The Nuns Who Left Brooklyn

The 10 Carmelite nuns of Cypress Hills, cloistered in Brooklyn for nearly 20 years, have decided to leave New York after careful consideration.

Despite their efforts, the sisters of the Monastery of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Saint Joseph, followers of silence and prayer who rarely left the enclosure of the cloister, could no longer ignore what was happening outside. Loud celebrations in an adjacent park have become a bit too much. And when a beloved lay volunteer was murdered, the sisters were deeply shaken.

The last straw came in 2020, that first pandemic summer, with the explosion of nighttime parties in their street involving cars with loud speakers, said Mother Ana Maria, who spoke on behalf of the monastery, which was formerly on Highland Boulevard.

“Our walls shook and our windows shattered,” she said. The sisters wondered if the loud music well after midnight was aimed directly at them.

Sometimes police would break up rallies after neighbors called to complain, but parties often returned immediately. “It was unbearable,” said Mother Ana Maria, who, together with her sisters, starts each day at 5 a.m. The nuns moved their beds away from the walls of their cells – the small rooms where they slept – but still felt unsafe, she said.

So, at the end of January, the sisters decided to decamp for rural Pennsylvania. There are only four monasteries left in the city, one in the Bronx and one in Queens, and two in Brooklyn.

“As a New Yorker, I’m angry and embarrassed that the city can’t take care of this,” said Louis Pfaff, a lay volunteer helping the sisters build a monastery about 30 miles north of Scranton. . “It’s a great loss, because I know they loved the city, their neighbors.”

This isn’t the first time the Carmelites have been moved to Brooklyn. Their original monastery in Crown Heights, described by The New York Times as a “medieval fortress,” closed in 1996. As the Carmelite nuns traveled the country, the Brooklyn Diocese later reported that if anyone one wanted to return, an empty Lithuanian Franciscan monastery in Cypress Hills was available.

In 2004, six sisters accepted the diocese at his offer and moved to New York. The monastery was “an ideal location, in a quiet corner of town,” according to the Carmelite website.

For a time, life in Cypress Hills was “peaceful and amazing,” said Mother Ana Maria. The sisters devoted themselves to prayer, meditation, spiritual reading and baking altar bread.

Mass there was special, said Roberta Alicea, who has attended services for nearly 12 years. The sisters, who remained invisible, were singing behind a metal grille in the choir room next to the chapel. “Their singing made you feel like you were in heaven,” Ms Alicea said.

Most of the time, the nuns, aged between 19 and 80, spoke to no one outside the monastery, although a cell phone and computer were on site and used if needed. To communicate with volunteers and priests, the sisters normally spoke through a lathe, a revolving barrel-shaped cabinet used to move goods through the monastery without breaching the cloister.

“You would often talk to a sister about something during the tour and all of a sudden coffee or oatmeal would appear,” said James Krug, director of the Oblates of Saint Therese of Jesus and Saint John. of the Cross, a group of lay volunteers.

About 10 years ago, noise from Highland Park, which was next to their house, began to bother the sisters. They also began hearing reports from their carers and volunteers of dead animals, empty liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia found behind their monastery in a barbecue area, Mr Krug said.

Still, they understood the value of the 141-acre park in a city where green space is lacking. “The city’s park system is amazing because it’s a sanctuary because a lot of people live in small spaces,” said Mother Ana Maria, from the Inwood neighborhood in Manhattan.

But in 2017, the sisters grew more concerned for their safety when George Carroll, a beloved Oblate volunteer, was stabbed to death in Greenpoint, several miles away.

Before his death, Mr Carroll, who had cycled to the monastery almost every day, represented the sisters to city officials, raising concerns about noise in the park. He also shoveled snow, trimmed the courtyard garden and made minor repairs to the cloister, according to his wife, Christina Carroll, who celebrated his funeral at the monastery.

“George’s death was a shock to everyone, and we miss him very much,” said Mother Ana Maria.

Then, over the summer of 2020, a burst of late-night parties ensued, which locals say still happens when it’s hot outside. Lesleigh Irish-Underwood, who has lived on Highland Boulevard for more than 20 years, said loud socializing has always been a problem as the park is a popular spot for barbecues and birthday parties.

“It’s nice to see all the balloons, people having fun during the day, but it’s what happens late at night that we just can’t take it anymore,” said Ms Irish-Underwood, who also complains of drag racing, dumping, homelessness. encampments and blocked alleyways on and near his street.

In 2020, Highland Boulevard residents made 176 311 calls about street noise and 139 calls about illegal parking and blocked driveways. (The number of noise complaints dropped over the next two years, although the number of illegal parking complaints remained high.)

The area slips through the cracks as it straddles two police stations and precincts (Brooklyn and Queens), Ms Irish-Underwood said. The block where the monastery is located is technically part of Brooklyn’s 75th Precinct, which has one of the highest violent crime rates in the city.

“Highland Park is certainly a gem, and we want everyone to be able to enjoy it, but not at the expense of those who live next to or near the park,” said Councilwoman Sandy Nurse, a Democrat whose district includes Cypress. Hills. She recently met with city officials and residents to coordinate a cohesive and tougher response to crime and quality of life issues in the neighborhood. “He shouldn’t have to come with all that baggage,” she said.

By 2021, the sisters had finished. They shared their desire to move with diocesan officials, priests and anyone who could help them find a new home.

Eventually, a priest put the sisters in touch with Joseph Grady, the founder of My Jesus Mercy Ministries, who donated 13 acres in Pleasant Mount, Pennsylvania. The sisters raised around $2 million to build a new monastery there.

Last winter, they prepared to leave Brooklyn. They stopped making altar bread and began to reduce their business to bare necessities.

On a sunny January afternoon, at rush hour, a van transported the sisters out of town. The move was “a very bittersweet moment with our hearts filled with joy and sorrow,” said Mother Ana Maria.

“I only have love for the city, our neighbors, our amazing volunteers, the NYPD and park departments, and everyone who tried to help,” she added. “We pray for them all.”

For now, they live in a monastery and retreat center in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, which is owned by the Diocese of Scranton. “It’s sad that the sisters had to move, but the loss of Brooklyn is our gain,” said Joseph C. Bambera, Bishop of Scranton.

Meanwhile, the sisters have ambitious plans for their permanent home, which will include a Spanish-style monastery, barn and gatehouse, estimated to cost around $25 million. They should be able to move into a roughly 3,500 square foot modular cloister on the donated land by the end of the year, Pfaff said.

Dan Kastanis, a spokesman for the parks department, said the agency was saddened to learn that the sisters had moved on. The future of the monastery and adjoining property is under review, according to the Brooklyn Diocese, which owns the property.

Mother Ana Maria did not hesitate when asked how the nuns were doing in their temporary home, surrounded by greenery, wildlife and tranquility: “We sleep very well,” she said.


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