About Darlington Carmel
The Carmelite Order first became established in the caves known as those of St Elijah (or Elijah the prophet from the Books of the Kings in the Bible) on Mount Carmel in Israel. The original members are thought to be some of the pilgrims or knights who had gone to the Holy Land on the Crusades and rather than returning home had decided to live the life of a hermit. Nobody really knows who the first hermits were. After a while there was quite a colony of them. They reached the stage when they thought of making things more formal and establishing themselves into a religious group. They approached Albert who was at that time the Church’s representative in the region. He belonged to the Canon’s of St Augustine, and was a religious priest. He therefore knew about how religious life should be lived. He wrote a Rule for them. It is perhaps the shortest Rule there is and is made up a great deal of Scripture quotes which he quoted from memory. Although it was a Religious Rule it was still geared to the life of hermits, putting in very few obligations about living of life as a community, it was rather about how the individual had to live to become holy.
When the Saracens invaded the Holy Land (Israel) in the middle to the later part of the 1200’s, the hermits had to leave as their lives were in danger. They moved to Europe and there had to have their Rule amended so that they could become one of the mendicant orders – those who begged their way, like the Franciscans and Dominicans did at the time. Their way of life did not fit in with the situation in which they now found themselves. The few alterations to their Rule altered the structure of their lives as they now lived in towns and slept in dormitories. At the time of the Black Death the Rule was again amended because the brothers were unable to keep it due to ill health and the fact that their communities had been decimated, so that one might say it became a bit less demanding in that they were now allowed to eat meat a few times a week which had been forbidden until then. There were other modifications.
It was with the arrival on the scene of Teresa Cepeda y Ahumada, (otherwise known as St Teresa of Avila, or St Teresa of Jesus) born 1515 that we find further changes. She felt called to reform the Order, after having lived under the mitigate rule for a number of years, and to go back to the Primitive roots. She did not go back as far as the days on Mount Carmel, but did write constitutions which were a lot more severe than anything the Order had asked of her until that time. The reform caused another branch of the Order to be founded. The new branch were named the Discalced Carmelite Order, discalced meaning without shoes. They did not literally go barefooted but did have some type of sandal or home made shoe.
Where are we? What is our special History?
Introduction to Darlington Carmel
This contemplative convent is situated in the north east of England. We belong to the Discalced Carmelite Order which is the branch of the Carmelite Order that was reformed in the sixteenth century by St Teresa of Jesus, also known as Teresa of Avila. Our convent was founded in Lierre (now known as Lier) in 1648 for English girls who wished to enter religious life but could not do so at home in England, due to the persecution of Catholics started after King Henry VIII broke away from the Church of Rome, and started the Reformation in England. His daughter Elizabeth was the one who was relentless in the persecution of the Catholics, usurping their lands and demanding that they attend the Church which had now become Anglican. Those who resisted were hunted down and heavily fined. Any Roman Catholic priest caught in the country was accused of treason. Despite these troubles many remained faithful to their faith. Some of the more wealthy Catholics fled to the Continent of Europe so that they could practise their faith. Priests were trained at Douai College in France. Many religious Orders either fled to the Continent where they set up new houses. In the case of some Orders like the Discalced Carmelites, who were just founding houses at this time, new foundations were made especially for English communities, even when a house existed for the local people and spoke their own language. This happened in Antwerp with the founding of the first English Carmelite Monastery which was closely connected with the communities of what was then the Spanish Netherlands, now Belgium. The Convents in Belgium were suppressed at about the time of the French Revolution. When the French Revolution broke out the British monarchy, then ruled by George III, who came from the Hanoverian branch of the Royal family and no longer the Tudor branch like Elizabeth, who died childless, ceased its state of persecution and the Catholics were invited to return to England. Part of the thought behind this was the fact that British subjects were now at danger of death in the hands of the French. The Sisters were warned of a plot to arrest them. They left their convent in Lierre accompanied by six Flemish Sisters from the Convent in Bruge and one Sister from a French Carmel. They came over in 1794. They were the first women Carmelites to set foot in England. They were soon followed by their sister house from Hoogstraten (founded in 1678 in Brabant) in Belgium, where they had stopped briefly on the way over, and warned them of the approaching danger. Their founding house, founded in 1619 at Hopland, Antwerp, followed them. The Sisters from Lierre arrived in London but soon made their way up north and lived first in St Helen’s Auckland, near Bishop Auckland. From there they moved to Cocken Hall near Durham in 1805 which was leased for twenty-five years. When the lease lapsed the owner made the rent so high it was impossible for them to stay there, as he wanted the land for mining coal because it was on a rich seam. Instead he sold them a property in Darlington where they finally settled in 1830.
We were in the building up until 2010 when things in the Community made it necessary to move to smaller premises as we were now reduced to only four Sisters resident in the house. A large number of the older Sisters had died. One had moved into a nursing home. Others who found that Carmel was not for them had left and some had transferred to other monasteries. The monastery has now been taken over by the Vincentian Fathers and is being run as a retreat house. All our graves are being looked after by them. This was a great relief as we had visions of having to get them moved, which would have included getting permission from the Home Office and have cost a fortune because they would each have to have a new coffin.