Carmelites (Discalced), a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church with separate branches for men and women. The order was founded in the Holy Land during the Crusades of the twelfth century when Albert, patriarch of Jerusalem, wrote a rule for the purpose of organizing the hermits living on the slopes of Mount Carmel into one community. Carmelites look to the Old Testament prophet Elijah as their spiritual father, for he is said to have inspired their lifestyle of silence, solitary prayer, and contemplation. With an invasion of the Holy Lands in 1238, the Carmelites dispersed, bringing the rule with them to Europe. From that time until the sixteenth century there was a general relaxation of the strict rule, but Saint Teresa of Ávila then succeeded in reversing the trend. This sixteenth-century Spanish mystic traveled throughout her country founding communities of Carmelites, for men and for women, based on a return to the strict rule. Those who chose to adopt this life of silence, contemplation, and abstinence from eating meat became known as Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelites. It is this branch of the order that first went to the Americas.
Carmelites had traveled to the New World as early as 1527, but not with the intention of founding monasteries. It was not until Quivira (a mythical town) and New Mexico became slated for colonization that there was an opportunity for the Carmelites to join in the missionary activities of the Spanish church. In 1585 the order petitioned the king's council for permission to establish a monastery for men in New Spain. The request was granted, and in September of that year eleven Carmelites arrived. This settlement led eventually to the founding of the province of San Alberto of New Spain by 1590. In the sixteenth century, there were Carmelite communities in Mexico City, Puebla, Atlixco, Morelia, Guadalajara, and Celaya, which were followed by other foundations throughout the colonial period.
A characteristic discipline of the order is the building of a "desert," a monastery of individual cells designed to accommodate a reclusive life. One such desert, El Desierto de los Leones, was founded in 1606 near Mexico City. At its peak in the middle of the eighteenth century, the order counted over 500 members. The Reform Laws of the nineteenth century all but extinguished the order, though in 1884 a novitiate opened and Carmelites began to be trained once again. The province of San Alberto, however, was not restored until 1960.
In the seventeenth century monasteries were erected elsewhere in Latin America, including Colombia (Bogotá, 1606), Argentina (Córdoba, 1628), Peru (Lima, 1643), Ecuador (Quito, 1653), Bolivia (Sucre, 1665), and Chile (Santiago, 1690). In Brazil there were six monasteries by the end of the sixteenth century, and three separate provinces by 1720. At present there are nearly one hundred Carmelite houses in fifteen countries of Latin America, with new foundations as recent as 1980.
The first community of Discalced Carmelite nuns in the Americas was established in Puebla in 1604, with four Spanish women under the direction of the Carmelite friars. In the colonial period and nineteenth century, eleven convents were founded in Mexico. Spanish women also founded communities in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Cuba; convents were established by Portuguese women in Brazil. These are cloistered, contemplative communities. Currently there are Carmelite convents in eight Latin American countries.
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Brian C. Belanger