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The Carmelites of Port Tobacco – Restoration

The Carmelite nuns of Port Tobacco, Maryland offer community prayer in their oratory or prayer house in August 1990.  The nuns gather there several times a day to pray as a group. (Catholic Standard file photo by Michael Hoyt)

When the Carmelite monastery moved from Port Tobacco, Maryland to Baltimore in 1831, the lives of the nuns changed dramatically.

Originally, Baltimore Archbishop John Carroll had secured a dispensation in 1793 so the nuns could found a school at Port Tobacco adjacent to their monastery. That was never necessary nor desirable at that location. But in a city like Baltimore it was very much needed, so Archbishop James Whitfield sought to renew their dispensation and the nuns opened an academy for young women at their new site in Baltimore in October 1832. Five of the nuns were dispensed so they would leave their enclosure daily and teach in the school. The curriculum was general liberal arts with courses in oil painting, which was considered an important skill for young ladies of a certain economic class.

The school continued in operation until 1851. After 20 years, there were many more schools in Baltimore and Archbishop Francis Kenrick thought it was more important for the nuns to live more closely to their rule, so he ordered the school closed.  

Once the nuns returned to their enclosure, they also began founding Carmelite monasteries in other parts of the United States, with the first new foundation in 1863 in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Six other foundations were made in the later part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century including Boston in 1890, Brooklyn in 1907, Seattle in 1908, Bettendorf, Iowa in 1911, Wheeling, West Virginia in 1913, and New York City in 1920.  From these, 19 other monasteries had been founded by 1950. 

In 1873, the nuns moved to a new monastery in the northeastern section of Baltimore at Caroline and Biddle Streets. The project had begun under Archbishop Martin Spalding and was completed just after Archbishop James Roosevelt Bayley was elevated to Baltimore.   

As the nuns settled into their new home in Baltimore and stretched out across the country building new foundations, their original home at Port Tobacco was in decay. The land had been sold to the Sanders family after they left. The Sanders rented out the land to tenants to farm. The tenant’s family lived in several of the former monastery buildings, but after several decades the wooden structure slowly began to disappear. Soon only two buildings remained, the former infirmary and another two-story building, which had been the last one built before the nuns left the property. The two buildings had been moved next to each other and served as the tenant house. The foundations of other buildings were still visible and many locals remembered the monastery fondly.  

In August 1933, Mary Talbott and her daughter Isabelle Hagerty were spending time at their family home, Hawthorne, in the vicinity of Port Tobacco. They had heard about the old monastery and decided to visit the property. During their visit, they learned about its unique history and decided to do something about the decaying site. 

The next year, 1934, marked the tercentenary celebration of the founding of Maryland and work was being done all over the state to restore the colonial past. Mrs. Talbott and Mrs. Hagerty worked to increase interest in the old monastery site. With the permission of Baltimore Archbishop Michael Curley, they formed the “Restorers of Mount Carmel in Maryland” in 1935.  Mrs. Talbott was the president and Jesuit Father John H. Farley of Washington was named the chaplain. The Restorers negotiated with the Sanders family and eventually purchased nearly seven acres and deeded it in the name of the archbishop of Baltimore. Jesuit Father Charles Hennessy, then the pastor at Sacred Heart in La Plata, assisted in the negotiations between the Restorers and the Sanders family.  

The Restorers engaged architect Philip Hubert Frohman to restore the site.  Frohman raised the two original buildings on a new foundation of brick on concrete. He also added in new supporting beams as the original beams were failing, and replaced the weatherboarding in the same style as the original. They did not plaster the interior walls but instead restored the brick lining to the wood walls. Frohman also built a new brick chapel supposedly on the same foundations. The brick chapel was completed in 1954, which was the Marian Year.

The Restorers had originally planned to host pilgrimages at the site of Mount Carmel. But the site in the 1940s and 1950s proved to be too remote.  Newly-installed Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle of Washington visited the site in 1949 and concluded that it could not be used for large archdiocesan pilgrimages because of difficulty in getting there and the lack of facilities.   The Restorers were not daunted and continued to host events at the site for all who would come.  

In 1961, the Carmelites moved from the city of Baltimore to the Towson area.  In that move they gave to the Restorers some of the furniture that they had brought to Baltimore from Port Tobacco more than a century before. Other pieces of the same era were also purchased to furnish the restored buildings of the Carmel. In 1968, a new Pilgrim’s Hall was completed that provided space for pilgrims with restrooms, and a place for meals and meetings onsite.  

In the early 1970s, the Carmelites decided that they would return to Southern Maryland. They went first to the former convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur adjacent to Little Flower School in Great Mills in St. Mary’s County. But this was just a stepping stone to the nuns returning home. By 1976 they had procured more land around the original Carmel, re-purposed the Pilgrim’s Hall, and built some new buildings on site. The design used now was that of hermitages with each small wooden building housing two nuns. These building were always intended to be temporary.  

When Cleveland Bishop James Hickey became the new archbishop of Washington in 1981, the sisters were not doing well in their new home.  Archbishop Hickey initiated a visitation of the nuns both within the archdiocese and by the Congregation of Religious at the Vatican. These were done to discover the issues within the monastery and find remedies to the problems. 

As part of the solution, new nuns were brought into the community, including a new prioress. Archbishop Hickey also made sure that the Port Tobacco Monastery was in communication and collaborating with other Carmelites in the United States. Soon the nuns built a new novitiate that allowed for the novices to have separate spaces within the community for education and formation.

Besides caring for the grounds and the historic building on the site in between their daily rule of prayer, the Carmelite nuns at Port Tobacco also engaged in an art program to provide some support for themselves. They made rosaries, needlepoint, embroidery, baptismal gowns. A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, their former prioress, Mother Mary Joseph was known for her icons. She is shown here working on one. Today the nuns there still sell embroidery, cross stitch, and sew handmade quilts, which are very popular. (Catholic Standard file photo by Michael Hoyt)
The Carmelites nuns of Port Tobacco are seen leaving the front door of the rebuilt historic chapel in August 29, 2008.  They begin to head the procession during the funeral rites of their mother superior, Mother Mary Joseph of the Divine Providence. Mother Mary Joseph had come from Terre Haute, Indiana to Maryland in 1982 to serve as prioress. (Catholic Standard file photo by Michael Hoyt)

Finally in 1989, Cardinal Hickey petitioned Pope John Paul II to provide an official canonical decree of erection, which was issued by the Institute of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Since then, the community has continued to grow and flourish.  

(Dr. Jacobe serves as the director of the Archives for The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.)