(Editor’s note: The Carmelite Order celebrates the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Teresa of Avila this year. The local Carmelite community has invited all the faithful to mark this day with a special Mass Saturday, June 6, 10:30 a.m., in the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle. In an effort to educate people about the order and the anniversary, Dorothy Ashley, a member of the Order of Discalaced Carmelite Seculars (OCDS), interviewed
Sister Mary Joanne Kuzmic,OCD, (aka “Sister Mary of the Angels”); Sister Margaret Ellen Flynn, OCD, (aka “Sister Margaret Mary”) and Sondra Powell, OCDS.)
Q1. When did you feel the call to the vocation of a Carmelite / Carmelite Secular?
Sister Mary Joanne: I knew at a very early age that my vocation would be to live a life of prayer to God. After reading The Story of a Soul, I knew the Carmelite Monastery would be my home. The depth of the spirituality of St. Therese who lived the life of Carmel in the Monastery appealed to me.
Sister Margaret Mary: My older sister entered the Monastery in St. Louis and from my earliest years I knew I had a religious vocation, but, assumed it would be to a teaching community because I didn’t know Carmelites existed. But after my sister’s entrance, I felt that was where God was calling me. My sister was Sister Mary Jane. We both entered into the Carmel in St. Louis and we both came on the Foundation to Jackson. She is buried in Gluckstadt, MS.
Sondra Powell: I think that the yearning for a deeper spiritual life began when I was very young and told one of the Sisters, in the first grade, at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Vicksburg that I wanted to be a nun. Over the years growing up in a Methodist Church, I was always involved in spiritual activities. I didn’t know that God was preparing me along the way. Roland and I attended a Marriage Encounter weekend in 1979. After that weekend, my whole being was transformed and I felt I was being guided and being called to something else. I felt a deep yearning of being unfulfilled. Later, I became involved with the Cursillo Movement, the Charismatic Movement and then the Kairos Prison Ministry. All of these were deep spiritual encounters and journeys for me, and as I grew spiritually, I still felt that something was missing in my life. In the middle 70s, I began reading more spiritual books, leading me to the writings of St. Teresa’s The Way of Perfection (my Patron Saint); St. Therese’s Story of a Soul: and The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross.
After reading these books over the years, I felt such a strong desire and pull in my soul to want to grow even closer to God and turn my life completely to Jesus. Then, one Sunday after Mass, Dorothy Ashley asked me if I would be interested in visiting their Carmelite meeting. I said yes. After several visits, I felt that Jesus had been leading me to Carmel by preparing me along the way with my involvement in other spiritual movements. I felt a great peace like I had come home.
Dorothy Ashley: I discerned my vocation as a Carmelite Secular after marriage and four children. Depending on the day of the week, I was wife, soccer mom, CYO Leader at my parish, Lector, and, physical therapist. Being a convert to Catholicism at age 10 and having staunch Baptist parents, I had grown up in the Catholic School system of Jackson and Greenville and attended both Mass and Baptist services regularly nearly every Sunday. While attending Alcorn State University, I was introduced to the Life in the Spirit Seminars and Charismatic Renewal held weekly at St. Mary’s Basilica in Natchez. All this alongwith a Cursillo Retreat after marriage, help me to develop a better prayer life and personal friendship with Jesus. I was looking for “more” spirituality and increased faith. It was about this time that I received an invitation to Carmelite Secular meetings held at the Carmelite Monastery here in Jackson. It was through the formation process that I discerned my vocation to become a Carmelite Secular.
Q2. What about St. Teresa of Avila’s spirituality appeals directly to you?
Sister Mary Joanne: After reading her autobiography, Way of Perfection, and all her writings, I was extremely comfortable with reading them. I felt at home. This is where I belong. All of it appealed to me. I loved every word that was in the book and it was “for me.” She was way ahead of me in her spirituality, but, I understood what I was reading and was extremely comfortable reading and understanding it.
Sister Margaret Mary: Well, actually, I entered the Carmelite Order, but, I really didn’t know that much about St. Teresa, but, I learned very quickly through reading and spiritual guidance. It was her love of the Lord, prayer, and, solitude.
