El Carmelo has an interesting history. As in Fr. Enda Somers’ words of many years ago, the purpose of the foundation of El Carmelo was “the Carmelites wanted to do something for people in every walk of life. We wanted to pass on our rich heritage of spirituality — the doctrine of prayer, in theory and in practice — and the Gospel of Christ as interpreted by St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross and bring that into the lives of all.”
El Carmelo Retreat House in Redlands, California, is the property of the Western Province of Discalced Carmelites. It was founded in 1952 and dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The history of El Carmelo Retreat House would fill a good-sized book and would make interesting and, at times, suspenseful reading. This brief outline may give an inkling of what could be written.
Frs. Patrick Collins and Enda Somers were Carmelite priests who worked together in St. Therese’s Parish, Alhambra, and later in Our Lady of Grace Parish in Encino, both in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. While they were happy and successful in parish work, they wanted to establish a Carmelite house where the emphasis on silence and prayer would be more obvious. In the meantime, they encouraged the people in the parishes where they worked to go on weekend retreats and frequently provided the transportation in order to make sure they got there.
One night, when they were taking some men home from a weekend retreat at the Franciscan retreat house in Malibu, one of the men said simply: “Since you are so interested in retreats, why don’t you start your own retreat house?” A new idea had arisen, a new seed was sown.
A new idea that involved travel was always appealing to Fr. Patrick, and he was soon searching the California coastline for a site similar to the one in Malibu. He found it in the San Francisco area and also found it was available. Now, how to sell the idea to the Carmelite superiors. Although Carmel’s history is rooted in solitary and silent living, the Order had never gone into retreat work in the format that we associate with retreat houses today. But luck was with Fr. Patrick. His new provincial superior, Fr. Joseph McElhinney, came from Ireland, listened to the proposal, and gave it his full support. Things were moving—but not yet. Permission to start another retreat house in the Archdiocese of San Francisco was not granted. It was a sore disappointment to Fr. Patrick and to Fr. Joseph, but such was their enthusiasm for the project that they decided to try somewhere else.
Fr. Patrick had met Bishop Buddy of San Diego a few times and approached him with his new idea and even suggested that Oceanside would be where he would like to open a retreat house. Bishop Buddy readily accepted the idea of the retreat house, but said he preferred to have it in the northern half of the diocese. He took out a map of the diocese and pointed out the cities of Riverside and San Bernardino and said he would like to have a retreat house that would serve those two cities and that Redlands might be a central place in which to establish it.
The hunt for the property began all over. Fr. Patrick and Fr. Enda knew just one man in Redlands, Tom Ditchfield; but he was working for Fowler’s Real Estate. That is where Fr. Patrick went. Mr. Orville ‘Squint’ Fowler proved to be a real gold mine of information; and though not a Catholic, he understood very well what Fr. Patrick wanted. He took him to the former residence of the William N. Moore family.
William N. Moore, a graduate of MIT, was a member of a range building family in Joliet, Illinois, and like many wealthy Midwesterners, he moved to Redlands at the turn of the century, bought a tract of land, developed it into a large orange grove, and built on it a two-story house that was modeled on a villa he had admired in Italy. This house, built in 1903, and thirty-two acres of the original holding, were for sale when Fr. Patrick came looking for a site for a retreat house. The new owner had left it unattended for at least four years; and the condition of the house and of the grove was, to put it mildly, most discouraging.
But the sight was magnificent; the house was on a knoll that rose three hundred feet above the city of Red lands and gave a delightful, panoramic view of the San Bernardino Mountains and the wide valley of orange groves that stretched across their foothills. There were broken windows, doors minus hinges, vines into the house and out the other side, sockets ripped out, and fixtures damaged. Fr. Patrick was able to look beyond this and see the place restored to the class that once marked it out as vintage Redlands. Also, he did not have much choice. The most he could hope to come up with in the way of money was $24,000. On getting down to business, he found that he could get the house and twelve acres of the land for $25,000. There were those who thought the figure was too high and that the whole idea was wild, impractical, and way before its time. But the backing of the ones who mattered was there and, after a dour fight, Fr. Patrick got the house and the twelve acres with the money he had available. What was once the beautiful home of the Moore family, the proud Redlands residence known as “The Peppers,” now became the humble estate of El Carmelo Retreat House.
