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Short History of the Carmelites in the Kenyan Region

Steven Payne, OCD

The Discalced Carmelites (OCD) have always been known for their rich tradition of prayer and contemplative spirituality. Less well known, but no less important, is their commitment to promoting the mission of the church. St. Teresa of Avila, our founder, began her Reform in sixteenth-century Spain to support the church in its ministries and missionary endeavors. Her friend and collaborator St. John of the Cross, one of the church’s greatest mystics and among the first discalced Carmelite friars, was preparing for an assignment to the missions at the time of his death. Discalced Carmelites played a key role in the establishment of the Propaganda Fidei, now the Vatican’s “Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.” And the most beloved Carmelite of modern times, St. Therese of Lisieux, was so dedicated to assisting missionaries through her prayers and sacrifices that she has been named co-patron of the missions, alongside St. Francis Xavier. Indeed, for us the search for loving union with God is inseparable from zeal for the missions.

African Discalced Carmelites are justly proud that the Order’s very first missionary venture was to their own continent, when our friars reached the kingdom of Kongo (in what is now modern Angola) in 1584. In East Africa, however, the first established presence of the Order came only in 1938, with the foundation of the Discalced Carmelite nuns in Nairobi. The number of nuns’ monasteries in Kenya later rose to three, including communities in Tindinyo and Kisii, on the western side of the country.

Meanwhile, the OCD friars began to set down roots in Anglophone Africa first in Malawi (1963), and then in Tanzania (1983) and Nigeria (1988). By the late 1980s the OCD Generalate discerned the need to establish an international “house of studies” for the growing number of English-speaking African Carmelite seminarians. The place chosen was a beautiful 10-acre compound near Tangaza College, a center for Catholic theological and ministerial education in the Karen suburb of Nairobi. Fr. Victor Perez, OCD of the Navarre province of Spain was delegated to oversee the construction, which today includes an entry block with a large library and meeting hall, a monastery and retreat house (each accommodating about 35 people), a small house for postulants, and a dining hall / kitchen, with a beautiful octagonal chapel strategically located in the center of the compound. An international formation team was established – eventually including friars from Spain, Ireland, India, Mexico, and the United States – and Carmelite theology students began arriving from Nigeria and Malawi, and later from Tanzania. This Nairobi foundation, under the patronage of St. John of the Cross, was officially dedicated on 2 February 1992 by the archbishop of Nairobi, Maurice Cardinal Otunga, whose cause for canonization has recently been opened.

Within a short time, however, the OCD Generalate recognized the logistical problems of trying to oversee an African community from Rome, and invited the Washington Province to assume this responsibility, together with the task of promoting Carmelite vocations within Kenya itself. In fact, the Washington Province was already partly involved, because one of our friars, Br. Bernard Olk, had volunteered for this mission at an early stage.

At the provincial chapter of 1993, the delegates gave a unanimously positive response to the Generalate’s invitation, and designated the provincial and his council to arrange the details, including collaboration with the other US provinces. Fr. Larry Daniels and Br. Gilmary Manning were assigned to this new venture and arrived in Nairobi on 15 May 1995, accompanied by the provincial, Fr. Phillip Thomas. Some weeks later, on 1 June 1995 the Nairobi foundation was formally transferred to our jurisdiction, and became an official part of the Washington Province.

Meanwhile, young Kenyans were already expressing an interest in Discalced Carmelite life. Our first local vocation, Fr. Thomas Ochieng’ Otang’a, came to us in August 1993 after two years of philosophy and religious studies with the Apostles of Jesus, an African religious congregation. He made his first profession of vows on 16 July 1996 (feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel), and was ordained to the priesthood in 2003, along with our second Kenyan friar, Fr. Santulino Ekada. Fr. David Costello of the California-Arizona province joined the community as both vocation director and director of theology students, and soon many young Kenyans were applying. The region also accepted two Ugandan applicants (Fr. Joseph Baru, ordained in 2005, and Fr. Richard Opendi, ordained in 2007) because at the time the OCD friars were not yet established in their homeland.

For the next decade the Nairobi community continued to serve as an “international house of theological studies,” welcoming Carmelite students from Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, the Congo and the Oklahoma province of the United States (and even refugee seminarians from Rwanda). Yet because tuition costs and living expenses remain significantly higher in Nairobi than elsewhere in Africa, the other regions eventually found themselves unable to sustain the financial burden and, with regret, began withdrawing their seminarians to train them at home. Thus the membership of the Nairobi community is now mainly Kenyan. Nevertheless, we are currently blessed with the presence of a Discalced Carmelite priest from Tanzania studying spiritual theology at the neighboring Catholic University of Eastern Africa, as well as candidates sent from the Uganda region to study philosophy and other subjects, thus maintaining an “international” flavor to the house. In addition, recognizing the superior educational opportunities available in Kenya, the other English-speaking African regions continue exploring ways of affording to send at least a few of their OCD students to Nairobi. At the moment, in addition to the four American friars currently assigned to Nairobi, the African members of the Kenyan region include six philosophy students, two novices, six in temporary vows (including theology students), one deacon and nine priests. We now have a new class of postulants too.

Besides their work of forming young African Discalced Carmelites, our friars of the Kenyan region are actively involved in manifold forms of service to the church and society. Our retreat house in Nairobi provides the community not only a modest source of income but also an important focus for Carmelite ministry. For many years now individuals and groups (large and small) have been coming to us for retreats, spiritual guidance, conferences, days of recollection, and meetings of various sorts. Our numerous guests have included not only local clergy, religious and laity, but also such notables as Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Jean Vanier and members of his L’Arche community, and the bishops of Sudan and Kenya. On weekdays we also celebrate Mass for several convents nearby. Additionally, in 2006 the Discalced Carmelite Order assumed sponsorship of Tangaza College’s Institute of Spirituality and Religious Formation, which trains spiritual directors and religious formators; one of the friars of the Nairobi community currently serves as its director.

In 2006 the friars of the Kenyan region accepted a request from the Discalced Carmelite nuns in Kisii to become their chaplains. At present we have a small community there which also assists in the local parishes and outstations. The bishop of Kisii has offered land to the friars so that they may make a more permanent foundation and eventually establish a spirituality center there. In 2008 the bishop of Eldoret invited our friars to take charge of a struggling parish in Tindinyo, next to a diocesan seminary and a monastery of our Discalced Carmelite nuns. Currently four of our friars are serving the parish and its 12 outstations.

Back in Nairobi, our community recently agreed to take pastoral responsibility for St. Raphael church, one of the chaplaincies of the University of Nairobi, near its campus of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences in Upper Kabete (a Nairobi suburb). There our priests and deacons provide Mass and sacramental ministry to the teachers, students, staff and local residents, while our own young Carmelites in formation help the parish youth groups and small Christian communities. Others from our community assist in the Kibera slums.

Donations to assist the Kenya Mission can be sent to the
Discalced Carmelite Friars, 2131 Lincoln Rd NE, Washington, DC 20002-1101
or made via credit card at: http://www.carmelclarion.com/donations.html

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