Sondra Powell: St. Teresa’s spirituality appealed to me because she was a busy person like I have always been. Yet, in spite of this, she had been called to a deeper relationship with God, so I felt if I followed her example, I could grow deeper in my relationship with God. She makes it seem so simple, that you are talking with a friend, who loves you more than you love yourself. She had problems quieting herself and felt at times her mind was racing like a wild horse, yet, she was able to grow and the Lord would not turn her loose. I said to myself, if he could do that for her, surely there was hope for me. I still struggle, the path isn’t easy, but I have perseverance and I don’t plan to turn back. My prayer life has developed tremendously, even with my ups and downs. I pray the Morning and Evening Prayers daily, sometimes Night Prayers, read about our Carmelite saints and how they persevered, do Mental Prayer, although it varies: sometimes I pray, listen, use meditations or scriptures. I know as long as I keep myself focused on Jesus, he’s not going to turn me loose. I get distracted, lose my concentration, get sidetracked but I’m still trying and persevering to become more detached and to grow in humility and the other virtues. Carmel has been my lifesaver and the answer to the “something else” that I felt was missing in my life.
Dorothy Ashley: She was a contemplative, witty, often humorous, and a brave reformer who loved our Lord very much. Her teachings on prayer, particularly, the prayer of “Recollection” are timeless and one method I use in my own prayer life to help me to quiet myself and allow me to enter into the presence of Jesus in the depths of my inner being and commune with Him.
Q3. What would you say to someone considering a vocation in Carmel/ Carmelite Secular?
Sister Mary Joanne: Stay in contact with a Carmelite Monastery. Continue correspondence with the nuns. Continue your life of prayer. Remain faithful in keeping the Sacraments.
Sister Margaret Mary: I hadn’t really thought about it, but, I guess the best thing would be to get acquainted with the Community and the Community gets acquainted with the individual to learn more of our way of life and for us to learn more of her background and now why she came to this conclusion. As far as a “Come and See” weekend, that is what the Postulancy is for—to get acquainted with the life and allow the Community to discern if this person can adapt and grow in the life and for the individual to know if this life is what she is called to.
Sondra Powell: If you feel a deep desire to grow closer to God through your prayer life and to become a closer friend to God, the One who loves you dearly; if you have a deep yearning that you are incomplete in your inner self; if the Carmelite saints pull you toward them when you read their lives, then maybe the Discalced Carmelite Secular Order is for you. I tell them about the length of time involved, the commitment and dedication needed and that we are family, community and friends. I tell them that this is a vocation, a calling, and not like joining a club or organization.
Dorothy Ashley: I invite them to come to our monthly meetings at least 3-6 times and just sit quietly, observe and listen to what is going on. Does any of what they may see or hear appeal to them? Does being in “community” during our monthly meetings appeal to them? Do they want to learn more? Do they want a deeper prayer life? Carmel offers one a more prayerful, peace-filled life – – especially in the midst of our everyday “comeapart” moments or days. I invite them to ask questions, pray and discern whether God may be calling them to this secular vocation as a layperson who is a Carmelite. One must be a practicing Catholic at least age 21 who is in good standing with the Church. I explain the formation process which includes both information and formation into the charism of Carmel and tell them the estimated length of time involved in each step of the formation process. Most importantly, they should pray and ask God to help them to discern this as a vocation. Our Council will also be praying and discerning individuals who may be called.
Q4. As a Carmelite Nun/Carmelite Secular, how do you incorporate your vocation into your daily life?
Sister Mary Joanne: Our life is like a prayer and we have responsibilities that do not distract us from our life of prayer. So, it’s not a matter of incorporating duties into our vocation…it is keeping in the presence of God, keeping in union with God and still continue with our responsibilities. Each nun has her own responsibility: One is in charge of the altar bread department. Another is in charge of the gift shop. I assist with the community mail. But, it does not take away the essence of our vocation.
Sister Margaret Mary: Yes, that is why we are here. The vocation is a “calling.” Maintaining the life of the community and prayer is all part of our vocation and we live it all day long. My vocation is prayer and being present with the community in times of prayer and doing my best to supply the needs of the individuals and of the Community as the Leader. (Note: Sister Margaret Mary is the Community’s Prioress.)
Sondra Powell: I incorporate my vocation into my daily life with my Liturgy of the Hours, spending time with Jesus through my mental prayer, reading scriptures, and trying to be a better person toward my family, friends, those I meet along the way and myself, praying for others, helping others when needed, and sharing my talents.