Now the huge cleanup job began. Tony Jacinto and his Portuguese friends went to work on the groves. Fr. Ignacio Bach and Fr. Gerald Winters brought crews of helpers from Encino, Alhambra, and the Knights of Columbus; and many local volunteers joined in. It must have looked like a preview of the Peace Corps. From the purchase of the property in May of 1952 until the first community moved in on October 14, the work that was accomplished by volunteer crews was something to see. Those who remember it speak of it as an experience they would not have missed. Volumes of memories still abound.
October 15, 1954, the feast of St. Teresa, the day the dedication took place, Bishop Buddy celebrated Mass and blessed the foundation. Fr. Edward Leahy, the provincial delegate, preached the homily. Many local priests and sisters were present, as well as a host of friends and helpers. Bishop Buddy, a great supporter of El Carmelo, conducted the very first day of recollection.
Two more acres of the for-sale property were purchased soon after the community moved in, but there were still eighteen acres for which no money could be found. But Fr. Patrick was not at a loss. A good friend of his, Mrs. Vera Crofton, agreed to buy the eighteen acres and hold them until the Carmelites could buy them from her. Had she not done this, they could have been bought and developed in a way that would militate against the purpose of the retreat house, in 1954, Fr. Patrick was able to borrow money from the Diocese of San Diego, acquire seven more acres, and build twenty-four rooms for retreatants. Needless to say, Fr. Enda was the first retreat master. So, in October of 1954, weekend retreats began on a regular basis and have continued ever since.
In 1956, the remaining eleven acres were acquired and, at the end of the decade, the new freeway, now Interstate 10, went through that part of the property. This brought on long negotiations with the State of California; the end result was that the State took some eleven acres of the El Carmelo property and gave in return about five acres, which included a bungalow (now a convent) and the property on which most of the retreat buildings now stand. This property was purchased by the State from Mr. Frank Moore, son of the original owner of the whole estate. A new chapel, office, and fourteen rooms were added in 1963. In 1968, twelve more rooms were built together with the new kitchen, dining room, assembly room, gift shop, and consultation rooms. The retreat house property is now just over 40 acres.
The first community at El Carmelo consisted of Fr. Patrick Collins, Fr. Enda Somers, and Bro. Malachy Maguire, joined by Fr. John Lysaght, who was appointed retreat director. The years have brought many changes, so that many different Carmelites have contributed to the growth and continuance of this apostolate. It was in 1954, just when the retreats began, that Bro. Boniface Scheerer arrived. He has been here ever since In 1966, the Oblates of St. Martha, (an order of sisters from Saltillo, Mexico) through the good graces of Fr. Estanislao Caralt, OCD, came to work at El Carmelo and, thank heavens, they still minister here.
In this short account of the beginnings of El Carmelo, there are a hundred stories waiting to be written, but it all began with a thought that came from the back seat of a car on the way home from a retreat, an idea that became a vision in the mind of a man, materially poor but with a wealth of friends and with God’s blessing on a project undertaken in honor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
The El Carmelo Retreat Center has grown dramatically over the years. With accommodations for 80 retreatants, weekend retreats draws nearly 3,000 participants annually. In addition, some 2,000 people attend weekday activities per year. This includes day, evening and week retreats. We provide weekend retreats at El Carmelo for parishes from various dioceses including San Bernardino and San Diego, Tucson, Orange County, Las Vegas, New Mexico, Fresno, and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles as well as retreats for our Carmelite Secular Order members of the Western Province of Discalced Carmelites. We continue to have retreats for priests and religious, and lay persons and specialty groups such as Married Couples AA groups, Al-Anon and Serenity.
We welcome you to experience the silence and peace of El Carmelo Retreat House. Come and see us.