Q & A with Cuba’s Discalced Carmelites

by Jill Day

Contributing writer and editor

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The 11 million Cubans resemble unshod Carmelites, separated from the world yet intensely aware of it.

Contemplative sisters of the Order of Discalced Carmelites, which was founded in Spain, emulate the life of Saint Teresa de Jesús , also known as St. Teresa of Avila. A Cuban congregation was founded in 1702 and has been a contemplative house of prayer ever since. There is a convent in Vedato, Havana, another in Matanzas; in all, there are 15 Discalced Carmelites in Cuba among its 605 sisters.

Sr. Teresa de Jesús Misericordioso, superior general, and her congregation dedicate their lives to saving souls, sustaining spirits and helping Catholic priests in Cuba spiritually. She and Sr. Lisset Maria de San José spoke from behind a latticed metal grille, a sign they are withdrawn from the world.

What does your contemplative order do in Cuba?

Misericordioso: We live a simple life of poverty devoted to prayer. We pray daily for the welfare of Cubans, old and young. Being apart from the secular world enables us to live God’s call authentically.

Our hope is the Lord will heal the Cuban people, because no-one knows their sorrows better than us. We pray for them twice a day.

Lots of people either come to us at the convent or call us and we make supplicants’ petitions our own. Cuban people love the Virgin Mary, our patron saint, and our spirituality is known: many know that here they find a place of prayer and they come and say: ‘My son is ill . . . .’

How do you reach out to people?

It is hard: we have to work to take the Gospel to these communities while respecting their way of life. The Word of God is so wonderful, particularly in our charism, and making it known to others is our joy. All the world comes from Him and we want to share our joy, our hope and our Cuba.

We live our charism, and people see it when they come to our church’s Eucharist. It is at 7 o’clock every morning, and seven or eight people come, perhaps three times that on a feast day. Our Sunday mass draws up to 50 people, and our sisters make the host for the Catholic churches in all but two of Cuba’s provinces.

How does St. Teresa de Jesús inspire you?

As our mother taught us, we pray for Cuba’s priests so they can be the defenders of the church, so they can be in the world without being part of it. This must be the sense of our dedication and prayers.

We do not wear shoes because we want to be reminded constantly of our humility. We live simply: our patron saint does not want her sisters to beg.

Where do you and the sisters come from?

I came to Havana from Mexico a year ago at the invitation of the congregation and most of our sisters are also Mexican. One is from Costa Rica and Sr. Lisset Maria de San José is Cuban.

Sr. San José, what drew you to a contemplative order?

San José: Twenty years ago I received my faith. I know the poverty of St. Teresa and I feel my life was fired with Jesus’s spirituality. I came here and asked to see Him. I am an only child so it was hard to leave my family – but the pull of the church was greater than my parents’ grief – and I am allowed to see them.

Are there many Cuban Discalced Carmelites?

No, at present I am the only one. Some Cuban girls do come and ask about joining us – but few do.

[Jill Day is a contributing writer and editor from Harare, Zimbabwe.]