Within the inner-Melbourne suburb of Middle Park is the Carmelite Centre, a place of welcome and prayer, creativity and contemplation for people from all walks of life. Launched in 2009, the Carmelite Centre seeks to bring the essence of the Carmelite tradition of spirituality and mysticism to the community through a range of spirituality-based programs and experiences.

The Carmelite Order dates back to the late 12th century, to a group of hermits living by the “spring of Elijah” on Mount Carmel in Crusader Palestine. In the eight centuries since, Carmelites have sought to listen to the Spirit in the Word of God, and share their rich contemplative tradition with the world. This continues today, with Carmelite friars, nuns and lay people inviting people from all walks of life into a deeper experience of God through prayer and contemplation.

‘The Carmelite story is quite strong and it’s amazing the number of people who have an interest in it,’ says Irene Hayes, leader of the Carmelite Centre in Middle Park.

‘Our purpose is to express what the Carmelite tradition stands for and embrace people where they’re at.

The centre has grown in reach and offerings since its doors first opened, now attracting a broad range of people from those in their 30s to their 80s. Irene says those who come often hear about the centre by word-of-mouth or by searching online.

Irene worked in HR consulting and had been a member of a religious order for several years before taking up her current role. She and her husband, Damien Piele, were invited by the Provincial Council of the Carmelite Order to help develop the centre and its offerings.

‘From the beginning, in collaboration with the Carmelite library, we were encouraged to use creative and imaginative strategies like poetry, music, art, reading, meditation, and retreats to engage with people who arrive to “come and see”,’ Irene says.

Damien, who works as a pastoral advisor at the centre, had previously been working in pain management programs with cancer patients as well as grief counselling, and saw joining the centre as part of his calling. 'It wasn’t so much out of the blue as it was an ongoing journey of faith.’

The Carmelite Centre, Middle Park

Like other communities, the pandemic has challenged the centre to find new ways of keeping connected with its members. They have found hope in using Zoom to connect with people here and overseas including those in the United Kingdom and America.

‘The centre also offers individual spiritual direction in person or via Zoom’, explains Irene. Other weekly offerings include centering prayer, meditation and lectio divina, led by Fr David Hofman, OCarm. Members of the centre also facilitate a spiritual reading group and an eco-spirituality reading circle that meets periodically. There is also a face-to face catch-up that takes place once a month.

Damien offers pastoral supervision for people who are working in ministry. ‘Some people are not comfortable with digital communications,’ he says, ‘so providing pastoral counselling over the phone has been appreciated by our older members.’

The most important monthly activity of the centre, according to Irene, is their Carmelite Conversations sessions, which seek to highlight aspects of the Carmelite tradition, including contemplation and the saints.

When talking about their hopes for the centre and how it might continue to draw the community together, Irene and Damien share similar visions.

‘My hope is that people take on that responsibility of evangelisation themselves,' says Irene, 'and I’m very heartened by the small ways in which that’s already happening.’ For Damien, he hopes they can ‘get people together, have BBQs and afternoon teas as that’s the outreach where senior people and young people can come and share.’

‘It’s about facilitating people’s journey,’ Damien reflects. ‘I believe that’s the mission of the Church – when Christ said to the disciples to go out and baptise in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – and to nurture and build community through creating a sense of belonging.’

The Carmelite Centre Melbourne is located at 214 Richardson Street, Middle Park.