Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Neighbours behind the wall

Last fall, while masons worked on the 25-foot stone wall around the Carmelite monastery, I tried to peek into the secret garden. The high old wall made everything behind it intriguing, even the grass. That's cloistered grass.

On the other side of the wall, in the middle of a neighbourhood where privacy is impossible, somehow the Carmelites lead a life of silence and solitude.

They spend most of the day in silent prayer, and in a special annex they bake altar bread to earn a living. They leave the monastery only to go to the doctor or the dentist. A volunteer shops for their groceries.

Several years ago they were going to sell the property and its crumbling stone structures and move to the country. A developer planned to turn the place into condos. But there were objections from residents and urban activists and public outcry persisted until the Carmelite Monastery, with its garden, was classified as a heritage site that cannot be developed.

In Mile End, where a front yard may be the size of a carpet, the 2.5 acre cloister garden was important -- even if we're not allowed inside. Considering that it's a place we can never see or visit, we're oddly attached to it.

To my surprise, it's not as hard as I imagined to speak with someone in a cloister.

I make an appointment and on a cold winter morning when the grey stone wall seems to glow with light, I ring the monastery bell. The volunteer who answers the door tells me to wait in the parlour upstairs. As I take off my coat, the phone and the doorbell are both ringing. Evidently, like the rest of Mile End, the monastery is a busy place.

Sister Marie-Denise comes into the parlour which is divided by a wooden grille and a green curtain. She pulls aside the curtain and reaches through the bars to shake my hand with a smile, taking a seat on the opposite side of the grille which is there to separate the nuns from the outside world, even during visits.

She has bright friendly eyes and wears a white wimple, with the traditional black veil and the brown habit of the Carmelite order. As Discalced or Barefoot Carmelites, they don't wear shoes. Sister Marie-Denise has on brown socks and Birkenstocks. She is 58 and joined the Carmelites in 1992. Unlike most of the nuns in this community, she had a job before joining the order, working as a civil servant in Ottawa.

The grille is no stone wall but talking to her through this barrier is a reminder that we live different lives.

When I confess to peeking into the garden, she says I was not the only one. Joggers regularly ran through the construction site right into the garden to check it out.

"It's the mystery of it. It's just not knowing what's there," laughs Sister Marie-Denise. "Mind you," she adds, "it's no big mystery. If you go on Google, or is it Mapquest, you're going to see it. There's a satellite picture."

This is something I'd never thought of. A cloistered nun is reminding me how to use the internet.

"I'm the bursar," she explains. "All of our accounting is on the computer, oh la la."

I'll look on Google Maps later but in the meantime, I ask Sister Marie-Denise to paint me a picture of the garden.

"There's a row of linden trees. Then there's the maples, about 25 of them, mostly silver maples. There's a little apple orchard and two different types of plums and pears and cherries, not bing cherries but other ones, not quite as sweet. There used to be a chicken coop. One sister who came here in 1939 used to take care of the chickens. But in the '80s it was turned into a hermitage."

She explains that a benefactor plows the paths so that the sisters can walk around the garden and get out to the hermitage, even in the winter. She says in the summer, it's too hot and humid to make the altar bread in the annex, so they usually take a break from June 24 to Labour Day. So, like anyone else around here, the nuns have strategies to deal with the snow and then, in the summer, the heat and humidity.

Teresa of Avila in 16th-century Spain founded the Carmelite order whose monasteries are built for a maximum of 21 nuns to nurture a special intimate atmosphere of quiet contemplation. In Mile End there are now 12 nuns at the monastery. When I ask what they do for fun in the hour a day that they don't have to work or devote to silent prayer. Sister Marie-Denise gives a quick laugh from her side of the grille, as if the answer's obvious. "We talk!"

A chicken coop wouldn't have been unusual when the monastery was first built in 1895. before Montreal grew up around the village of St-Louis-de-Mile-End and its farms.

Now the quiet Carmelites find themselves between two of the liveliest boulevards in the city, St-Laurent and St-Denis. And, despite the wall, they're not untouched by urban activity.

"At the back of the garden we have pines, partly to protect us from the rowdy characters on the other side of the wall," Sister Marie-Denise recounts. "We find things they throw into the garden. They throw everything. Bottles, pizzas, cell phones."

Then she gestures in the other direction toward the 10-storey industrial buildings that loom over the monastery, the chapel and the garden.

"From there you can see into the garden or even inside the cloister," she says. "We ignore the factory buildings. But one summer somebody had music playing all the time. We couldn't go outside. We couldn't even pray. It's one thing to hear the rumour, the murmur of the city, it's another to hear a constant ghetto blaster."

But Marie-Denise says the nuns consider themselves part of the community.

"Our families let us know what's going on. Of course, we get Le Devoir and we receive Le Plateau. We try to keep in touch. Especially since they want to build more condos next to us.

"We have a mission to pray for everyone in the city. We don't need to know everything to know the hardship of Montreal. A drop is enough. We pray for everyone, even atheists, criminals. Everyone is a child of God."

The whole neighbourhood and the city beyond are included in the Carmelites' prayers. The blasters of music, and the bottle-, phone- and pizza-throwers, too.