, who will live as a hermit-chaplain for the sisters.  Below is an image of the convent chapel with the cloister grill visible on the Gospel side of the altar.  The beautiful wood carvings are of great artistic merit and bring to mind a quote from Chesterton: "Wood is the most sacred of all substances: it typifies the divine trade of the carpenter, and men count themselves fortunate to touch it."  


The altar and altar rail are truly exceptional works of art.  Carmelite monasteries have always been known for their beauty and nobility of worship.  Indeed the Church has always turned to various categories of artists for the construction and decoration of convent chapels.  The lasting touch is sung music.  The nuns themselves are the artists who create sacred music as musicians.  They have answered an invitation and fill the chapel with their voices, the sound of angels, giving a fervent and passionate gift to further embellish the sacred rites.  Indeed, God uses the voices of singing nuns to reach more directly the human soul.  Art is God's gift to mankind and the sisters when they sing become artists, also adorning their chapel with festive voice like an instrument that operates, sometimes unknowingly, touching souls beyond intellectual reasoning while reaching some where no one else can.    

The next generation of vocations for cloistered convents in North America is going to be stronger than the Church has seen in a long time.  The new crop are from homeschool families, many of them quite advanced at an early age in the spiritual life and well versed in classical education and Latin and musical studies and composition.  The nuns are well versed in the liturgical arts and are doing great things.  Below is an example of some of the beautiful artwork the sisters produce as part of their apostolate, with hand-lettered calligraphy.  A beautiful work of art and a perfect keepsake worthy of framing!   


As a Third Order Carmelite I have always felt a special connection both with historic Carmelite liturgical praxis and spirituality through the centuries.  Through my travels over the years I have been led multiple times to visit both the male and nearby female Carmelite monasteries on Mount Carmel in the north of Israel (a majestic location, by the way, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea).  This place in South Dakota is also beautiful, with great promise for the future.  I personally hope one day the parish church across the street will become the convent chapel and the nuns can replace the shrine site with a proper convent and cloister attached to the back of the sanctuary wall with a tall monastic wall enclosing the current shrine garden for themselves.  



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