Excerpts taken from To Love Me In Truth and Early Chronicles.
Father Leroy Callahan knew of Mother Luisita’s hope for a retreat house, and like Mother Margarita Maria, he never forgot it. Once the congregation became established in the diocese and after the passing of Mother Luisita into eternal life, Father Callahan continued to urge Mother Margarita Maria to give serious thought to a retreat house. He wanted the Carmelite Sisters to have a novitiate and retreat house in California.
In 1939, just one year before his death, he again quietly turned to Mother Margarita Maria and urged, “When are you going to be brave and try to buy some property for a novitiate and a retreat house? Look for some property, look for it. You know it was Mother Luisita’s wish.”
Never had Mother Margarita Maria forgotten it, but neither the time nor the circumstances seemed right as yet. Two more years passed and it was then the spring of 1941.
Mother Margarita Maria, now Regional Superior, thought the congregation should consider the acquisition of additional real property. She had in mind a large enough parcel for a retreat house and a future novitiate. First, of course, the approval of Superiors had to be obtained. Mother Mary of the Eucharist and her Council were in full accord. Mother Margarita Maria next consulted the Archbishop. He, too, gave his approval and his blessing on this undertaking.
There was no retreat house for women east of Los Angeles; thus the San Gabriel Valley was chosen as the general area in which to search for possible properties. Thirty-two different properties were examined, but either they were not suitable or they were too costly. Some of the Sisters were becoming discouraged, but Mother Margarita Maria reminded them that the Sacred Heart would provide when He wanted the work to commence. For their part, they would continue to pray and keep looking.
On Holy Thursday morning, Mother Margarita Maria received a telephone call from Monsignor Thomas J. O’Dwyer, who wished to inform her of a property in Alhambra which was for sale and which he thought would be of interest to her. Later that same morning, she received a telephone call from Mr. Francis T. Moore of Altadena. The Moores were personal friends of Archbishop Orozco y Jiménez of Guadalajara and it was through him they became interested in the Carmelite Sisters. The Moores knew the Sisters were looking for property for a retreat house.
He began, “Mrs. Moore and I have found the ideal property for you in Alhambra, Mother. It is spacious with many trees, a 26-room house which, however, is badly in need of repair. It has a triple garage with living quarters above.”
It turned out to be the same property about which Monsignor O’Dwyer had phoned earlier!
Mr. Moore had not seen the inside of the house, but he told Mother Margarita Maria that it was being sold to close the estate of Judge Walter Haas. The judge’s brother, John B. Haas, an attorney, was the Executor.
Mr. Moore continued, “If you think you are interested, Mother, Mrs. Moore and I will drive you over to see it next Monday.” This was most agreeable to Mother Margarita Maria.
Afterward, she admitted that the minute she had her first glimpse of the property, even before they got out of the car, she thought, “It is going to be ours.”
The Moores, Mother Margarita Maria, and her companion walked through the entire house. Its rundown condition had certainly not been exaggerated. As they proceeded from room to room, Mother Margarita Maria was very quiet, thinking of how the house could be converted for their purposes. She concluded that cleaned up and with a minimum of remodeling, twenty-eight retreatants could be comfortably accommodated, and there would also be space for the Sisters. The grounds, too, had been badly neglected but were planted with beautiful trees, many of which had been imported from remote parts of the world by Judge Haas. It was an ideally secluded property in the midst of a lovely residential section of Alhambra. Yes, Mother Margarita Maria appreciated the potential and could envision the possibilities. She was also looking to the future as she surveyed the spacious grounds realizing that if the need arose, there was plenty of space to put up additional buildings. There remained just one possible hurdle – the selling price.
There was little conversation on their return trip to Duarte. Mother Margarita Maria was unusually quiet and reflective, but inwardly, she admitted afterward, she was very excited. She telephoned Mr. Haas, the Executor, immediately, telling him she had seen the property in Alhambra and that she was interested in it. He replied that he and his family would be delighted to have a religious community purchase it. It had been on the market for over a year and it was holding up the closing of his brother’s estate.
Mother Margarita Maria then asked the price.
“We are asking $26,000 and that is without the furniture in the house,” Mr. Haas said.
This was more than double what the Sisters could afford!
“Oh, that is too much for us,” Mother Margarita Maria replied.
Mr. Haas asked her to make an offer, but she was embarrassed to do so and did not want to offend him.
“I am afraid you will be provoked.”
“No, not at all,” he answered her. “What is your offer?”
Ten thousand dollars – that is all we can afford to pay,” she replied.
For a few moments, there was silence. Mr. Haas could not believe what he heard. Then he asked if she realized how far apart they were. To her quiet, “Yes”, Mr. Haas terminated the conversation by saying very politely, “We are not going to waste time. If you change your mind, call me.” Mother Margarita Maria asked him to do likewise if he changed his mind.
