The Carmelite Monastery is a place of prayer, as the nuns of the Carmelite order and the postulants in attendance live and work together. They have a strong sense of peace through community and solitude. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun video)

On a typical day, as you head north on Dulaney Valley Road just above Interstate 695, you might be speeding to outrun the tailgater behind you, glorying in that steal you just scored at the nearby Towson Town Center or just trying to make Jarrettsville in time for dinner.

If so, you might miss an invitation to history.

Turn left at a little white sign south of Seminary Avenue, cruise up a wooded lane and park near a fieldstone mansion, and you'll find yourself on the 27 quiet acres that serve as home to Baltimore Carmel, which descends from the first community of religious women formed in the 13 colonies.

"Oh, there's a whole other world back here — that's one way to put it," says Sister Monika Bies, a German native who joined the community in 2001. "It's more interesting than you might guess."

Selah, as the Old Testament might say. Indeed it is.

One of 65 Carmelite monasteries in the nation, Baltimore Carmel houses 18 nuns and two postulants (aspiring members), women ranging in age from 33 to 93. Their ex-professions include dentistry, nursing, education and the law.

Their spiritual focus is prayer, and their roots go a long way back.

The Carmelites, an order of the Roman Catholic Church, were born around the year 1200, when a group of religious hermits set up a community on Mount Carmel in what was then Palestine. Their brief formula of life, the Rule of St. Albert, laid out 21 articles. These called for members to live in individual cells, make vows of poverty and obedience and observe silence from evening through morning.

The goal: to develop lives of constant prayer.

"The external details of our lives might differ, but every Carmelite believes prayer is a fundamental part of life and has a real effect on the world," says Sister Constance "Connie" FitzGerald, 79, who has lived at the monastery since 1951.

By the 1700s, the order was well established in Western Europe, including Spain and southern France, and later that century, a contingent of women from southern Maryland traveled to the Low Countries (later Belgium) to enter English-speaking monasteries.

In 1790, they boarded a boat home and set up a convent at Port Tobacco in Charles County, the first Carmelite monastery in America. It was moved to a site on Aisquith Street in Baltimore in 1831, to another on Biddle in 1843, and to the Towson location in 1961. Along the way, the place opened like a budding flower.

For 185 years, the nuns practiced strict seclusion. They wore habits and veils, stayed behind grates when interacting with the public and rarely left the grounds.

Then came the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, in the early 1960s, which sought to modernize Roman Catholicism.

Baltimore Carmel, like many others, adapted. To some, it was a relief.

"I was fine with the old ways at the time, but the habits were heavy and hot, we looked like penguins, and I still have bald spots from the veils," says a chuckling Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester, 80, who joined in the 1950s. "I'm glad we left those days behind."

Today's nuns wear white robes for services, regular clothes the rest of the time. The grates and veils are long gone. And since 1990, they worship in a light-filled chapel alongside members of the public, more than 150 of whom regularly partake of Sunday Eucharist.

"In a world where the culture is much less Christian than it was, it's necessary for contemplatives to be more visible," says Sister Colette Ackerman, the monastery's prioress. "Our mission is to share contemplation with the people."

At the monastery today, life alternates between silence and sound, aloneness and community, spirit and matters of the world.

At 7:30 on a recent morning, the women file into a chapel for lauds, an "office" in praise of God. Sister Monika, a musician, breaks the silence with some bright notes on the piano, and the sisters take up a quiet chant. "Praise the eternal God in all your words and deeds," they sing.