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Carmel Loses One Of Its Leading Historians


by Fr. Richard Copsey

Fr. Joachim Smet, O.Carm., one of the leading historians of the Carmelite Order, died on 4th October at the age of 95.


Fr. Joachim Smet, O.Carm., passed away peacefully at the Providence Hospital in Washington D.C., U.S.A., on the evening of 4th October after a brief illness. Joachim was born in Chicago on 9th October 1915, so he missed celebrating his 96th birthday by a mere 5 days.

Brought up in a very devout family, he made his first communion on 17th May 1925, the day on which St. Thérèse of Lisieux was canonised by Pope Pius XI, and Joachim attributed his religious vocation to her intercession. Soon afterwards he sat the scholarship examination for the Carmelite Minor Seminary in Niagara Falls and was notified that he had won a scholarship, once again on 17th May. This award enabled his parents to send Joachim, now 14 years of age, to a Catholic school, something which would have otherwise have been impossible at that time of economic depression.

Having completed his high school studies, Joachim entered the Carmelite Order and made his first profession on 15th August 1935. By chance, the Dutch Carmelite Blessed Titus Brandsma was visiting the United States on a lecture tour and attended Joachim’s profession ceremony. Blessed Titus was one of five Carmelites who signed Joachim’s profession paper. Sadly, after the outbreak of the Second World War, Blessed Titus was arrested for his work for the Church in Holland and died in Dachau concentration camp.

Whilst at Niagara, Joachim made up his mind that he would write a history of the Carmelite Order, but it was not until 1947 that his desire started to come to fruition. At the General Chapter that year, someone proposed that a history of the Order should be written and Matt O’Neill, the provincial of the P.C.M. Province Joachim’s province – said, “I have just the guy to do it”. So it was that Joachim found himself on a boat sailing off to Rome and a complete change in his way of life.

Arriving in Rome, though, Joachim found that writing a history of the Order was going to be very difficult. Talking to him in later years, I remember him pointing out how little information there was available, very few of the early Carmelite texts had been printed, and even the few in print dated back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Studies of early Carmelite history were rare and many were coloured by pious preconceptions. It was no wonder that most non-Carmelite historians writing about the mendicant friars assumed that only the Franciscans and Dominicans were worthy of mention.

Once in Rome, Joachim set to work quietly and unassumedly, developing his skills and his knowledge. He became one of the key figures in a revival of Carmelite scholarship and learning. Initially, Joachim followed his own studies and his first major work was published in 1954 entitled The Life of Saint Peter Thomas by Philippe de Mézières, the subject of his doctoral thesis. This work, dedicated to Matt O’Neill, bore all the hallmarks of Joachim’s publications: a meticulously researched study, careful attention to sources, and a gentle, comprehensive introduction backed up with extensive footnotes.

At the same time, Joachim became one of the founding members of the Institutum Carmelitanum, a small team of scholars working in the Collegio San Alberto in Rome, and the first editor of Carmelus its scholarly journal, a position he held until I arrived in Rome in 1993 to relieve him. Joachim saw Carmelus as a way of stimulating Carmelite scholarship and it was due to his encouragement that many young Carmelite scholars were emboldened to publish their studies.

Joachim set himself to work on his history of the Order but the work took time and was delayed by Joachim acquiring other tasks and responsibilities, the most notable of which was his election as Assistant General of the Order, serving under Fr. Kilian Healy for six years. During this period, he edited a quarterly review in English for Carmelite sisters which contained not only articles on spirituality and religious life but also translations of some important early Carmelite texts.

In the mid 1960s, Joachim produced an offset edition of his historical notes, entitled An Outline of Carmelite History which gave a tantalising preview of the contents of Joachim’s magnus opus. Also, his article on the Carmelites in the New Catholic Encyclopedia in 1967 demonstrated his grasp of the overall development of the Order, and he contributed articles to numerous other prestigious encyclopedias.

However, Joachim’s progress on his projected four volume history was agonisingly slow, and nothing had appeared when Joachim’s provincial, Paul Hoban, visited him in 1975. Paul asked Joachim how much progress he had made and was told that volume 1 was in draft form and being corrected. Paul asked if he could borrow the manuscript to read it in his room. That was the last Joachim saw of his text as Paul took it back to America with him and sent it straight to the printers. Joachim was mortified as the footnotes had not been organised and there were many other corrections needed. However, with his customary forebearance, he accepted the fait accompli and started on the remaining volumes. Volume 2 emerged in 1976, volume 3 (in two parts) in 1982, and volume 4 in 1985. Then he returned to volume 1, finished correcting the text and footnotes, and a revised edition appeared in 1988. Thereafter, Joachim devoted himself to tracing copies of the first edition and replacing them with the revised edition.

