Soul business - Madonna Magazine

Soul business

Sue Smethurst 07 May 2019

Melbourne’s Carmelites know a lot about soothing society’s souls, as well as the soles, hands and faces of those who use their skincare products.

The sun is barely up but Stevenson Street, Kew is already buzzing. Among the multi-million-dollar mansions lining the leafy avenue, one property stands out. Just the rooftops and a bell-tower can be seen over an imposing brick fence surrounding the Carmelite Monastery, a little slice of heaven amid Melbourne’s urban sprawl.

Although the handful of nuns who live here dress in austere brown habits and veils and obey ancient vows of chastity, poverty and prayer, these women and their mission are anything but antiquated.


The modern nuns spend their days trying to soothe society’s souls online and answering prayer requests from around the world, while transforming their vast property into a sustainable oasis and running their global skincare business.

The enterprising Carmelites have their own garden laboratory from where they manufacture and sell their ‘Monastique’ beauty products, and they can hardly keep up with demand.

‘Elizabeth Arden started in the kitchen too,’ Sister Rosemary quips with a grin.

The Carmelites began their work here in 1929, arriving to dusty horse paddocks which they’ve lovingly transformed into an oasis. An ornate chapel is the centrepiece of the historical property.

Sisters Paula, Marie, Isabella and Rosemary take me on a guided tour of the grounds. Their camaraderie is clear.

‘We are a family,’ Sister Paula smiles as she explains how, decades ago, one young nun with a green thumb made it her life’s work to create the stunning garden. ‘She diligently put in garden beds, cuttings and bulbs… Today the garden is a wonderful place of beauty and colour.’


The garden has benefited from gifts of cuttings over the years; one elderly parishioner left the sisters his entire orchid collection, dozens of cascading orchids which form the centrepiece of the ‘Vatican garden’.

‘Every plant has a purpose, a history and an intent, nothing is random in the garden,’ Sister Marie adds.

Tucked away behind rows of vegetables and fruit trees, is a thriving bee-garden, where the nuns have their own hives. Twice a year honey is harvested, bottled and given to lucky parishioners.

‘The bees are so interesting,’ says Sister Isabella, the convent’s apiarist. ‘They love lavender and it makes the most delicious honey.’

Inside, the convent is austere as you’d expect, but there is a warmth here that can never be measured in curtains and carpet. Those in need will always find comfort and these women, who own nothing, will happily give their all.

In years gone by, a box of mail would greet the Sisters at the local post office each morning; requests for special prayers for sick loved ones or those in need.

Today those requests come via email, day and night and it’s not uncommon for the nuns to still be taking calls at 9pm.


‘We answer every request for help,’ Sister Paula says. ‘People can be lonely. Sometimes just a smile, a hello or a cup of tea can do the world of good. We keep our gates open as a sign of welcome and all are welcome here.’

The internet has also helped them promote and sell their skin care range.

The ‘Monastique’ business began in the 1960s after Vatican II when the Pope declared the church needed to modernise and support itself. A convent guest brought the nuns a bottle of rare perfume made by Cistercian Monks in Wales and the-then Mother Superior sniffed an opportunity to do something similar.

They began with a rose hand lotion (still one of their best sellers), then perfume, and the range now extends to shampoo, talc, skin creams, cosmetics and even a popular ‘Cardinal’ men’s line, all made with their trademark ‘peace, prayer and unhurried care’.

Sales of the range supports the 20 nuns in residence and fund the upkeep of the expansive property.

When I ask Sister Rosemary if I can take a sneak peek inside the fabled laboratory, she reluctantly agrees.

‘We are not a factory and we are not in competition with Estee Lauder, but it’s … more exciting than just making pickles or jam.’


Much of modern convent life still revolves around ancient rituals. The day starts at dawn with prayer and chapel, often parishioners pop in for mass on their way to work, then the Nuns get down to business, working a lengthy day with breaks for prayer or contemplation.

After evening prayers, the Nuns will return to work, to ensure that those in need around the world who’ve emailed requests for help wake to prayers, thoughts and good wishes from the Carmelites of Kew.

‘It’s wonderful that we can give people comfort and responses very quickly, but… it can’t be the essence of your life. The modern devices we have are about enriching our lives and enabling us to enrich others, not distracting us from what’s important.’

Although the convent may not be an appealing career choice for Gen X women, women aged 40 + are showing interest in the contemplative life.

‘The next wave of women coming to us have lived other lives and are looking at life at a deeper level. We will carry on through them and I feel a great sense of positivity that we can continue making a contribution to the world.’

Image: Srs Isabella and Paula. By Fiona Basile.