Decades-long friendship with Carmelite nuns strengthens new bishop’s prayer life and ministry
July 13, 2018
Amid booming fireworks in the sky, clinking glasses in homes and resounding noisemakers throughout the Washington area, a peaceful silence surrounds the Port Tobacco Carmelite Monastery every New Year’s Eve, where for the past 28 years, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Michael Fisher has celebrated a New Year’s Mass. Just as the clock strikes midnight, he lifts the Eucharist and says the words of Consecration, so he along with the nuns who live there can ring in the new year with Jesus.
Bishop Fisher’s friendship with these cloistered nuns traces back to his first assignment as a priest at Sacred Heart Parish in La Plata, beginning in 1990. The priests in that parish were responsible for celebrating daily Mass at the monastery, which is formally called the Carmel of Port Tobacco, so he would loyally go there nearly every day at 7:15 a.m., even in bad weather.
Mother Virginia Marie O’Connor recalled how if need be, then-Father Fisher would park his car at the bottom of the hill and walk the rest of the way up to the monastery in ice or snow.
One day, Father Fisher and the nuns discovered that they both had traditions of celebrating New Year’s Eve with prayer, so the nuns invited him to come celebrate Mass for them around midnight, when they usually had a Holy Hour. They decided to merge their traditions, and the future bishop began going there every year.
“This is better than a Holy Hour, because we receive our Lord,” said Sister Marie Bernardina Penland.
For many years, a Maryland State police officer would shine a light down upon the chapel from his helicopter flying overhead as the Mass was taking place, because he always worked on the holiday to allow younger officers to be with their families.
“It was his way of participating in the prayer,” said Bishop Fisher.
The now-retired officer, Mike Hodgson, first volunteered to help around the monastery with things like repairing their sink or doing carpentry work, and before long he had become friends with them.
After the Mass, the nuns, the priest and their guests typically celebrated the holiday with cookies and hot chocolate. Bishop Fisher noted the nuns always send him home with a goodie bag filled with cookies and homemade bread.
Despite his busy schedule and the late hour of the Mass, Sister Dolores Peter Helm told Bishop Fisher, “You always bring joy.”
The Sisters of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel first arrived in Port Tobacco in 1790, and the current monastery still sits on that site where the first monastery in the 13 colonies was founded more than 200 years ago. Currently, 10 nuns and two novices live there, dedicating their lives to prayer for the Church. Their community includes one dog, Jennie.
“We consider ourselves the heartbeat of the body of Christ,” said Mother Virginia Marie, the prioress. “We keep the blood flowing through.”
Each morning, the nuns wake up at 5:30 a.m. and begin morning prayer at 5:50 a.m., followed by Mass at 7:15 a.m., which is open for the public to join. They have mid-morning prayer, breakfast, and time for spiritual reading and work, such as gardening or maintaining their gift shop, which contains handmade items such as scarves, quilts, linens, paintings, and more.
In the second half of the day, the nuns have mid-day prayer, lunch, mid-afternoon prayer, work, instruction for the novices, vespers, supper, free time, and night prayer.
“I know when they say they are going to pray for me, they mean it,” said Bishop Fisher. “It has been a precious gift in my priesthood.”
Leading up to his ordination as an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Washington, Bishop Fisher returned to the monastery for a retreat, which he said felt providential because it was in that area that his priesthood first began. In fact, he first came to the monastery while he was a seminarian at Mount Saint Mary’s University, taking a class titled, “On the Road with Roach,” where Church historian Father Michael Roach taught them about the rich history of the area.
“This has been my touchstone to the beginning of my priesthood and has given me strength and more encouragement in my own prayer life,” he said. “These are incredible women of faith.”
Mother Virginia Marie described their relationship with Bishop Fisher as a “brother/sister relationship,” noting the importance of staying in touch with family members over time.
While they value their relationship with Bishop Fisher, he is not their first priest-friend to become a bishop. They noted Richmond Bishop Barry Knestout, the late Bishop David Foley of Birmingham, Alabama, and Baltimore Archbishop William Lori as a few of the others who have become friends with them over the years when they served as priests in the Archdiocese of Washington.
“It is so rewarding to have them keep in contact, to let us know the things happening in their ministry,” said Mother Virginia Marie. “We are happy to encourage them.”
Sister Marie Bernardina entered the monastery the same year that Bishop Fisher was ordained a priest, so the two have journeyed through their callings at the same time. When another sister told her about the news of Bishop Fisher’s appointment, Sister Marie Bernardina was about to put something in the oven, but instead threw her potholder in the air and exclaimed in excitement.
“It’s a joy to see the perseverance in a priest, to [see him] grow in holiness,” said Sister Marie Bernardina. “It is a joy to hear the joys and sorrows of a priest, because our ministry is to pray for priests.”
By hearing the difficulties or joys of parish life, the nuns know what to pray for, and as Sister Marie Bernardina said, it “encourages us to go the extra mile.”
“We are very much aware of our ministry as missionaries even though we don’t step outside,” she added.
Bishop Fisher recalled how a former prioress of the monastery, Mother Mary Joseph, had said, “Though it seems we are hidden from the world behind these walls, these walls are actually enveloping the world in prayer.”
Bishop Fisher said he and his fellow priests know of the nun’s support, and “I feel I’m being enveloped by their prayer and love and concern.”
“Any one of them would be successful out in the world, but they bring their gifts to the work of the Church and the Holy Spirit,” he added.
Though Bishop Fisher now only regularly goes down once a year for the New Year’s Mass, he said doing so “is enough to give me encouragement and joy to bring back to my duties and responsibilities.”
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