By Annie Calovich Knight Ridder Newspapers
In the dead of winter, behind cloister walls and farmhouse fences, papayas and bananas are growing at a Carmelite monastery in Clearwater, Kan.
The roses are in bloom.
They are the visible manifestations of an invisible life that seven nuns live in a nondescript white house not far off K-42, a half-hour southwest of Wichita, Kan.
Rising at 5 in the morning to pray, turning in at 11 at night to sleep on blanket-covered boards on the floor, the cloistered Carmelites follow a spiritual way of life that is probably the most austere and demanding of all the religious orders in the Catholic Church.
No meat on their table, no socks on their sandaled feet, the nuns belong to a branch of the Carmelite order called "discalced" — meaning barefoot.
But here they are growing lemons and peppers in the winter, organically, in a greenhouse where they also raise tilapia fish.
"That’s Carmel, you know," said Mother Mary of the Angels, the prioress of the Monastery of Divine Mercy and Our Lady of Guadalupe. "Flowers … We have figs year-round."
The first Carmelites were hermits who settled on Mount Carmel — scene of the acts of the Old Testament prophet Elijah — in the 12th century.
Anybody who saw the movie "Therese" last year learned the story of perhaps the most famous Carmelite — St. Therese of Lisieux, who lived at the turn of the 20th century and is known as "the Little Flower." Her spiritual descendants carried the ancient order of Carmel to Clearwater in 2000.
There, the nuns live a hidden life. They keep silence except for two hours’ recreation a day. They never leave the cloister, and worship behind a grille and vertical blinds in their tiny chapel.
"I got acquainted with them behind a wall. You can’t see them," Janet Kellerman of Wichita said. She’s one of a band of laypeople who take food and supplies to the nuns and help with work that needs to be done around the monastery.
"Most people are intrigued by people who depend totally on God for survival," Kellerman said. "They don’t have a job and a means of income that’s consistent. I think (most people) are really taken aback that people are totally trusting in God to provide."
The nuns voluntarily choose, even embrace, the strict enclosure, the silence, the bodily privations in order to offer them as a form of prayer for others and to be united as much as possible with God, living as brides of Christ.
Two of the nuns spoke with an Eagle reporter from behind a grille in a parlor reserved for special visits.
The nuns were welcomed to the Catholic Diocese of Wichita from Gallup, N.M., after the bishop there could not guarantee a chaplain to celebrate Mass at their remote monastery because of a shortage of priests.
Even before the nuns went looking for a new home, then-Bishop Eugene Gerber had been praying for a contemplative order of nuns to locate in the Wichita diocese.
"Their presence … is a strong witness, it’s a countercultural witness, it’s a religious witness, and beyond that they’re praying and sacrificing for the church, especially for the diocese they’re in," Gerber said.
The sisters moved into a house owned by the diocese in Clearwater and have since bought 80 acres a few miles south where they plan to build a proper monastery. Gerber, now retired, lives in a farmhouse on the property and serves as the nuns’ chaplain.
The nuns have been featured in the local diocesan newspaper, and booths staffed by laypeople such as Kellerman sell their organic salsa, pepper relish and granola — "made with love and prayers for you" — at church craft shows.
The granola is made daily, and the sisters have learned to keep a supply in the freezer at all times for visitors who arrive asking for it. Three pounds cost $13.
The oldest of the Clearwater Carmelites is 71, the youngest is 33, and most of the others are in their early 50s. Mother Mary of the Angels is 53. Six of the nuns are from Mexico originally. The seventh, Sister Theresa Margaret, resident green thumb and engineer of the greenhouses and fish equipment, hails from Louisiana.
The youngest nun, Sister Mary Teresa of Jesus, made her final vows in July. A couple of local women have tried the life — for a couple of days. Those who want a longer trial can stay six months to a year, and then it is six years until final vows are taken.
The nuns’ tiny chapel — which seats perhaps eight people comfortably on benches — is open to the public, and Mass is offered at 8:30 a.m. daily.
When visitors come to the monastery door, a sign advises them to ring a bell and wait inside. The rustling of a full-length wool habit and the clinking of rosary beads bring the voice of a nun who remains unseen behind a turn.
"Praised be Jesus Christ," she says in greeting.
The nuns’ prayers and their isolation bring them closer to God, and that’s something that brings people to them.
"Sometimes they write and tell us their problems," Mother Mary of the Angels said. "We take their families into our hearts. It helps them very much to talk to someone who they know is very near to our Lord. … We share their joys and their sorrows. We are not here to be isolated from them."
People also call or visit the monastery asking for prayers, and the nuns even have an e-mail address for prayer requests.
"It’s wonderful to know if you call them during the day with a prayer request, they’re on it immediately," Kellerman said.
While the nuns rely on the providence of God through the generosity of their benefactors, their work brings in some income.
They grow organic fruits and vegetables in greenhouses where they also raise tilapia and pacu fish — all in an Earth-friendly circle that allows the water from the fish tanks to feed and irrigate plants growing in baked clay, then circulate through filtering reeds and yellow flag iris before returning clean to the fish tanks.
The nuns try to grow things as they say God arranged it, without chemicals.
"St. Thomas Aquinas says grace builds on nature," Sister Theresa Margaret said. "We have to be good stewards of nature because that’s gratitude."
They even make food for the tilapia, cakes that smell pleasant while they’re baking and that are preserved only with vitamin E.
The greenhouse produces peppers year-round that go into the nuns’ salsa and relish and that also make it onto the plates of diners at the Anchor Inn restaurant in Hutchinson, Ohio. The nuns grow exotic fruits and vegetables year-round.
They hope to sell their tilapia one day, but their eventual move to a permanent monastery makes them hesitant to install the necessary extra tank. They already don’t know how they’re going to move their other tanks and garden beds to a permanent monastery.
And they don’t know how the monastery will be built. They have no formal plans to raise money for it.
"They ask hardly anything for themselves. They just depend on divine providence," Gerber said.
Kellerman says it’s this outlook that stuns people who find out about the Carmelites.
"Seeing what they sacrifice for us is amazing," she said. "And they are pretty much isolated. They’re forgotten by the general public, and yet they continue to do it."