She knew it was the ideal place, the kind of place she had been looking for, but the price was way beyond what they could afford. Upon Mr. Moore’s advice, they did not call Mr. Haas, but the Sisters and the patients at Santa Teresita began a novena of prayers to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Four days later, Mr. Haas telephoned to see if Mother Margarita Maria had changed her mind.
“Yes,” she replied, “I have changed my mind.”
“And what is your offer now?” He inquired of her.
“Ten thousand-one hundred dollars.”
In the brief conversation which followed, Mr. Haas came down to $21,000 – $5,000 less than his original price. But Mother Margarita Maria’s offer remained. At this point, he invited her to come to his office where they could discuss the matter further.
Negotiations continued. There were thirteen heirs to be satisfied. Finally, they agreed on $13,500, wherein each of the heirs would receive $1,000 and the additional $500 would cover escrow costs. However, since it was an asset of an estate, final approval of the Probate Court was necessary to consummate the sale. This meant it had to be offered at public auction.
The real problems were about to begin. First, there was the question of zoning and to use the property for a retreat house necessitated a public hearing and the approval of the neighbors living nearby.
Mr. Haas initiated the proceedings for the variance; however, the neighbors were furious when they learned that the Sisters wanted to purchase the property. They were bitterly opposed to a religious community or a retreat house in their neighborhood as they felt it would depreciate their own properties. So they united, even the Catholics, against the granting the variance. Joining in this opposition was the pastor of the Catholic church, a short block away from the Haas property. He telephoned Mother Margarita Maria and reprimanded her for considering the purchase of a house in the parish without first obtaining his permission.
During the 14 years, Mother Margarita Maria had lived in the United States, she had more than once experienced prejudice. It always hurt, but never like this. She decided to set an example. She would forgive; she would seek peace; she would try to win over these people. She and a companion started out, going from house to house of the neighbors close by, but it was to no avail. In each instance, they were not even received with politeness. The response was open hostility and animosity. Quite simply, they were not wanted, even by those of their own faith.
Mother Margarita Maria needed both advice and encouragement, so she requested an appointment with Archbishop Cantwell. She told him in some detail of events as they had occurred. He was appalled, but he remained firm that she proceed with the purchase of the property and keep him apprised of developments. He also telephoned the pastor in Alhambra to inform him that Mother Margarita Maria had selected the Alhambra property with the approval of the Chancery Office; that he, the Archbishop, wanted a retreat house for women in the area, and he asked the pastor to help and not oppose the Sisters, reminding him that this foundation would be of great benefit to the parish. The Sisters left the Archbishop with his blessing and full approval.
Throughout these trying weeks, Mr. and Mrs. Moore staunchly supported and encouraged the Sisters. They were always ready to accompany Mother Margarita Maria to various business appointments and Mr. Moore, who was a successful businessman, gave them valuable advice.
The public hearing on the zoning variance was set for July 2, 1941, before the Planning Commission at Alhambra City Hall. It happened to be the first Friday of the month, the day specially dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Mr. and Mrs. Moore arrived with Mother Margarita and her companion shortly before the appointed time. The Council Chamber was filled to capacity – standing room only – with the neighbors who came to oppose the granting of the variance.
The Sisters looked about; the only other friends they saw were Mr. Haas and Mr. Adams, their architect. As they moved up the aisle to the front row, Mr. Moore whispered to Mother Margarita Maria, “Don’t worry, Mother, and don’t say a word. Let me talk to you.”
As soon as they were seated, the meeting was called to order. Many questions were asked and insulting accusations, some very personal, were made. It seemed that everyone had something to say against the Sisters and their purchase of the property.
All the while, Mother Margarita Maria and her companions sat quietly listening, never making any attempt to answer nor defend themselves. It was as if they were criminals being criminally charged before a court. Finally, the President of the Council, turning his attention to Mother Margarita Maria, addressed her directly, “Do you wish to make a statement of any kind?”
Mother Margarita Maria stood up and faced the assembly. Within, she was shaking, but outwardly she appeared very calm. Quietly and firmly she answered, “Yes, I have plenty to say. We will abide by the law, but we will be free in our own house, as you are all free in your own homes.”
There was much talking going on, and Mother Margarita Maria tried to continue, but she was actually shouted down. The session had become very emotional and was completely out of control.
To avoid any further commotion, the President announced that the public hearing was terminated and asked the people to leave. He said the Commission would adjourn to a closed meeting. One of the members of the Commission approached Mother Margarita Maria and suggested that they not go too far away. He said the closed meeting would be brief.
After about ten minutes, Mr. Haas thought they should return. The room was empty except for the Council members who had resumed their seats. They had come to a unanimous decision. The variance was granted.
This was indeed a great victory for the Sisters. The many prayers offered to God by the Sisters and their friends had been answered. Without the zoning variance, the property would have been of no use to them.
Mr. Haas was delighted for now the sale might be consummated very shortly and the estate closed. However, even though this first hurdle was passed, there was no absolute assurance that the property would go to the Sisters. There was still the possibility that someone might outbid them at the auction. Yet, for the present, it was still a victory.
