Setting the Spirit: Carmel Home combines faith with nursing care for residents

Feb. 4—Inside the solemn, spacious Carmel Home chapel, the handful of nuns who are part of the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus began gathering to pray shortly before lunchtime Tuesday.

Just outside the chapel doors, nurses and other staff members were busy and focused on their duties that centered around 115 residents.

And although the Carmel Home is run by Catholic nuns, there is no requirement for the residents to be of the same Christian faith — averaging 75% Catholic and 25% non-Catholic residents.

Kenny Whitlow, who works in social services and admissions at the Carmel Home, said the nursing facility tends to attract more Catholic residents because of its ties to Catholicism.

"A lot of Catholics want to come here so they can go to Mass and rosary," said Whitlow, who's been employed at the Carmel Home for nearly 40 years. "With the sisters here and the priests present all the time, it sets the spirit of the home."

The Carmel Home was made possible by an inheritance from Foundress Mother Maria Teresa of St. Joseph. The facility was opened in October 1952 by the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus, who still own and operate it as a Roman Catholic, nonprofit, long-term care facility.

It provides a skilled-care unit with 36 residents who require more assistance and a personal care unit for 79 residents who are able to live more independently. Currently, there are about 200 people on the waiting list.

A convent, which is connected to the Carmel Home, is home to the seven nuns who carry out the daily faith mission and have their own tasks in caring for the residents.

Sister Francis Teresa, a Minnesota native, arrived at the facility in 1980 and became head administrator "in the mid-'90s."

She credits her predecessor, Sister M. Andrea, who passed away last year at age 91, for preparing her for the administrator role.

"She was actually my mentor," Sister Francis Teresa said. "...She was very influential in getting the Carmel Home involved in the Owensboro community. She was a real people person, and I learned a lot under her."

The combination of the faith mission and the nursing care have been key throughout the more than 70 years of the home's operation.

Sister Francis Teresa said the "religious environment" does distinguish it from other nursing home-type facilities that offer

similar medical and end-of-life care.

"It sounds strange, but what our Mother actually wanted was a safe place where the elderly can actually come and prepare themselves for eternal life," Sister Francis Teresa said.

Celebrating the morning Masses is the Rev. Ray Clark, a priest within the Owensboro Roman Catholic Diocese.

He also hears confessions weekly and provides the anointing of the sick and sacrament of healing once a month.

Clark said witnessing the effects of aging and the toll it takes on people has had an impact on him.

"What I keep seeing is the incredible amount of suffering — just the physical suffering that people go through," said Clark, whose late father was a Carmel Home resident. "You watch people as they lose their memories and just sort of fade away. ...Part of our Catholic tradition is that suffering is spiritual gold that we can offer for the good of others."

The Carmel Home sits on 15 acres at 2501 Old Hartford Road, and the facility has grown to 120,000 square feet.

The property also features two guest houses where out-of-town families can stay at no charge. In 2010, the current 4,500-square-foot chapel, with a capacity for 120 people and 50 in wheelchairs, was opened. The last addition was the 27,000-square-foot Pauline Steele Wing in 2013. Residents also have access to a beauty shop and a dedicated activity room with a stage.

Along with the faith aspect and the medical care, employee longevity has also been a factor in the Carmel Home's success.

For Karla Bell, who's been the business manager for 20 years, it was her parents who showed her how special the Carmel Home was before she ever began working there. Bell's mother, Frances, was an employee and her father, Bob, was altar server there for 47 years.

As a teenager, Bell said she would attend Mass there with her father.

"My family basically grew up knowing about the Carmel Home," Bell said.

Whitlow, who started in 1983 overseeing activities, said it was early in his career when he witnessed one of the nuns stay with a Baptist resident, who was alone and dying there, that he knew he was in the right place.

"For me, I needed to get my mind off myself; I found I did a lot better when I was doing for others," he said. "This is just what works for me, and I can't imagine doing anything else."

Don Wilkins,, 270-691-7299{