Dorothy Ashley: My vocation is how I live my life every day, meaning, how I develop my personal relationship with Jesus through my prayer life and practicing being in His presence all throughout my day and night. It also is lived in the way I treat my family, friends, strangers, patients, parishioners, and co-workers. My vocation is a life of service to God and my neighbor by praying for and sharing my gifts and talents with them. My vocation is offering my life and everything I do as a prayer and thanksgiving to Him who is my Friend. My vocation is living the evangelical counsels of Chastity (according to one’s state of life), Poverty (of spirit), Obedience (to the Carmelite Order and Holy Mother Church) and, the Beatitudes as is stated when I made my First and Definitive Promises.
Q5. Do you have certain set times for “community prayer?” (Nuns only)
Sister Mary Joanne: Yes, we have 2 hours of mental prayer and 3 hours of vocal prayer. We take our meals together. We converse about the latest events at the dinner table.
Q6. What are the most pressing needs that your Carmel or Carmelite Community has today? How can the general public help with those needs?
Sister Mary Joanne: We need religious vocations to help us. We have much property that needs our attention.
Sister Margaret Mary: Financial needs…..we have to pay the hired help. We want to pay them fair wages. Thanks to our Foundresses, we have established a financial background that helps us attempt to support ourselves by benefactors through the mail and we have a mailing list that Sister Joan helps to take care of. That particular way of correspondence, I would say is one of our major sources of contributions from benefactors. Occasionally, someone will leave a piece of property when they die to our Community. If it’s not something we can utilize, we will get advice and sell it as appropriate.
Sondra Powell: Our most pressing needs: building up our Order with more vocations to keep us viable; helping our Friars and Nuns, when possible, so they can continue to offer the prayers that are needed to keep this world going. We can help by trying to live as examples of someone who has been touched by God, not being overbearing in our approach so that the way we live will attract others to Carmel.
Dorothy Ashley: We have a Carmelite Secular Community right here in Jackson—St. Joseph and St. Therese of Lisieux Carmelite Secular Community. We meet monthly at the Carmelite Monastery at 2155 Terry Road on the 4th Saturday of every month except July (no meeting), November and December (meet 3rd Saturdays of these months). Our meetings begin with Mass with the nuns at 9:30a.m. We welcome those who would like to visit our Community to come and be with us for a couple of hours. Shopping in the Carmelite Gift Shop is another source of financial support for the nuns. They really need customers to come and shop for religious items as this helps to support their household. Gift Shop hours are M-F 10-4p.m. and Sat. 11-3p.m.; 2155 Terry Road; Jackson, MS 39204. I would also like to invite the public to come meet and celebrate with us and the Carmelite nuns the 500th birthday of the Foundress of the Order of Discalced Carmelites, St. Teresa of Avila, at St. Peter’s Cathedral; 123 N. West Street; Jackson, MS 39201 at 10:30a.m. on Saturday, June 6, 2015 with Mass.
Q7. How many nuns can stay in this Monastery/Carmel?
Sister Margaret Mary: Well, it’s like this…the Monastery is built for the normal capacity of a Monastery which is 21. But since we haven’t had 21, we 6 have expanded into all the empty spaces (laugh)….everyone has a workroom and a playroom….
Q8. Where were you born? Catholic or Convert? How many siblings and their sex(es)? Where were you in the birth order…Number what?
Sister Mary Joanne: I was born in Kansas City, Kansas. I am a member of a very devout Polish Catholic family. I am the eldest of 6 children. Among our devotions, at Christmas and Easter, my father shared a wafer called an oplatki with mother as the family gathered around the dinner table. . My father would say a prayer, “May God continue to share his blessings with you.” Then, Mother shared it with the person next to her and said a prayer, “May you live forever in God’s grace.” Each person at the table partook in the family blessing.
Sister Margaret Mary: I was born to a Catholic family in St. Louis, MO. I have 5 brothers and 1 sister. My sister was a member of the Community. She entered Carmel first and I followed in her footsteps. I am in the middle of 7 children, so, I was the 4th child. My mother went to daily Mass and brought me up going to daily Mass with her. We all received the Sacraments. My parents sent all of us to Catholic School. We lived in an area where there was a new parish starting and they didn’t have a school. One mile in one direction, there was a Catholic school. One mile in the other direction, there was a Catholic school. My mother wondered where she would send us. Well, the one in one direction, there was a railroad crossing right at the school boundary, so, my mother decided that she wasn’t trusting her kids to get across that railroad, so we went to the other Catholic school (laugh). I had 5 brothers. In St. Louis, they have diocesan high schools and if you go to them, your parish has to pay part of your tuition. Actually, my sister and I went to a different system—a parish high school taught by the Dominican nuns because my mother had a cousin that attended that school and she wanted us to go there, but, my brothers all went to diocesan high schools.
