Carmelites celebrate 100 years in Davenport Diocese

Members of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns sing “My Vows to the Lord” during a 100th anniversary celebration Oct. 29 at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. The Sisters' order has been in the Diocese of Davenport for 100 years. Their current monastery is in rural Eldridge.

By Anne Marie Amacher

For 100 years the Discalced Carmelite Nuns have had a contemplative presence in the Diocese of Davenport.

The Sisters celebrated their upcoming 100th anniversary with a Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport on Oct. 29. Bishop Martin Amos presided at the Mass concelebrated by Fathers Rich Adam, Maynard Brothersen, Hai Dinh, Ed Dunn, Robert Harness, Tom Stratman and Msgr. Francis Henricksen.

The Order of Carmel started in the caves of Mount Carmel in Palestine, now Haifa, Israel. Their spiritual patron is Elijah the prophet.


Women joined Carmel in 1452 and the community spread in Europe. In 1562, St. Teresa started the discalced branch in Avila, Spain, which adhered more strictly to the hermit ideal. The order came to the United States in 1790, according to the order’s history compiled by Sister Mary Jo Loebig, OCD.

In 1888, the Baltimore Carmel’s prioress expressed hope that a community would form in Dubuque in the future. Postulant Sister Clare, a native of Dubuque whose birth name was Mary Elizabeth Nagle, also desired to see a Carmel there.  Although the Sisters received an invitation from Dubuque’s archbishop at the time, it was reversed.

Through the persistence of Sr. Clare’s brother, Joseph Nagle, Bishop James Davis of the Diocese of Davenport welcomed the Sisters to his diocese. Bishop Davis even made a personal visit to the Maryland Carmel to make a formal agreement between the two entities.

The newly appointed Mother Clare, along with Mother Aloysius, and Sisters Gertrude and Gabriel departed Baltimore on Nov. 22, 1911, escorted by Joseph and Elizabeth Nagle.

They arrived in Davenport on Nov. 23, and were met by Father Garrett Nagle. The Sisters lived at Queen Anne cottage on the corner of 15th and Brady streets. Mass was offered the following day to inaugurate the new monastery. Open houses were held for three days during which an estimated 5,000 people welcomed the Sisters.

Bishop Davis donated adjacent property for a new chapel, nun’s choir, sacristy and six bedrooms. He offered Mass as often as he could.

The chapel was dedicated to the Heavenly Father and was known as Pater Noster Chapel. After its construction, plans were made for additional rooms and dormitory space. The order allowed for a maximum of 21 Sisters per Carmelite rule and each to have her own room.

Because the site at 15th and Brady wasn’t suitable for further expansion, Mother Clare searched for and found land in Bettendorf surrounded by woods and farmland that overlooked the Mississippi River. Bishop Davis bought the land for the Sisters on April 3, 1915.

The new monastery, which the nine Carmelites moved into in 1916, was modeled after the Baltimore Carmel. The city provided a water hydrant, but electricity came later. A phone wasn’t installed until priests required one to place orders for altar bread the Sisters made.

On Nov. 24, 1916, the Sisters celebrated their fifth anniversary with Bishop Davis consecrating the new monastery bells. Construction at the complex continued for years as funds were available.

Three new Carmelite monasteries were made from the Bettendorf home: one in New Albany, Ind., in 1922; Milwaukee, in 1940 (later moved to Pewaukee); and Sioux City in 1961.

After the Sioux City monastery was formed and the changes of Vatican II occurred — along with several deaths — fewer Sisters remained in Bettendorf.  Sister Anita Schuman, prioress at the time, made the decision to move to a smaller monastery. Visiting from the Baltimore Monastery for the 100th anniversary, she said the Sisters wanted to stay within the Davenport/Bettendorf area, but in a more nature-centered environment. The Sisters bought land and built a monastery in rural Eldridge and moved into their new home Nov. 24, 1975.

“There were 10 or 12 of us,” Sr. Anita said. “If we would have stayed in Bettendorf, we would have used up all of our resources. All of us Sisters looked for a location and built small.”

Today the monastery is home to nine Sisters, said Prioress Sister Lynne Elwinger. Two expansions have occurred, including one involving the existing chapel.

During the anniversary Mass, Bishop Amos called the Sisters to the foot of the altar and blessed them. Afterwards, they turned toward the congregation and sang “My Vows to the Lord.”

Sister Mary Ann Schuman wrote the song.

“It is deep and precious to us. We sing the song at funerals. But we also sing it at festive occasions like this,” said Sister Miriam Hogan.

What does it mean to be a Carmelite nun? According to the history it means “to seek God with all one’s heart and to be at peace.”

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