Monasteries of Great Britain and Ireland – Carmelites

Carmelite FriarArticle

Contemplative. Under Solemn Vows. Founded in the Twelfth Century. Motto: Zelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo erercituum.

The Order of Our Blessed Lady of Mount Carmel derives its origin as well as its name from Mount Carmel in Palestine, famous as the scene of the contest between the prophet Elias and the priests of Baal. The “Sons of the Prophets,” established by the prophet Samuel, acknowledged Elias, and after him his disciple Eliseus, as their Superior. These Scriptural facts have induced the early Fathers, especially Saint John Chrysostom, to consider Elias as the founder and model of religious life, and Mount Carmel having been a place of pilgrimage as early as the fourth century, and the seat of a monastery in honour of Saint Eliseus since the sixth, the Carmelites considered themselves justified in admitting, if not an uninterrupted, at least a moral connection between themselves and the ” Sons of the Prophets” and their celebrated Superiors. It is not necessary to enter into the details of a somewhat vehement discussion on this point, which began in the fourteenth century and lasted until the end of the seventeenth, when the Pope imposed silence upon the parties concerned. Suffice it to say that as a religious Order, in the modern sense of the term, the Carmelites cannot be traced farther back than the times of the Crusades. By the end of the twelfth century they had settlements not only on Mount Carmel, but also on the banks of the Jordan, in Jerusalem, and many other places of the Holy Land, as well as at Antioch. A rule was given them by Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, in 1209, which received the approbation of each successive Pope until the second Council of Lyons (1274) confirmed the Order once for all.

The rise of the Mahommedan power in Palestine made it impossible for Christians to live there in safety, and drove the Hermits from Mount Carmel; they founded a convent in Cyprus and another in Sicily; some went to Provence, while others came to England (Christmas, 1241), where they founded four houses: one about three miles from Alnwick, in Northumberland, now a ruin; another near Aylesford, in Kent, which is still preserved; the third near Newenden, also in Kent; and one on the coast of Norfolk. At a General Chapter held in 1247 at Aylesford, when Saint Simon Stock was elected General, it was decided to apply to the Pope Innocent IV for some changes in the rule, whereby the Carmelite friars were transformed from a purely contemplative into a Mendicant Order. Now foundations became numerous, the principal ones being London (1248), Cambridge (1249), Oxford (1253) and York (1255). At the same time much opposition arose owing to the Order not having been approved by the fourth Lateran Council (1215), while, on the other hand, the austerity of the rule caused discontent among the younger Religious, many of whom had joined it when they were undergraduates of the two Universities. In this sore plight Saint Simon Stock addressed himself to Our Lady, asking her protection against the attacks of the secular clergy, and for a privilege which might reassure his discouraged brethren. Our Lady appeared to him 16 July 1262 (not as is generally stated, 1251), advising a further appeal to the Pope, and at the same time promising that “whosoever dies in the Carmelite habit shall not suffer everlasting fire.” This is the origin of the devotion to the brown scapular. A miraculous event which took place very soon after showed Saint Simon that the promise held good not only with regard to the friars, but in the case of any layman who donned the religious habit. Since it can be worn without inconvenience and in a small form, the scapular has come to be considered the essential part of the Carmelite habit, to which the promise is exclusively attached. Our Lady also appeared to John XXII shortly before his election to the Papacy, promising that those who not only wear the Carmelite habit, but also fulfill certain conditions, shall not remain in Purgatory beyond the first Saturday after death (Sabbatine Indulgence, 1316).

The assurance thus granted by the Blessed Virgin had its effect, inasmuch as from 1267 to the end of the century sixteen convents were founded in England, and another fifteen in the first half of the fourteenth century, not to mention a dozen houses in Scotland and twice that number in Ireland. Although less numerous than the Franciscans and Friars Preachers, the Carmelites became very popular, especially during the ascendency of the House of Lancaster, when they held the position of Royal confessors, which involved a power not unlike that of a minister of public worship in modern times. Towards the end of the fourteenth century there were as many as 1,500 Carmelite friars in England (and Scotland?), but 100 years later the total number of English friars was only 600. In addition to their colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, they had a large school in London (studium generate), to which students flocked from every province of the Order, besides schools of philosophy at Winchester, of theology at Coventry, etc.

During the great Schism the Order, like all religious bodies, was split into Urbanists and Clementists, according to the politics of the various countries. The English province belonged to the Urbanist, the Scotch to the Clementist obedience. Upon peace being restored to the Church, the two branches were united; but forty years of division had produced differences which could not easily be overcome by the rulings of General Chapters 9 but had to be met by reforms. Pope Eugenius IV having (in 1431) mitigated the rule in several points, John Soreth undertook a reform of the Order. To him also is due the establishment of convents for nuns who followed the rule of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. His work as reformer was successfully continued by John Baptist Spagnuoli and the Congregation of Mantua, and later on by the Congregations of Mount Olivet, of Albi, Rennes, and Touraine.