Sondra Powell: I was born in Vicksburg, MS. My first school was Saint Mary with the Holy Spirit Sisters. I grew up as an African Methodist Episcopal member, although I went to St. Mary’s to church often and the teachings never left me that I was determined that one day I would become Catholic, which I did, after I married. I was the oldest of 3 children. My baby sister died at the age of 3 from asthma complications when I was 5 and my brother was killed in an automobile accident while serving in the army in Germany at the age of 23. I was 25. I was 23 when I converted to Catholicism.
Dorothy Ashley: I was born in Neshoba County in Philadelphia, MS. I began Catholic School in Jackson at Christ the King Catholic School, now renamed “Sister Thea Bowman School”, at age 5. I am an only child. We moved to Indianola, MS when I was 9 years old and I then attended Sacred Heart Catholic School in Greenville, MS from 4th through 8th grades. Ninth and tenth grades were attended at St. Joseph Catholic School in Greenville, MS and I graduated from Gentry High School in Indianola, MS. My parents were staunch Missionary Baptists and never converted to Catholicism although they consented to my request to become Catholic and allowed me to be baptized Catholic at age 10 on
May 7, 1967. They were very faithful in allowing me to go to Mass every Sunday. They would drop me off for Mass while they continued to their church for Sunday School about a mile away. Indianola was a small community and they knew the families at our small church, so, they felt secure that I was safe. When Mass was over, I was taken to the Baptist church by one of the parishioners if it was the second or fourth Sunday because my mother and father’s church continued with preaching after Sunday School on those Sundays and I had to attend. There was no way that I could remain at home and they be in church….it just wasn’t happening in my household!! Looking back, I know that all that was a great grace given to me by our Lord and one of the highlights of my journey of faith.
Q9. How long have you been in your vocation?
Sister Mary Joanne: After graduation from Loretto Academy High School, I worked for three years as a secretary. After those 3 years, I decided that my vocation was in Carmel. I celebrated my Golden Jubilee in Carmel in 2009. I have been in the Monastery 56 years.
Sister Margaret Mary: I entered Carmel in 1949. That’s 66 years.
Sondra Powell: I have been a Discalced Carmelite Secular since 2009.
Dorothy Ashley: I became a Discalced Carmelite Secular on Oct. 11, 2003.
Q10. What do you want people to remember about you?
Sister Mary Joanne: (She could think of nothing to say about herself, but, instead elaborated on Sister Margaret Mary.) Sister Margaret Mary is invaluable. You know Thomas Merton said, “The only person qualified to be the perfect Superior in a Monastery is Jesus. She fits in that category. She oversees everybody. She’s just perfect. She never complains. She’s so humble and peaceful. We go up and approach her and all we see is PEACE. So I say, “What am I doing here?” (laugh) “Go back to what you were doing.” She’s just a beautiful person. She goes over and helps Sr. Dona in the Gift Shop. She helps me with my mail. She helps everybody with their work. So, we all go to her. She gets to know each one’s responsibility. She oversees everybody and having the quality of doing that is just superb!
Sondra Powell: I want people to remember that I loved my Carmelite community; that I was dedicated, helpful and tried to use my gifts to strengthen my community and to help it grow.
Dorothy Ashley: My name, “Dorothy” means, “Gift of God.” I hope that people remember me as one who loved the Lord and others and who used the gifts that God gave me to build up His Kingdom.
Q11. Sister Margaret Mary, what gives you that peace?
Sister Margaret Mary: I think it’s something I grew up with. I was from a very large family, but, it was always very peaceful and everybody was always very amenable and it’s just been my way of life my whole life. Obviously, my prayer life contributes to my own inner peace. We were just a very peaceful household. There were 7 of us—7 children and 2 parents. We had to learn to live in peace. My mother didn’t put up with anything at all (laugh)!
Q12. (Carmelite Seculars only):
A. Tell me about your family (husband, married how long, how many children, ages), type of work you do, or, if retired, what type of work you did.
