Whenever Sister Carmen Soto, a Carmelite Sister of Charity of the Vedruna province, thought about what she saw in her future as a young girl, she envisioned a life with a family of her own in a “little house with a fireplace,” she said.

As she knocked on the door to the Carmelite Sisters of Charity’s formation house in Silver Spring, Maryland years later, she was welcomed with open arms by the sisters. Looking around the living room, one thing in particular made her smile -- the room was complete with a fireplace. 

“I knew I couldn’t say no,” Sister Carmen said. “I feel that God confirmed to me that this was the place to be.” 

Sister Carmen grew up in New York City, where her family moved from Puerto Rico when she was five years old. She attended St. Bridget’s school, a Catholic school run by the Sisters of Charity in Manhattan. The second of four children, Sister Carmen said that while the religious sisters did have an influence on her, it was her “family -- mainly my parents,” who influenced her faith the most. 

“Family has a big influence on their children,” she said. “How they learn values, perceive life and commitment, the Church, and God.”

She added that her culture’s emphasis on the family deeply touched her. 

“I felt that pressure, I really wanted to have a family with six children,” Sister Carmen said. 

But as she grew older, something began to change, she said. 

“As a teen, I realized there was something within me that I didn’t know how to describe,” she said. 

While on a retreat with other women, Sister Carmen realized her vocation was not calling her to be a mother. “While there was a part of me that was happy, part of me was sad,” she said. 

But as she continued to get to know the Carmelite Sisters of Charity, she said she only experienced tremendous peace, another confirmation that she was in the right place, Sister Carmen said. 

Growing up in the post-Vatican II Catholic Church, Sister Carmen said she “saw changes taking place within the liturgy, but also in religious life.” 

“It was a time of transition within the Church,” she said. “...The dynamic of the Church was shifted to (have more emphasis on) community. Community celebrates the liturgy. The community celebrates the Eucharist. We’re a part of it… life within God.”

One charism of the Carmelite Sisters of Charity that Sister Carmen was drawn to was the work of the poor and with those in need. When writing a letter upon her entrance to the religious order, she wrote, “I feel that this is the community (for me) because of the commitment to the poor I have witnessed.” 

“I think that for me, that has been the key,” she said. “Especially, the presence of Jesus in the poor, vulnerable, homeless, survivors of domestic violence, immigrants. These are the groups we have all worked with at different times. This is not my ministry, it’s the community’s (ministry).”

In the years that the Carmelite Sisters of Charity have been in the Archdiocese of Washington, they have served the community in various different ways. Sister Carmen said her sisters helped found the Spanish Catholic Center in Washington, the El Pregonero Spanish Catholic newspaper, the first Spanish Mass at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, and the emergency shelter for homeless women at Mount Carmel House. 

“We have opened the door to many ministries,” Sister Carmen said. “We saw how this community really was in great need -- in so many different ways. Not only in language, but the needing to be treated with respect and dignity and accepted.” 

Her current ministry in Riverdale, Maryland with the immigrant community began in 2007. Much of their programs, she said, help women and mothers with support groups. 

“There is a lot of networking and community building -- but we help each other have the opportunity to give joy to families,” Sister Carmen said. 

The Carmelite Sisters of Charity, the order to which Sister Carmen belongs, has more than 150 sisters in 12 different countries, she said. With six sisters in the United States, based in the Archdiocese of Washington, Sister Carmen said that living in the midst of the communities that they serve has always been important to their order. 

“It’s not just working with people, but to be with them,” she said. 

Sister Carmen said an attention to social justice within the community is at the heart of their ministry. 

“In different ways, (we all have) a commitment to social justice and peace and justice worldwide because as a congregation we have made the commitment to justice and peace, integrity and creation,” she said. 

While many of the sisters in her community are retired, she said their mission simply takes on a more supportive role for sisters in other communities. They can still serve by setting aside money for an ambulance needed in Africa or for a community in India. 

“We are a part of the mission of the congregation,” she said. 

To women discerning religious life, Sister Carmen said to “listen to your heart, don’t hear it, listen. Take time to listen.

“Saying 'yes' to Jesus can be a transforming of life, I know from my experience,” she said. “It’s where the central joy of my life is -- following Jesus.”