Blessed Maria Teresa of St. Joseph in 1912 brought to Milwaukee the charism of the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus, a community that she founded in 1891 in Germany.
They are rooted in contemplative prayer with apostolic work, a union of monasticism blended with the spirit of service.
In 1916, those sisters founded the Carmelite Home to house orphan boys in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. It became a residential treatment center for adjudicated boys in the late 1960s, then closed in 2017.
“We thought that we could no longer offer services to meet those needs,” said Sister M. Rose Therese Castro. “That’s when we talked to neighbors and the community to find out what specifically was needed. Our former superior (the late Sister Immaculata Osterhaus) said, ‘How about a place for women with special needs?'”
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Because the existing building did not meet code for new use and renovations would be too costly, a new building was constructed to include 16 fully furnished apartments. Each has a bedroom, living room, bathroom and kitchenette where residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) can live independently under supervision.
The blessing and dedication was held on Oct. 15, 2019, the feast day of St. Teresa of Ávila, founder of the Discalced Carmelites. The place is called the Carmelite Ministry of St. Teresa, an apostolate of the USA North Province of St. Joseph.
Faith in everyday life
Four women moved in under private pay arrangements. The sisters have since applied for state licensure that will make funding available for more individuals.
Current residents are from 34 to 67 years old. They keep busy with outside jobs and with activities in the formation and enrichment center that’s open to other women and men with IDD. The six Carmelites in the community and volunteers lead classes in faith formation, cooking, arts and crafts, team building, fitness and Zumba. Participation promotes personal growth and independence and helps individuals to develop their intellectual, physical, social, emotional and spiritual lives.
Sister Miriam Teresa Alvarado teaches faith formation.
“I have to simplify things for them so that they understand,” she said. “We also try to personalize things, for example, what God means to them, their prayer lives, and the examples of saints and how they can model some of the aspects of their lives.”
The women can attend daily Mass in the convent, and the Rosary is prayed every day. A deacon comes in twice a week to go over the Sunday Scripture readings.
“They live their Christian Catholic lives, and we strive to give them good examples by teaching them the virtues of being kind and helpful,” Sister Miriam Teresa said. “We try to live the motto of our founder to seek, serve and love God in all.”
Participants serve others by making cards, rosaries, cookies and more for hospitalized children, people in nursing homes, the homebound and homeless veterans. There are outings to museums, sports events and fairs, and once a month there’s dancing, singing, Zumba and dinner for men and women with IDD. Their parents may also attend.
Linda Kenney’s daughter Joy, 38, came to see the apartments when they were still under construction and was one of the first to move in.
“Joy likes the feeling that she’s living somewhere on her own and it just feels homey,” Kenney said. “We don’t have to worry about her safety because the building is secure and someone is there all night.”
Her daughter works stocking shelves at Walgreens, and faith is a big part of her life, too.
“Joy called today to tell me that she got up at 5:30 a.m. to go to Mass, and that she was going to take part in holy hour during Lent,” Kenney said.
Having the ministry is a faith experience for the sisters, too.
“We take life so seriously, but their lives are more simple,” Sister Rose Therese said. “Every day I have new stories about what happened in my class to take back to the sisters.”
Sister Miriam Teresa noted that the women’s simplicity and innocence enrich the sisters’ ministry.
“You can wake up one day and not have any joy, and just seeing the women brings you joy and a newness in life,” she said. “It’s like a little spark.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.