Translations of Joachim’s work soon began to appear in other languages and the sumptious Italian edition, complete with beautiful illustrations, gave Joachim’s work the true dignity it deserved. Joachim’s somewhat dry English style was not suited to a novel or adventure story, but his skill lay in his ability to analyse a complex situation and to condense the significant elements into a readable text. This, coupled with his innate sympathy with the historical characters involved, give his history a unique value. Perhaps the best of his writing is to be found in the early chapters of volume 2 where he describes with great sensitivity and sympathy the series of events around St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross which led to the separation of the Order into two parts.

Fr. Joachim at his desk


After his history of the friars, Joachim turned his attention to the nuns and in 1987 he produced a slim volume entitled Cloistered Carmel. Then he started a project for cataloguing the surviving Carmelite manuscripts, and his volume on the manuscripts preserved in the Vatican Library - Bibliotheca Carmelitana Manuscripta. Series 1: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana - emerged in 1994. Sadly this remains the only volume so far in print, although Joachim tried without success to get other Carmelites to collaborate in this project. Another slim volume - Canons, monks, nuns, hermits, and friars in Crusader Palestine - is still awaiting a publisher. In addition to all these, Joachim completed a number of translations, among which were the autobiography of Blessed Maria Scrilli in 1995, and a volume of articles written by Blessed Titus Brandsma (awaiting publication).

Throughout his life, Joachim never forgot the needs of his own province and he devoted himself to collecting books for the Carmelite Library in Washington. His efforts were crowned with success when the collection was moved to a new specially-designed location, funded from the Rogge Foundation. This Carmelite Library is unique in the U.S.A. and now attracts many scholars doing research.

For many of us, though, Joachim will be remembered as a very unassuming, delightful companion, a most generous friend, and someone whose faith shone through all his actions. His generosity was done quietly and very humbly and, throughout his life, he used money given to him for personal needs to pay the school fees for a number of boys in India and, on his trips to England, he would always make sure that he left a gift for the person who did his laundry or cleaned his room. In Rome, his room was always open and many of us learning the trade of history benefitted greatly from the pre-prandial conversations in his room - lubricated, it must be confessed, with a glass of whisky.


Joachim was extremely generous in sharing his knowledge, his notes and the results of his researches. He was quite content for others to use his material; for him, what mattered was not his own reputation but the good of the Order. Much of what I have written on Carmelite history owes its origins to conversations with Joachim and material which he has shared with me. We did not always agree on the conclusions that I drew, but Joachim remained a good friend and a great example of the Christian virtues. He will be greatly missed.

Fr. Joachim Smet, O.Carm.

May He Rest In Peace


Father Joachim Smet, Order of Carmelites, the oldest Carmelite in the Chicago Carmelite Province, died Oct. 4, 2011. He was 95. Father Joachim was born in Chicago, IL, on Oct. 9, 1915.

He entered the Province of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, Order of Carmelites, and was ordained a priest in 1942. He held a bachelor's degree in Library Science from the University of Chicago, a master's degree in Latin from the Catholic University of America, and a doctorate in Ecclesiastical History from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy.

Among his assignments: Latin and English teacher at Mount Carmel High School in Chicago, IL, Assistant Novice Master at New Baltimore, PA, founding member of the Institutum Carmelitanum at the Collegio Internazionale de Sant' Alberto in Rome, Italy, editor of Carmelus, a journal of Carmelite Studies, President of the Institutum Carmelitanum in Rome; Assistant General of the Carmelite Order at the Carmelite General Curia in Rome. A gifted writer, he is well-known for his four-volume work The Carmelites and his Life of Saint Peter Thomas.

Among his other works: Familiar Matter of Today-Poems (2007), The Mirror of Carmel: A Brief History of the Carmelite Order, (2011), various publications on Carmelite Nuns, Carmelite Liturgy, Carmelite Libraries of Spain and Portugal and the Carmelites of Medieval England.

As Carmelites We live our life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through prayer, through fraternity, and through service (diakonia). These three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. 

All of these we live under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as "our Mother and sister." 


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