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Carmelite Monastery Renovation Nearly Complete; Altar to be Dedicated Feb. 3


After nearly a year of renovation and restoration work, the sisters of Traverse City’s tiny Infant Jesus of Prague monastery will once again be able to worship in their beloved chapel.

Bishop Bernard Hebda of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Gaylord will dedicate the chapel’s new altar at a special concelebrated Mass on Sunday, Feb. 3, and the church will reopen for regular public Masses the following day. The dedication mass was originally by invitation only, but so many people wanted to attend that the sisters decided to make it a public event.

The chapel will also be open to the public on Saturday, Feb. 2 from 9 am to noon for those who would like to get a less crowded “sneak preview” of the renovation and an opportunity to venerate the saints’ relics that will be placed in the altar during the Mass on the following day.

“The overwhelming support of the community has demonstrated that people want churches that look like churches,” said Mother Mary of Jesus, the prioress of the small monastery. “We would need a cathedral to seat everyone who has helped us.”

The year-long project, which has transformed the modern-style worship space into a richly appointed example of classical church design, was supervised by Notre Dame architecture professor Duncan G. Stroik, one of the foremost church architects in the English-speaking world and the acknowledged leader of a growing movement to return classical ideas of beauty and harmony to sacred architecture.

"It's a captivating contemporary look at classicism in a sacred space," said Will Kolstad, decorative painter from Conrad Schmitt Studios. "Pound for pound, there is more beauty in this project than in many of the more elaborate churches I have worked on. It's an honor to be a part of it."

Located on 60 acres of wooded land on Silver Lake Road, the monastery was built in the 1960s in the utilitarian style typical of the time. After years of prayer and thought, the nuns decided it was time to renovate the chapel sanctuary to create “an atmosphere of sacred beauty and transcendence,” reflecting their order’s tradition that every experience of beauty is an experience of God.

Stroik’s plan involved elevating the sanctuary altar and installing a new altar railing, marble flooring, classical ornamentation, new shrines to the Infant Jesus of Prague and several Carmelite saints, and improved iconography with Biblical inscriptions. A tabernacle prominently placed on a rear altar is reminiscent of the high altars found in European monastic churches. Visually, the sanctuary now presents a unified whole, with the Eucharistic Jesus at the center, surrounded by His saints.

The architect’s initial design called for more marble, but the nuns requested wood for the columns and altar rail to give the sanctuary a Spanish aesthetic – and to aid Michigan’s economy by using local labor and materials. Most of the fine woodwork in the chapel was done Thomas and Milliken Millworks in Northport, and even the marble dealer chosen for the project, Booms Stone, is from Detroit. The chapel statues, carved by Italian craftsmen, are being polychromed by Studio Ida Vinotti in Walloon Lake.

The new tabernacle, first in a new line of altar appointments designed by Stroik, was on display in Baltimore during the November meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. A matching set of six candlesticks and altar crucifix are also part of the new furnishings he designed.

Some of the objects ordered for the renovation, including the sanctuary lamp and several statues, will not arrive in time for the dedication Mass, said Mother Mary. “It should get more and more beautiful in the next few months as things are installed and the temporary fill-in things are removed,” she added.

The first major change took place last February, when the life-size crucifix that hung over the chapel altar for over 50 years was removed and donated to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Gaylord, and demolition of the old structure began in July. Work on the project was performed by Grand Traverse Construction, which had completed the monastery’s infirmary, office area and bell tower in 1979.

The marble for the project arrived from Italy in early November (it was delayed in New York harbor for several weeks in the wake of Hurricane Sandy) and installation began in early December. Stroik delegated most of the supervisory work to his associate, Thomas Stroka, but did make a site visit in late December to see how the work was progressing and give a few last-minute instructions to the workers.

The Carmelite Order, which stresses simplicity, contemplation and prayer, was founded in the 11th century on the slopes of Mt. Carmel, in what is now Israel, and spread rapidly through Europe during the Middle Ages. In the 16th century it was reformed by two of the Catholic Church’s most noted mystical writers, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Today there are thousands of Carmelite sisters and brothers in 960 monasteries around the world, including three other Michigan communities: in Iron Mountain, near Detroit and outside Grand Rapids.

The Traverse City monastery traces its origins to a Mexican nun’s desperate prayer when she faced a firing squad during a wave of anti-Catholic persecution in 1914. Mother Mary Elias miraculously escaped death, and went on to bring her community safely to Grand Rapids. Mother Teresa Margaret, who founded the Traverse City monastery in 1950, is the only nun still alive today who made her novitiate under Mother Elias’ direction. She celebrated her 100th birthday at the monastery in September 2011.

According to Mother Mary, the date for the rededication follows two highly significant dates for the sisters; Feb. 1 is the anniversary of the day when 1950 when Mother Teresa Margaret brought her nuns to Traverse City from Grand Rapids, and Feb. 2 marks the day when they held their first Mass here.

As members of a cloistered, contemplative order, Carmelite sisters spend their days in private and liturgical prayer, spiritual reading, and domestic tasks such as baking Communions wafers. They don't leave the monastery except for rare occasions such as doctor appointments. Even during Masses they remain within an enclosed choir area, separated from the public area of the chapel by a metal grille – which means they will only be able to see a part of the renovation work.

The Monastery of the Infant Jesus of Prague is located at 3501 Silver Lake Road in Traverse City. Daily Mass is celebrated at 7:30 am on Sunday, Saturday and Holy days, and at 6:55 am Monday through Friday. The chapel is also open all day for those who wish to stop in and pray.

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