The history of the Carmelites

The Carmelites are a religious group within the Catholic Church. Their name derives from Mt. Carmel, the place of their outset.

Toward the end of the 12th century, during the crusades, a small group of Latin hermits settled on the slopes of Mt. Carmel, wishing to imitate Prophet Elijah through a solitary way of life.

Following the Prophet’s experience and with the same passion which led him to exclaim: «Burning with zeal for the Lord of Hosts», the hermits embraced a life of silence and solitude, abiding the grottos of the mountain and meditating the Word of God.

Sometime between 1206 and 1214, the Prior – of whom only the initial of the first name is known – asked Albert, the then Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, to approve a rule of life for the hermits.

This way, they obtained an official recognition as a community within the local Church, a prelude to their recognition as a religious order, which took place only years later, by the Pope. A few years later, around 1226, they built a small church near their grottos, dedicated to Our Lady whom the hermits considered as a mother, patroness and model of life and of prayer.

The excavations performed in the fifties and sixties of the last century by the Franciscan archaeologist Bellarmino Bagatti, brought to light the primitive grottos and the remains of successive buildings, with the big chapel standing out among them.

Somewhere around 1240, the first convents were founded in Europe. Even King Louis the 9th of France, returning from a Crusade (1254), brought some Carmelites back with him to Europe, thus promoting their expansion.

In 1291, with the siege and conquest of St. John of Acre by the Mamluks, the Carmelites were forced to abandon the Holy Land for about two and a half centuries.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, Europe experienced major cultural and social changes, which influenced the perception of religious life.
Due to the renewed sensibility, people started to consider the way in which religious life was being conducted in convents as insufficient, and longed for a renewal which took the mythicized origins of the religious orders as reference.

Adapting to city life implied some alterations to the interpretation of the Rule, and this also caused the weakening of the hermit life as it had been practiced by the first generations.

Teresa of Avila, the great reformer of the Carmel, maintained that the surest way to live one’s vocation, would be to return to the original Rule. Along with some fervent sisters who were moved, like her, by strong ideals and zeal, with small resources and endless hardships, St. Teresa founded in 1562 a small monastery in Avila (Spain), which was characterized by austerity, silence and poverty; a place combining community and eremitical life.

Thanks to her strong collaboration with the Carmelites John of the Cross and Anthony of Jesus, they founded the first convent of Discalced Carmelite Friars in Duruelo (Spain) on November 28th, 1568.

About 10 years later, the Discalced Carmelites obtained from Pope Gregory XIII by the decree «Pia Consideratione» given on June 22nd 1580, the ability to become a separate province within the Carmelite Order, thus protecting their identity.

The following year, during the Provincial Chapter held in Alcala’ de Henares (Spain), father Jeronimo Gracian was elected as the first Provincial of the Discalced Carmelites, and their constitutions were approved.

The dream of the Carmelites – to return to the cradle of their order – was realized in 1631, thanks to the work of Father Prosper of the Holy Spirit, who built a small convent on the promontory of Mt. Carmel towards the sea, near the lighthouse.

The friars lived there until 1761, when Zahir al Umar, elected governor of Galilee, ordered them to vacate the site and had the convent demolished.

The site of the old convent is still in possession of the Carmelites. It encloses the grotto in which Father Prosper lived until the day he breathed his last, on November 20th, 1653.

The friars then moved to their present location. They built a large church and convent, over the ruins of a Medieval Greek Church known as the Abbey of St. Margaret, and of a chapel believed to date back to the Byzantine Period.

The new church was seriously damaged during Napoleon’s 1799 campaign. Many sick and wounded soldiers were accommodated in the convent. When Napoleon’s army withdrew, the Turks drove out the friars and demolished the convent’s buildings.

In 1821, Abdullah Pasha, Ottoman governor of Acre, ordered the church to be totally destroyed, and its masonry was used to build Abdullah Pasha’s summer residence.
In 1846 the property was returned to the Carmelite order.

The current church and convent were then built following the project and with the supervision of the Discalced Carmelite brother Giovanni Battista Cassini, who was an expert architect. The works started in 1836.

Three years later, Pope Gregory XVI gave the church the title of Minor Basilica. The Sanctuary took on the name of Stella Maris, meaning “The Star of the Sea”.

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