Hawaii’s small community of Carmelite nuns, who have lived for the past 40 years on the slopes below the pali on Oahu’s windward side, celebrated the profession of first vows of its newest member in a quiet morning ceremony last month in their convent chapel.
Three years ago, Oahu-born Sister Mary Elizabeth de Jesus, 56, stepped behind the walls of the cloister to immerse herself in the contemplative life, first as a postulant, then as a novice. On July 16, she made her temporary vows of poverty, chastity and obedience before a gathering of nearly 100 family members, friends and associates.
In another three years she will make her permanent vows.
The hour-long Mass in the convent on the grounds of St. Stephen Diocesan Center was celebrated by Bishop Larry Silva, two priests and three deacons. The bishop wore a gold chasuble with the crowned image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel decorating the front panel. The day was the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Sister Mary Elizabeth remained mostly out of sight during the liturgy in the smaller, private wing of the L-shaped double chapel with her prioress Mother Agnes Marie Wong, and Carmelite Sisters Mary Caroline Chow and Agnella Iu.
About 60 people, mostly women and a few children, crowded into the larger public wing of the chapel whose altar, tabernacle, crucifix, stations of the cross and statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel are all crafted of wood in natural shades of brown, honoring the color of the Carmelite habit.
Another 30 or 40 stood or sat on the lanai outside.
The music was a mix of the Gregorian Missa de Angelis and the popular 1960s hymns of composer Sebastian Temple.
After the Gospel was read, Father Gary Secor called Sister Mary Elizabeth de Jesus by name, summoning her for her profession.
In a clear, confident voice she replied, “Lord, you have called me; here I am.”
In a brief question and answer exchange with the bishop, Sister Elizabeth expressed her resolve to follow Jesus more closely through her vows, her solitude and her prayers.
Then, kneeling in front of Mother Agnes Marie, she read her formal profession, vowing “to Almighty God for three years, chastity, poverty and obedience according to the Rule and Constitution of the Discalced Nuns of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel.”
Bishop Silva in his homily talked about God speaking in whispers, in the silence of soft, gentle breezes and in the heart of a contemplative nun.
Sister Mary Elizabeth will “commit herself publicly to be more attentive to the soft, whispering word of God,” he said. “She will open her ears to the experience of the ecstatic joy of communion with the one she loves.”
Of her vows, the bishop said, “She will live chastity, she will live poverty, she will live obedience — the freedom that comes with our submission to the will of God.”
The Mass concluded with eight verses of the classic Latin Carmelite hymn “Flos Carmeli” (Flower of Carmel) sung a capella by one of the sisters.
After Mass, Sister Mary Elizabeth and the other Carmelites greeted guests, accepted gifts and posed for photos over the three-foot high rail that separates their private chapel wing from the sanctuary.
She said she felt “peacefully happy.”
Many members of Sister Mary Elizabeth’s family were there, including her four adult daughters from a marriage that had ended years ago with a divorce and an annulment.
It is no longer a rare occurrence for previously married men and women to follow a second calling into the religious life. Hawaii has a few others who have done this.
The daughters of the newly professed Carmelite support their mother’s new vocation.
“I’m happy for her. I’m proud of her,” said Nicole Yempuku, 35, her oldest.
Nicole did acknowledge that having a nun for a mother was a bit unconventional.
“It’s certainly a conversation starter,” she said. “At first it was hard to get our minds around it.”
But she said she and her sisters remain close to their mother and visit her frequently, “a couple of times a month.”
Sister Elizabeth’s other daughters, who all share the last name Yempuku, are Marie, 24; Noelle, 29; and Monica, 28.
Sister Elizabeth’s mother, Tillie Kauhane, was also present at the profession.
“She loves it here,” Kauhane said. “I miss her. But she is in good hands. I am very happy for her.”
After Mass, a lunch reception was held in St. Stephen Diocesan Center dining hall, but the Carmelites, including Sister Mary Elizabeth, as is their practice, did not attend.
Dreams of a child
Sister Mary Elizabeth, whose birth name is Ernette de Jesus, said she had “pondered the religious life” ever since she was a little girl being raised by her devout Catholic grandparents Annie and Rawlins Kauhane in Waimalu, Oahu.
“My tutu had a statue of Sacred Heart of Jesus,” she said, that provided solace and comfort, particularly when she was sick.
“There was some communication going on,” she said. “It was very striking to me.”
There was “always a little fire in my heart” for a life dedicated to God, she said.
Nevertheless, life proceeded normally and she graduated from Aiea High School, attended Kapiolani Community College, got married and had four children. When divorce left her mulling over life’s new directions, the fire reignited.
“I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do now?’” she said, “and it struck me that now I could really pursue the religious life.”
A conversation with a priest at a retreat about five years ago led her to the Carmelites.
She began to attend Mass daily in the chapel of Carmel of the Holy Trinity convent, and slowly felt drawn to the spirituality of Carmel.
“It all has to do with prayer,” she said.
“Many doors open when your heart is open and if you are listening and paying attention to what God is asking of you,” she said.
“It really is very simple,” she said. “You tune in and pay attention. Prayer is very powerful when you are actively listening.”
She and the sisters got to know each other well and after two years she was accepted into the convent as a postulant. She entered on Oct. 1, 2010, the feast of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, also a Carmelite.
She took her religious name from Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, a French Carmelite nun who died in 1906 at the age of 26 and whom Pope John Paul II beatified in 1984.
After a year of postulancy, Sister Mary Elizabeth advanced to the status of novice for two more years.
She said she gets along well with the other sisters, who are all older and from China. Sister Mary Elizabeth — who is Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Irish and Hawaiian — doesn’t speak Chinese, but they speak English well.
A sacrifice for her daughters
The newly-professed Carmelite said her decision to become a contemplative nun has been a sacrifice for her daughters because she is no longer a regular part of their daily lives.
“They can’t just come over to the house and flop on the furniture,” she said. “I’m not going to bake cookies for them. But I could not just let them feel that they were abandoned.”
“They will always be welcomed here,” she said.
“I am sure they had their own reservations. They may not totally understand the mystery behind it all,” she said. “But my daughters were very unselfish. They wanted me to be happy. And they too have discovered their own lives.”
Sister Mary Elizabeth balances a life of prayer with yard work, cooking, cleaning and serving as the primary caregiver for one of the older sisters. As the youngest in the community, she also drives the sisters to the doctor and does some of the shopping.
A “jack of all trades,” is how she described it.
What does she like best of her new life? “The silence and solitude,” she said.
The Carmelites were invited to Hawaii from China in 1973 by then Bishop John J. Scanlan who wanted a cloistered order in the Islands. Oct. 25 will mark the 40th anniversary of their arrival.
The nuns moved into the former convent of the Marist Missionary Sisters on the grounds of St. Stephen Seminary. The Marists, who served as cooks and domestic workers for the faculty and students, left when the seminary closed.
Of the original seven Carmelites, two have died, and two more live in a care home in Kaneohe.