By James Gage
As we spoke through a grille of iron bars in the "Speak Room," I could scarcely see Mother Sylvia's face. Outsiders—even the nuns' family members—use this same room for all conversations with the nuns. After the conversations finish, the nuns draw shutters over the bars.
"We have been in the world, and we chose to leave it behind," Mother Sylvia explained.
Located in the Kensington hills, the Kensington Monastery was established in 1949 after it was converted from a 60-room Spanish revival mansion that was built in 1925 to become a Carmelite monastery, housing four nuns for decades. Today, revitalized, but not entirely renovated, the monastery is home to 21 nuns, and it's one of only 64 Carmelite monasteries in the United States. It's also the country's most secluded. It was the last monastery to acquire a computer for email, with only one phone line that is seldom used.
"We are separated from the world by choice," said Mother Sylvia Gemma, mother superior of the Kensington Monastery of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Mother Sylvia gave up her last name when she took her final vows of faith.
"It is a life of silence. We don't have families to support or jobs to tend to—we are set aside," she said. "We are like a family here, and we have been given so much, and are so grateful. Even non-Catholics come and help us. They allow us to remain hidden and live our life of prayer."
Dressed in traditional garments, with black habits and black veils down their backs, the nuns live a cloistered life in the East Bay hills. From the time they enter the order as postulants, they spend their entire lives at the monastery, leaving only for medical appointments.
Living in, as they're called, "cells," the nuns have no possessions of their own. They eat no meat and are not allowed to have their photographs taken or to touch other people. They spend their days in prayer and silence, surviving on donations and the fresh fruits that they grow in the small gardens on the monastery grounds.
"We love each other's company, but we love our solitude, and we try to keep quiet through the hours of the day, to be united in our hearts with Jesus," Mother Sylvia said. "Everything we do is a prayer—we offer ourselves as a living prayer."
As one of their acts of piety, they wear open-toed sandals year-round, despite the rain and cold, meaning they are "discalced," or "without shoes." On most days, there is no heat in the monastery.
The Kensington Monastery of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is a Roman Catholic Carmelite order. The order was founded in the 12th century on Mount Carmel in ancient Palestine, and its members seek to live a life like Elijah the prophet. In Biblical scripture, Elijah defended his faith in a challenge against the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel.
According to the Bible, after 40 years of drought, Elijah prayed in solitude on the mountaintop and saw a cloud bring down a torrent of life-giving rain. "Carmel" literally translates to "garden" or "fresh" in ancient Hebrew.
Founded by hermits who wished to live by Elijah's example in the narrow valleys of Mount Carmel, the Carmelite order claims no specific lineage of leadership. It wasn't until 1247 that Carmelites became a Mendicant Order of Catholicism, ordained by Pope Innocent IV.
Women joined the ranks of the friars in 1452, living as cloistered nuns, secluded from the outside world.
In 1562, a cloister founded by St. Teresa of Avila in Spain led to the bifurcation of the Carmelites into two sects: the "Calced" Carmelites, or the Ancient Order, and the "Discalced Carmelites," otherwise known as the "Teresians," who view St. Teresa as their spiritual founder. The Kensington nuns are Teresians; they started the tradition of the iron grilles at their cloister.
With 2,000 members across the world, the Carmelites seek inward contemplation, solitude, silence, and monasticism over proselytization, pageantry, and conversion.
The Kensington nuns moved from Nebraska to the Diocese of Oakland in 2012 when their cloister exceeded 21 members. For several years, they lived at a chapel in the rustic town of Canyon before relocating to Kensington. Carmelite sects are only allowed to have 21 nuns in a cloister—when they exceed that number, they must branch off into new monasteries.
Typically, a Carmelite nun will stay at one monastery her entire life and never move.
Before Nebraska, Mother Sylvia Gemma had, for 11 years, been located in, of all places, Las Vegas. "We could see the Strip of the city, and see Caesar's Palace from our kitchen window," she laughed.
"In Canyon, we lived on an old farm ranch, where they raised cattle and horses years ago, so it was vacant," she explained. "It had an old cottage and an old hunting lodge, and that's where our chapel was. We had Mass every day where they used to house the horses.
"It's very hard to live monastic life in those kind of small settings—being cloistered sisters, we never leave the premises," she continued. "When this building [in Kensington] came up for sale, we were allowed to see it, and it was like a dream—a real monastery."
In 2014, a private donor purchased the Kensington monastery for $1.9 million—for use not as a palatial hillside manor but as a refuge where a group of nuns could live and pray. The incoming nuns replaced the four nuns that had lived at the monastery for decades.
