Carmelites looking to grow ‘neighborhood of care’

Looking to be part of the solution of helping America’s elderly, the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart, a traditional order of nuns headquartered in Alhambra, California, in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, have begun to unfold their vision of senior care.

The scope of the need, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is daunting. By 2050, the CDC anticipates that there will be 89 million Americans over the age of 65, more than double the number there were in 2010. Additionally, the leading edge of the baby-boom generation reached age 65 in 2011, meaning that every day for the 20 years following, an average of 10,000 Americans will celebrate their 65th birthdays. This occurs at a time when funding for government programs that aid retired seniors is being squeezed as other programs compete for public dollars.

So to do their part, the Carmelite Sisters have opened a Neighborhood of Care at Santa Teresita, a Catholic assisted-living facility in Duarte, California. The residence is the first of a planned nine cottages at a 12-acre site near the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. The cottage is home to 20 seniors; once complete, Santa Teresita will combine with other care facilities operated by the order and house more than 300 seniors.

“These first three years of operation have been a beautiful unfolding of our vision of what senior care ought to be,” said Sister Mary Clare, CEO of Santa Teresita. “Leaving one’s own home for an assisted-care facility can be a scary change, but from what we’ve observed, our residents have loved their new residence.”

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The sisters’ philosophy of senior care includes providing a beautiful home for residents, keeping them active and providing a rich, Catholic environment. Once all the cottages are built, they will combine to make a Neighborhood of Care. Other features will be added as money is raised, including facilities to bring physicians on site, a wellness and rehabilitation center and a pharmacy, as well as walking trails, a soda shop and a putting green.

Resident Margaret Mercer and a young boy fill a planter at Santa Teresita, a senior living facility in Duarte, Calif., operated by the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart. Courtesy photo

The cottages have private rooms and are oriented to a large community area or great room. Seniors take their meals in the great room, which is also used for socializing. The cottage has its own kitchen, and residents are encouraged to help plan and prepare meals.

Mabel Kaye, 96, a Santa Teresita resident for two years, says her room is “exceptionally nice.” Sharing the common areas has not been a problem, she continued, because with only 19 other residents, “it is easy to get along with everyone.”

Kaye was widowed 10 years ago, and as she progressed into her 90s, she realized she had to make the “scary change” of moving from her own home into an assisted-living facility.

Santa Teresita’s staff includes 16 Carmelite sisters, “who are a lot of fun,” Kaye said. She noted that the sisters are always encouraging her to keep active, whether it be with games, crafts, story time or exercise. She said, “They care about us.”

George Hugo, 94, is a retired surgeon who has lived at Santa Teresita since his wife died two years ago. “The nuns are wonderful, beautiful people,” he said. “They’re bright and well-educated, and take great care of us.”

The Carmelites’ facilities offer “Senior University” to help residents experience new things, such as outside speakers, gardening and fitness, and computer classes. The sisters operate a preschool on site, and the children regularly visit to interact with the seniors.

Order’s origins

The Alhambra Carmelites were founded by Mother Maria Luisa Josefa of the Most Blessed Sacrament, or “Mother Luisita,” in Mexico in 1921. Due to the anti-Catholic government and resulting Cristero War (1926-29), the sisters fled the country and came to California. In 1930, they established Santa Teresita as a home for women suffering from tuberculosis in 1930. They named the facility for a fellow Carmelite who had died of the disease in 1897, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Today, Santa Teresita has a 99-bed skilled nursing manor, which will be phased out as new cottages are built, and a 44-bed Bethany Assisted-Living Facility.

The sisters’ motherhouse is located in Alhambra, 10 miles west of Santa Teresita. The order has 134 members, including 112 perpetually professed sisters, 14 in temporary vows and eight in the novitiate, who combine the contemplative and active life. Apostolates include health care and retreats, primarily for women. They wear the full habit, engage in traditional devotions and are loyal to the Holy Father.

Sister Mary anticipates construction of the second cottage to begin in 2016. Each cottage costs $5 million to build. Government funding does not cover the cost of senior care, hence the facility relies on donations for new construction.

Catholic environment

What makes Santa Teresita a rare find among assisted-living facilities is its thoroughly Catholic environment. Residents have the opportunity for daily Mass, confession and devotions, including the Rosary, and the chance to join the sisters in their community prayers.

There are many beautiful works of religious art throughout the facility, and a large, traditional church is on the property grounds (near the pulpit is a plaque indicating that Venerable Fulton Sheen once preached there). The sisters know that prayer and the holy Eucharist — both reception and adoration — is central to their success, and they invite their residents to join in their devotional life.

“I love it,” Hugo said of the Catholic environment. “We have our own chapel and chaplain, and when I have trouble walking over, they bring Communion to me.”

He thinks the spirituality contributes to the positive environment at Santa Teresita, noting that residents get along well, and “we’re always talking and laughing together.”

Ultimately, Sister Mary noted, it is the sisters’ desire to prepare their residents for heaven. When they are near death, the sisters surround them with loving care: singing, praying the Rosary, bringing in a priest for the sacrament of anointing of the sick, and comforting family and friends.

Sister Mary said, “This is a crucial time when they need our help the most.”

Knowing that she was committed to her Catholic faith and would want a home run by nuns, Kaye’s daughters suggested Santa Teresita. It’s proven a great fit, she said.

“I wouldn’t want to be anyplace else.”

Jim Graves writes from California.