Cultural exchanges among Carmelites create bond

One-on-one encounters through a unique cultural exchange program is how the Sisters of the Congregation of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the United States get to know fellow sisters in their missions in the Philippines and in Timor-Leste, north of Australia.

Currently, two Sisters of Mount Carmel from the Philippines – Sister Cristilyn Rubio and Sister Schielden Torreda – are in the New Orleans, Abbeville and Lafayette areas immersing themselves in what it means to be a member of the order here while learning its distinctive culture, said Sister of Mount Carmel Sheila Undang, assistant to the president and development director.

“This provides the opportunity for our sisters from these three communities to experience each other’s culture and collaborate,” she said about the exchange program.

Exemplifying vocations is what Sister Cristilyn does daily at Mount Carmel Academy as a substitute teacher, Come Lord Jesus group leader, field trip and campus ministry assistant, retreat planner, family and consumer sciences teacher and assistant for the Multi-Cultural Club and the Cub Corner preschool.

“Aside from the language, I am learning different expressions, words and how they are pronounced,” Sister Cristilyn said while serving in Café Campbell, Mount Carmel’s cafeteria. She said local Mount Carmel sisters have been so hospitable since she arrived in December 2016. “They greet me all the time and ask me how I am doing.”

Sister Schielden arrived in December for a five-month stay and is familiarizing herself with the culture and sisters’ ministries in Abbeville and New Orleans and “how religious life is being lived here,” Sister Sheila said.

Works both ways

Cultural exchanges among the Sisters of Mount Carmel have happened even before it was given an official name in January 2017 at the 36th General Chapter of the Sisters of Mount Carmel. Since 1962 when Mount Carmel Sister Carmelita Danos and Mother Marcella Foret established ministries in the Philippines, sisters have traveled to the U.S. for religious formation.

The sisters expanded into Timor-Leste in 2013 after recognizing emerging needs of this new, primarily Catholic country and thinking they could contribute spiritually, through catechism classes and prayer groups, educationally and economically, by teaching locals how to raise crops and animals.

The Carmelite Fathers and Brothers already had established a base there and helped the Mount Carmel Sisters in the Philippines get started, a process overseen by Mount Carmel Sister Beth Fitzpatrick.

“(We wanted) first to establish a relationship with the people and figure out what ways we could be of help to the people,” Sister Sheila said.

The missions have been successful in cultivating vocations for the Sisters of Mount Carmel. Currently, there are 25 Mount Carmel sisters in the Philippines, with six postulants and one novice. There are two Mount Carmel sisters, two novices and two postulants in the Timor-Leste area, Sister Sheila said.

Religious formation for the Timorese is currently nine years – one year in Timor-Leste for the postulants, then two years of formation in the Philippines, followed by one year in Timor-Leste as a senior novice and then five years as a junior professed Mount Carmel sister serving in health care, education and pastoral care ministries.

A soon-to-be completed formation house accommodating up to 20 sisters in Timor-Leste will allow the majority of the formation to be in Timor-Leste instead of the Philippines, Sister Sheila said.

Talks, visits, experiences

The Sisters of Mount Carmel in America keep abreast of their sisters abroad through Sister Gloria Ibalio, Philippine Region coordinator, and Sister Elma Calajatan, postulant formator in the Philippines, Sister Sheila said. They update Sister Lawrence Habetz, president of the Sisters of Mount Carmel, and the members of the leadership team on mission work, community living and vocations.

Visits to the Philippines by Mount Carmel Sister Alice Abate, former vocations director, during assemblies and retreats, and the 2 1/2-year service of Sister Andrée Marie Bindewald as an assistant formator of postulants and novices, helped promote inculturation.

Sister Sheila, who was inspired at age 6 to become a religious after witnessing the Carmelite cloistered nuns during Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Philippines, mentioned her own cultural immersion in 2013 when she arrived in Louisiana after being elected to the Carmelite leadership team as assistant to the president.

Her previous Mount Carmel ministries abroad were in a hospital, handling finances for a school, formation director and as a region treasurer in the Philippines.

“One major challenge I had to go through was the language,” she said. Even though English was taught in Filipino schools, Sister Sheila has been familiarizing herself with the expressions and English accents in various Louisiana locales.

Living in community with sisters also has been different here, she said, adding that because cars are sparse in the Philippines, nuns usually work in one ministry and travel together. This helps create a close-knit bond. Whereas, in Louisiana, sisters have access to a car that offers  greater independence to be involved in various ministries.

Sister Sheila has learned to keep an open mind and educate herself on each new task. She’s discovered that one culture is not superior to another and that the Carmelite charism of contemplation, prayer and service are the same yet “lived out differently, depending on the culture.”

Experiencing the breadth of the work of Carmelites worldwide is the essence of the cultural exchange program.

“We don’t really know each other, only by name,” she said, “yet we belong to one order and are encouraged to know one another and build a strong relationship with great collaboration” through exchanges, Sister Sheila said.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at

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