Before the nuns could move in, the old monastery needed about $400,000 in upgrades, including roofing and flooring repairs and new electrical and plumbing systems—all taken care of through anonymous donations. The monastery still needs a new foundation: Visible cracks are beginning to form in the building as it battles the steep grade of the hill.
The building is permitted for use as a monastery, so the real estate agents who sold the property eschewed higher offers (above $2 million) to avoid re-permitting.
Through its western windows, the monastery has clear views of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, framed by a proscenium of trees.
The monastery is at 68 Rincon Road in Kensington, across from Berkeley's famous Blake House and Garden. The busy streets below seem to fade away, and as you approach the doors to the chapel, you begin to hear the dulcet murmur of Latin Lauds (morning prayers).
"Ave Maria" wafts through the walls as you enter through the doors and proceed into the chapel, the only publicly viewable part of the monastery.
Inside the chapel is a modest altar, the same one that has travelled with the nuns since Nebraska, and behind it, an immense grid of iron bars; the "grille" that separates the nuns from the rest of the world.
At 5 a.m., while the sky is still lit by stars, the nuns offer a song to God, stirring the brisk morning air with the music of their voices.
After a small breakfast in the refectory, the sisters meet to chant lauds, coming together seven more times over the course of the day for the Hours of the Divine Office.
At 7:45 a.m., the sisters begin Holy Mass. Afterward, they go about their appointed duties.
"Like a housewife would have at home," Mother Sylvia Gemma explained. "Cooking, cleaning, mending garments—getting things ready."
At 11 a.m., the huge iron church bell is rung by hand and the sisters gather in the choir to chant the Hour of Sext, then have lunch in the refectory. Their meals are always silent, with one sister reading aloud from scripture.
At noon, the sisters have their recreational hour, after which they go back to their cells and meditate—one of the two recreational periods where they can visit, speak, laugh, and share stories. For that brief hour, the quiet monastery erupts in conversation.
At 2:15 p.m., they pray the Hour of None and then the Holy Rosary. After, younger nuns receive training from older nuns in the ways of the Virgin Mary, as she led her hidden life in Nazareth.
At 5 p.m., the bell calls the sisters to Vespers. Then, an hour of silent prayer. At 6, they eat supper, washing the dishes by hand and reciting prayers for souls in purgatory.
At 7:45, the nuns have another hour of recreation, where they might bring out musical instruments or perform a play.
Compline, at 8:45 p.m., is when the sisters thank God for the blessings of the day. At 9:15, as night falls, the sisters remain in the choir to keep the Lord company, and to pray Matins, the final, and longest, Hour of the Divine Office.
And at 10:30, the last lights go out, as the sisters retire to sleep.
They maintain this routine every day from the moment they enter the monastery until they die.
Each nun at the monastery has walked a different path to the Kensington hills. One lost vision during a bout with meningitis but said she regained sight in one eye using holy water from Lourdes. She joined as a postulant out of gratitude. Another had been on track to become a nurse but joined the order in her early 20s. Yet another, Mother Mary Rose, lost her husband and joined the order comparatively late in life.
"My husband died and I came in at 58 years old—I didn't always plan on being a nun," she said. "Many of the nuns here are very talented. They could have had any kind of life, as nurses, teachers, but they were called to the faith."
Taking the vows is very serious. Nuns have roughly a six-year period during which they can choose to leave the order before finalizing their vows. "We have many years to decide if we want to live this life," Mother Mary Rose explained. "It's not that we don't enjoy the world—we enjoy it. We love to hear the laughter of the children from our windows. But those who choose this path, we often have a hunger for love that is beyond human love."
Once a nun has taken her final vows, she spends her entire life at her vocation. Several of the nuns at the Kensington monastery entered the order in their 20s, leaving their families at the monastery doors with a final embrace. Once the door closes, they will never be able to touch them again or spend an afternoon together.
"People ask us: 'Why do you choose to live this way?' " said Mother Sylvia. "We do it for love—for the love of the Lord and for the love of others. These acts of self-denial can be compared to seeds—they appear plain and useless, but within they hold an intense power to spread life. When a Carmelite offers her hidden acts and prayers to God with all the love of her heart, he receives them, and in his goodness, he spreads them far and wide."
The sisters can be written to at 68 Rincon Road, Kensington, CA 94707. Prayers are offered for all who wish to have the sisters pray for them. The faithful may also visit the monastery to speak with the sisters, who can offer prayers and guidance in the Speak Room and accept donations through the turnstile in the main office.