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Quaint shop supports centuries-old religious order

JACKSON — Located in an antebellum home on Terry Road near the interstate, the Carmelite Gift & Bookshop is great place to pick up some bread, a prayer book and a little peace.

But you might have to ring the bell first.

Except for weekends in November and December, the Carmelite Gift & Bookshop is closed. Locked, even. However, year-round, if you ring the doorbell between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. on weekdays, someone will answer the door. And on most Saturdays, Sister Donna Marie will open the shop upon request.

“You will need to ring the bell and wait,” said Sister Margaret Mary of the Carmelite Order in Jackson.

In today’s fast-paced, high-tech world, few companies could survive doing business like that. But the little shop on the corner has prospered for more than 25 years.

“The business is a very minor part of our lives,” said Sister Margaret Mary. “We have a secretary who’s there most of the day and answers the door and takes care of the customers most of the year. On the weekends from November through Christmas, those of us who are able work in the shop because that’s the only time of year we’re open for walk-in traffic.”

Partly hidden from view by a cluster of oak trees, passersby often miss the Carmel of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and St. Therese Carmelite Monastery, located at 2155 Terry Road, which houses a monastery, gift shop and chapel.

Built circa 1835, the colonial structure was spared in the Civil War when it was used as a hospital. The house was renovated in 1955, after the Carmelite Order came to Jackson. The Carmelite Gift & Bookshop opened circa 1974.

“It’s quite an experience,” said Roy Wilkinson of Jackson, who grew up in the neighborhood and still frequents the gift shop. “Where else in Jackson can you shop, and at the same time, step into a chapel to pray? It’s a very peaceful, quiet place, maybe a little mysterious peace.”

The Carmelite nuns, a contemplative group of religious women in the Catholic Church, traces its origins to 1565 in Spain, when St. Teresa of Avila established the Discalced Carmelite Order. The Order spread to France, then Europe and eventually to the New World.

The Carmelites, the first and only contemplative community in the state, founded the monastery in Jackson in November 1951. Until the 1960s, after changes were made as a result of the second Vatican Council, the Carmelite nuns were strictly cloistered and only children were allowed to see their faces.

“There was such a mystique that surrounded them,” said Janna Avalon, editor of The Mississippi Catholic, published by the Catholic Diocese of Jackson. “When I was growing up, they were strictly cloistered. Every summer, we’d go to the novena and have prayers on the grounds. At one point, the nuns would sing over the loudspeakers and I thought they were angels from heaven. Their voices were so wonderful.”

The Carmelite Order originally consisted of seven nuns. Today there are only six. Except for small donations, the gift shop is the nuns’ main source of income.

“Initially, many of our friends in Jackson had an annual benefit to support us, but as the years went by and women were not as free as they had been — when they began working outside jobs — that changed and we needed to do more to support ourselves,” said Sister Margaret Mary.

Handmade crafts and baked goods that were sold at the annual benefits were among the first items stocked in the gift shop.

“When the last Catholic religious goods store closed, Bishop Brunini asked us if we would be a resource year round for religious and especially Catholic religious goods,” said Sister Mary Margaret. “That was really the impetus that made it branch out to year round and the shop expanded after that.”

The shop now carries a huge assortment of items, including unique home and garden accessories such as fountains and tapestries, clothing, books, jewelry, and several lines of collectibles that have proven so popular that the nuns keep a registry of individual collections.

“We have a nativity village that covers two rooms,” said Sister Donna Marie. “Much of it is Fontanini, but we have several other lines as well.”

Religious gifts, including Catholic and interdenominational items, sell well, particularly for baptisms, communions, confirmations and weddings. Seraphim Angels, including angels of the month and a garden of angels, are popular items. In addition to nativity figures, the gift shop stocks Fontanini’s resurrection scenes, Life of Christ series and collector’s club kits.

Nun’s bread, miniature loaves of raisin nut bread, are still sold only during the holidays. Several years ago, the nuns added rum cake to the menu.

“We start baking in October and keep baking until Christmas, as long as we can stand on our feet,” said Sister Donna Marie, prioress of the monastery and manager of the gift shop.

Wilkinson, who works at the Eudora Welty Library in Jackson and has supported the sisters since their arrival in Mississippi, stocks up on nun’s bread and rum cakes every year.

“They make wonderful gifts and I freeze some so I can have it most all year,” he said.

During the holidays, festively decorated Christmas trees fill the shop, leaving little room for customers to mill around. But they don’t seem to mind. The ambience is what matters, Wilkinson said.

“Going into the Carmelite gift shop, especially at Christmas, when you run into old friends and people you haven’t seen in a while, is wonderful,” Wilkinson said. “The whole world is changing fast and it’s nice to see the tradition and their ways continue.”

Sister Margaret Mary said it’s hard to say if the slower economy has had any effect on sales.

“Most sales come during the Thanksgiving and Christmas time and we’ll have to wait and see what happens,” said Sister Margaret Mary. “Generally the Christmas gift time is a very good time for us.”

Beginning Nov. 10, The Carmelite Gift Shop & Bookstore will open on weekends, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and noon until 6 p.m. on Sunday.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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