But the most celebrated reform is that inaugurated in 1562 by the great Spanish Saint, Teresa de Ahumada. Deploring the havoc made by Protestantism, she conceived the idea of founding a small convent where the primitive rule should be observed in all its austerity, and such was the success attending her work that at the time of her death (1582) there were seventeen convents of nuns and fifteen houses of friars, who, under the government of a Provincial, carried out the instructions of Teresa of Jesus and John of the Cross. Notwithstanding unheard-of opposition, the reform spread rapidly, not only in Spain and Portugal, but also in Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Poland, and other countries. The Reformed or Discalced Carmelites were finally separated from the Calced in 1592, and a further division took place in 1597, when the foreign houses of the Order were established under the title of Italian Congregation, as distinguished from the purely Spanish provinces. Under the administration of the Marquis de Pombal, in the second half of the eighteenth century, the Portuguese province became independent of the Spanish Superiors.

The object of Saint Teresa’s reform was to re-introduce the purely contemplative life, and although the rule is very strict in itself, it was further improved upon by the foundation of the “Deserts,” a certain number of convents where the eremitical life is practised in a higher degree than even in a Charterhouse. But Saint Teresa was also anxious to see her Order devote itself to missionary work, and during her lifetime missions were founded on the Congo and in Mexico. The Italian Congregation took up the missions with zest. From Persia, their first field of labour, they proceeded to Bombay, Goa, Quilon and other parts of the Indian Peninsula; they even endeavoured, though unsuccessfully, to penetrate into China and Japan; they went to Syria (where, in 1631, Mount Carmel once more became the property of the Order, which derives its name from that holy mountain), Armenia and Turkey, and they founded missionary stations on the banks of the Mississippi. And, what is more, acting upon the suggestions of the Discalced Carmelites, Pope Gregory XV established the Congregation of Propaganda which now rules supreme over all missionary countries.

Besides the evangelization of the heathens that of heretics was not neglected. The Dutch mission had its origin in 1648, yet long before this date the Discalced Carmelites had found their way to England. Henry VIII having suppressed, in 1538 and the following year, forty Carmelite convents (counting that of Calais), the Order disappeared from England; in Scotland it lingered on for a quarter of a century, while in Ireland it continued in a more or less terippled state and under precarious conditions. But in 1615 Father Simon Stock (Thomas Doughty), a Lincolnshire man, established a mission in England which produced ample fruit until its extinction in 1849. At the time of the accession of James II the Carmelites had residences in London (Bucklersbury), Hereford and Worcester, as well as a number of isolated stations.

Cardinal Wiseman reintroduced the Discalced Carmelites in England in 1862, giving them a house in Kensington, where Father Augustine (Hermann Cohen), a converted Jew, at first an artist of repute, afterwards an eloquent preacher and ascetic monk, founded a community. There are at present two houses of Discalced Carmelites in England, Kensington and Wincanton in Somerset; three in Ireland, Clarendon Street and Gayfield in Dublin, and Loughrea, county Galway. The Calced Carmelites have several houses in Ireland and the United States, and a small residence in England (near Manchester).

The Carmelite Rule is very strict. The fasting season begins on September 14 and lasts until Easter; the use of meat is forbidden at all times except in ca^e of illness. Several hours by day and night are devoted to vocal and mental prayer, other times are set apart for manual labour or study, and silence and solitude still remind the Carmelites that they were hermits before being mendicants. The Fathers occupy themselves chiefly with the direction of souls and the various works of the sacred ministry. The Order can also boast of many men of learning.

The habit consists of a brown tunic, reaching to the ankles, a leather girdle, a large scapular, hanging from the shoulders to the knees, a brown hood, and a white mantle with hood, which are worn in church and in public. For this reason the Carmelites were called “Whitefriars.”

As to the government of the Order, the two branches of Calced and Discalced Carmelites are even now independent of each other, both being ruled over by a General and some Assistants, who are elected from time to time by the General Chapters. The term of office of Provincials, Priors, etc., is, as a rule, three years. Since the wholesale destruction of religious houses in Spain and Portugal seventy years ago the Congregations of these two countries have ceased to exist, so that at present there are no more subdivisions in the Order. The Spanish Carmelites, both nuns and friars, belong to their respective Orders, whether Calced or Discalced.

MLA Citation

  • Father Benedict Zimmerman, O.C.D. “Carmelites”. Monasteries of Great Britain and Ireland, 1903. CatholicSaints.Info. 29 November 2018. Web. 18 April 2021. <>