Living the Carmelite Mission: "Or, Rather of What Use Is Delphina?"

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In 1813, Delphina Smith became the twenty-third candidate to be professed at the Carmelite monastery in Port Tobacco, Maryland. Entering this religious house – unique because it was the first religious house to be established by our nation's first bishop – she was being professed in a monastery that was unique in still another regard. Amazingly, this cloister had been founded in 1790 by four Carmelite women religious who had already been very much involved in the monasteries they had entered in the Low Countries (now Belgium and the Netherlands). Three of the four, however, had actually been born in Maryland and had close generational ties there. Now, as missionaries, they planned to begin America's first Carmel; none had any intention of engaging in the needed apostolic service that the new environment demanded. Instead, they expected to continue their witness to the gospel through strict enclosure just as they had been doing in Europe. Almost immediately, the nuns clarified their intention when asked by Bishop John Carroll to take up active ministry at Port Tobacco. Decades later, Delphina must have recalled the intentions of the founders when, in poetic form, she penned her thoughtful words regarding her personal "usefulness" in this new land. After all, she clearly understood, as Carroll had, that her community was perceived by Americans as decidedly countercultural in a rapidly growing country that could hardly comprehend the notion of a "hidden life" of constant prayer. No wonder this prayerful young woman questioned whether she could be "of use" to both society and church in such circumstances.

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