The bells tolled solemnly as congregants sang "Hail, Holy Queen," and priests, nuns, and Bishop Dennis Sullivan filed out of the stone chapel for the last time.
After 113 years, the Monastery of the Dominican Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary offered its final public Mass on Monday. Its four remaining cloistered sisters will move to a convent in Elmira, N.Y., in coming weeks, leaving behind, parishioners say, a powerhouse of prayer, countless memories, and quite a few miracles.
"The monastery here in Camden became the center of the Perpetual Rosary movement in America," Sullivan said at the altar, flanked by 18 priests. "Here, for years, the rosary was recited without interruption by the nuns, who formed a spiritual sisterhood."
The closure leaves one Dominican monastery in New Jersey, in Summit, and a vacancy for the nearly 150 people who attended the final Mass, many with stories of ailments cured and hearts mended thanks to prayer.
Jack Sutcliffe's grandmother used to walk from the Fairview section of Camden to the Parkside monastery in the late 1920s, and the site has "stayed in the family" ever since.
"It's always been a special place for us because of the nuns. The commitment they made always impressed everybody, no matter who they were. I hope and pray to God they don't tear it down. That's why I'm here today," said Sutcliffe, 72, a retired electrical contractor now living in West Deptford.
Plans for the monastery, which takes up a square block on Haddon Avenue next to Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center, are not yet known. The Dominican nuns own the property and will determine its future.
Our Lady of Lourdes said in a statement that the hospital is "certainly interested in discussing the future use of the site."
"The Dominican sisters have been our very good friends and neighbors throughout our entire history," said Carol Lynn Daly, the hospital's director of marketing and media relations.
She noted that the hospital's founders, the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, N.Y., purchased the property that is now Our Lady of Lourdes from the Dominican sisters in 1946.
Near the front of the chapel sat three generations of the Tama family.
"I was her age when I started coming here," said Stephanie Tama-Bartels, 47, pointing at her 10-year-old daughter, Macey, who participated in the chapel's May Day celebration this year. "I've known Sister Teresa since I was a little girl. When you have tough times, they're who you turn to. They really can move mountains."
Tama-Bartels' mother, Francine Tama, saw Pope John Paul II with some of the nuns when he visited Philadelphia in 1979. When her arm was paralyzed following surgery a few years ago, Tama asked the nuns for their prayers, and she said that within a day, Tama was able to raise the arm above her head.
"They're angels on Earth," Tama-Bartels said.
The Rev. Vincent Garland of the Church of St. Ann in Lawrenceville was 9 when he darted across Haddon Avenue near the monastery and was struck by a car. Doctors at Cooper Hospital told his 27-year-old mother he wouldn't make it. As he lay in a coma for the fourth day, she went to the nuns to ask for their prayers.
"They set up a novena to St. Vincent," the priest, now 74, recalled. "And after a few days, I started to turn around."
Despite snow delaying the Mass for an hour, and the sadness of leaving a longtime home, the four sisters - Sisters Damien, Teresa, Angela, and Anna Marie - hugged longtime friends at a small reception afterward and then ate sandwiches in an adjacent room, a metal grate separating them from the large crowd.
They may be cloistered, parishioners say, but that doesn't keep them from staying up to date on world events - they watch the news each night - or sharing in conversation and laughter.
In 1987, Msgr. Michael Doyle, a longtime priest at Sacred Heart parish in South Camden, recounted the nuns' history from their founding by the Rev. Damien Saintourens in 1900 to modern days.
"In the early days, their silence was broken by the curses of farmers with wagons full of produce battling with the toll collectors on Haddon Avenue. . . . Today, the night is often torn with screeching brakes and the loud cries of desperate men and women," Doyle wrote in a narrative distributed at the Mass. "But behind the walls, the beads slide through the praying hands, night and day, day and night.