As they were leaving city hall, Mr. Moore, who was as jubilant as the Sisters, said, “This certainly is the occasion for some special celebration, Sisters, and I have a little treat in mind for you.”
Knowing that their Rule did not permit the Sisters to partake of food in a private home or in a public restaurant, he drove to an ice cream parlor on the way back to Duarte and ordered ice cream sodas for everyone which they could enjoy in the car. It was, indeed, a most unusual treat for the Sisters.
News of the granting of the variance was all over the neighborhood by that afternoon and it only fueled the animosity of the residents, who were more determined than ever to block the sale of the Haas property to the Sisters.
Mr. Haas proceeded with arrangements for the auction to be held on August 1, 1941 – again the First Friday of the month – and was set to begin at eight o’clock in the morning. As required, notices were mailed so that all interested parties might attend and bid.
Once again, Mr. Moore advised the Sisters, “Let us plan to be there one hour early.”
He feared, and with good reason, that the neighbors had not given up. He really wanted the Sisters to have the property, but the neighbors were equally determined that they were not going to have the Sisters or a retreat house in their neighborhood. They planned to outbid them at the auction and prevent them from obtaining the property.
Promptly at seven o’clock in the morning, the Sisters arrived with Mr. and Mrs. Moore at the location where the auction was to be held. The auctioneer was already there, but no one else.
Mother Margarita Maria approached him and said, “You know, we would like this property very much, but I have two requests.”
Surprised, he asked, “And what are your requests?”
“First, that the auction commences at eight o’clock sharp.”
Before she could continue, he interrupted, “Well, that is simple enough. It is my job to start on time. Yes, it will begin at eight o’clock sharp. And what is the second request?”
Mother Margarita Maria, happy she had won the “simple” request, continued, “When you auction the furniture, please offer the dining room as one unit and offer all the benches in the basement as a unit, and likewise all the bookcases.” She watched the auctioneer’s face closely and saw the furrows in his brow.
He was listening, wondering at this request, but by this time he was impressed by the sincerity and enthusiasm of this Sister. He didn’t know why she was making this request concerning the furniture, but it did not matter to him. He was there to sell it.
“Yes, I will do it for you,” he replied.
Mother Margarita Maria anxiously kept looking at her watch and then at the door. No one else had arrived. It was as if time had slowed down to a virtual standstill, as the hands of the clock crept ever so slowly toward the hour. Then only three minutes remained…two minutes….one minute – finally, eight o’clock! Still, no one else had arrived.
The formalities of the auction began. The property was offered. Mr. Moore bid for the Sisters – $13,500, the price agreed upon with Mr. Haas.
Three times, the auctioneer repeated the bid, and then said, “The property goes to the Carmelite Sisters.”
No sooner had the auctioneer finished speaking those words, a man came running through the doorway breathlessly, followed by a woman, obviously, intending to bid – but it was too late. The property was sold.
Next was the auction of the furniture. The auctioneer wasted no time. Mr. Moore continued to bid for the Sisters. Other people were arriving and began to join in the bidding. There was the 16-piece dining room set of beautifully carved Australian wood. Another bidder asked that the table and chairs and extra pieces be sold separately, but the auctioneer said it was to be offered as one unit only. It went to the Sisters for $29.
True to his word, the auctioneer announced the benches as one unit. The winning bid came from the Sisters. In the same way, they acquired the bookcases and were also able to purchase a few other odd pieces, including a large leather chair in which, they learned later, Judge Haas, the owner of the property, had died while reading his Bible.
A few weeks later, the legal formalities were concluded and the transfer of money and property took place.
Days of cleaning and scrubbing followed, which the Sisters did themselves. They were overjoyed with the thought of the new retreat house and the great benefit to souls who would come to spend “a few days apart with the Lord.”
The property restrictions in the area did not permit a sign of any kind, but the Sisters had selected the name by which this new foundation would be known – “Retreat House of the Sacred Heart.”
The basement of this residence was to be occupied by the Sisters; the second and third floors were furnished for retreatants. The large parlor on the first floor was remodeled as a chapel. Also on the first floor: conference rooms, the retreatants’ dining room, and a large kitchen and Mother Margarita Maria’s office, which doubled as her cell at night.
On September 29, 1941, the first Mass was celebrated by Monsignor Thomas J. O’Dwyer for the Sisters and a few friends. Their Foundress, Mother Maria Luisa Josefa of the Blessed Sacrament seemed especially near that day as another apostolate of her daughters commenced. Her desire for a retreat house for women was to be fulfilled at last.
In November, four ladies from San Diego arrived for the first-weekend retreat. Initially, the groups were necessarily small as retreats for lay-women had not yet become commonplace at the time. However, the Sisters found many ways to stimulate interest. The tiny spark had enkindled a slow, but the steady fire which would soon begin to burn brightly.
This story and many others are found in the Carmelite Sisters’ short-story book called “Moments of Grace”. If you wish to obtain a copy of the book, please visit: https://carmelitesistersocd.com/product/book-moments-of-grace/