The church adjoining the Outram Street building of the Carmelite sisters
“That which is hidden is always mysterious. And a mystery always evokes curiosity.”
The first typewritten line on a paper that has yellowed with age, gently handed over by a veiled nun from the other side of the grille at Carmelite convent.
The pale yellow building at 4 Outram Street has for 75 years housed the Carmelite sisters, who rarely step out and show themselves to the world.
But before you can read on about the history of the cloistered convent, the soft-spoken prioress has news to share. This Sunday, there are two reasons to celebrate. The day marks the 450th anniversary of the Reform of the Order by St. Teresa of Avila and the 75th anniversary of their monastery at Outram Street.
“The celebrations worldwide have begun. We are holding a thanksgiving mass at 9.30am on Sunday to commemorate the occasion,” says Sister Anne Marie through the grille, which is how the sisters communicate with those who come for counselling.
The grille, explains the nun who didn’t step out of the Carmelite convent for her first 18 years here, is “only a sign of separation”.
The arrival of the Carmelites can be traced back to 1929, when the then Archbishop of Calcutta, Monsignor Perier, invited the Carmelite Nuns from Belgium to make a foundation in Calcutta. Four sisters — Theresa Marie, Elizabeth, Anne Marie and Jeanne de la Croix — sailed on board the Victoria and eventually arrived in Howrah on November 12, 1935.
Then the war set in and they lost everything and were stranded. “The Archbishop, whose house was on Park Street, learnt about a Muslim rajah’s house that was up for sale on Outram Street and thought they could make a start here,” says Sister Marie. The sisters felt the place was just right because of the proximity to the bishop’s house, St. Xavier’s College and hospitals. “Plus, there was no noise and it was a British elite area, with the Prince of Jaipur’s building around the corner. So they stayed on.”
The 200-year-old building is the only remaining English bungalow on Outram Street and being the oldest residents, “we are much respected”, says she.
However, maintaining the property is costly and this is the first time in 75 years that the Carmelite convent is stretching out a hand for aid. “The rooms are big but it was never built to be a monastery so we cannot alter it much. The walls need repair,” says the prioress. The structure has remained the same for 200 years except for the grotto, which was built in the 1980s and the Angels structure near the gate, around 2002-3.
Internally too, a few things have changed. The “rigidity” of the order got some “freshness” after Vatican II. “Before that, we were very restricted and secluded. Everything was controlled from the top. There was no dialogue then, no questioning. But we are at ease now, there is no high-handed power,” says Sister Marie, who joined the convent 50 years ago, in 1962.
At that time, she was the 23rd sister at the convent and no more than 24 are allowed at each of the 33 Carmel houses in India, the majority of them being down south.
Today, including her, there are eight, and another two are out giving their exams. “We were Chinese, Burmese, Indian… but the numbers dwindled because of sickness and death. And then the new girls who came didn’t stay because they lacked perseverance,” says the nun.
The seclusion of the cloister nuns led to a lot of rumours. “That we were loveless people, digging our own graves and chanting at night. But when you need to pray, you need to have solitude. We need to withdraw so we can communicate with God. We are a happy joyous community like St.Teresa of Avila wanted us to be,” says Sister Marie.
She recalls with a laugh how in the only all-India meeting in the 1980s, in Mysore, all the sisters met each other for the first time. “It was hilarious because we finally put faces to the sisters we communicated with. And everyone was, ‘Oh, I thought you were older or younger’.”
That feeling of joyousness at the quiet convent in Calcutta, a haven of peace for people from all faiths, will be shared at the thanksgiving mass on Sunday.