Sondra Powell: My husband, Dr. Roland H. Powell, Sr., is a retired veterinarian (Valley Street Animal Clinic and Terry Animal Clinic) and college professor (Assoc. Prof. of Biology-Jackson State University). We married December 23, 1955 and will celebrate 60 years this year. We have 5 adult children: one daughter-57; 4 sons: 55, 54, 51, and 49,
Before moving back to Jackson, I worked as a chemist and research technician in cardiac research and later, sickle cell anemia. After moving to Jackson, I was administrative assistant (manager) for our 2 clinics until 1997, and later for 2 of our sons in their business. I still help them with their accounting.
Dorothy Ashley: I have been married for 34 years and have 4 adult children—3 sons and 1 daughter who are 23, 25, 27, and, 30. I am a physical therapist and worked in hospitals, long-term rehab and home health for 29 years. I stopped work for 3 years to care for my widowed father who had Alzheimers. He passed away in 2013. I am now blessed to be working as a Pastoral Associate at St. Dominic Hospital here in Jackson.
B. What does your family/or spouse+/or children think of you being in this vocation as a Carmelite Secular?
Sondra Powell: They accept my vocation as a part of me. They also know I don’t let too many things interfere with my fulfilling my needs in my vocation. I try to arrange family things around my time needed for my vocation when possible. I do not neglect my time needed for my husband and family. It’s a matter of scheduling, getting up earlier sometimes, or staying up later at other times, or just using your time wisely instead of wasting it with frivolous things, such as TV.
Dorothy Ashley: Before making your Promise, my Secular Council asked me the same question. One’s spouse, in particular, has to be in agreement that one enter into this vocation because it is a way of life. My husband was very supportive of me entering Carmel. My children were in preschool and elementary school when I began my formation and by the time I became Carmelite, they were in elementary and high school. But, because of the support from my husband, I was able to attend the monthly Saturday meetings while he was the “soccer dad” and “taxi-driver.” (laugh) They are very accepting and supportive of my vocation. My adult children just say I am “different.” (laugh)
Q13. (Nuns only):
A. What do you like about living in a cloister? What do you like about living in community?
Sister Mary Joanne: The cloister provides the silence and solitude needed for contemplative prayer. The community provides the communication with others who have the same interests. This is my “family.”
Sister Margaret Mary: Well,….I’ve been doing it for so long, I can’t remember! (laugh) Actually, it’s a wonderful family spirit and I grew up in a very close family and I find community life very supportive in prayer and in duties, and, the cloister protects our way of life and gives us more time and freedom for prayer time and for privacy. I don’t know anything to compare it with because I’ve never lived as a teacher. I was a student nurse and I at times thought I would become a Sister of Mercy, but actually that wasn’t what developed. This is the only life I’ve known for 60 plus years.
B. What did it take you a long time to get used to or accept when you were discerning your vocation to be a cloistered nun?
Sister Mary Joanne: It didn’t take very long. I was the oldest of 6 and I helped my parents financially with another income so that after high school, there were three incomes coming in. And, I worked for three years. When two of my brothers and sisters graduated from high school, I decided to enter the Carmelite Monastery.
Sister Margaret Mary: It took time, but, I grew up in a large family and I was accustomed to sharing and taking my turn and doing the things I was supposed to. Now the prayer time….two hours of mental prayer a day…I think it took me….it wasn’t something that was difficult….but, it wasn’t something I felt that I was doing correctly for a long time. It wasn’t something I didn’t like…it’s just that it felt like I was fighting for my life to be prayerful two hours a day. It was just adapting to the structure as it was. I do one full hour of morning prayer and one full hour of prayer in the evening. The first hour in the morning is an hour of mental prayer and again from five to six in the evening.
Sister Mary Joanne: We arise at 6:00 in the morning and then we have one hour of mental prayer 6:15 to 7:15. Vocal Prayer/Morning Prayer from 7:15 to 7:30, then, Mass. Then, we have after Mass, Office of Readings, and, then, 4:30 is Evening Prayer followed by one hour of Mental Prayer. Night Prayer is at six followed by Supper and then nothing structured. Night Prayer used to be at 7:30 but we were down to so few Sisters that we decided to have it at six. However, the 7:30 bell still continues to ring. Maybe one day we will go back to 7:30. Bedtime is different for each Sister. Some go to bed at 8, some 9, some 10p.m.