Kneeling in pews behind a grate separating them from the chapel, four nuns bowed in prayer as the chaplain delivered his homily.

"It will be tough to leave this place they've been so many years, but the faith they've built is a rock," Father Anthony Ignatious Cataudo said at the altar. "It cannot be moved."

The four women, dressed in white tunics and black veils, have spent decades praying to God, cloistered in the Monastery of the Dominican Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary, an immense stone temple that has stood in Camden for 113 years.

Monday morning they will enter the chapel, dimly lit with stained-glass tributes to the Virgin Mary and the saints, and hear a final public Mass.

The order, which once had more than 30 nuns living, praying, and studying Scripture together in the 1980s, has dwindled to the four women ranging in age from 42 to 92. They will leave the grounds at Euclid and Haddon Avenues and move to an order in Upstate New York. The remains of more than 50 nuns buried in a crypt beneath the monastery have been moved to Calvary Cemetery in Cherry Hill.

"We're in mourning, that's all I can say," said Marie Ralbusky, 62, of Collingswood, who has attended the daily 6:45 a.m. Mass for decades. "We've become a family, we know each other, each other's lives, we know the sisters. My husband always says this is a powerhouse of prayer."

Cataudo has been chaplain at the monastery for 15 years, saying the morning Masses and leading private devotions with the sisters. His connection to the monastery goes back 70 years, when he started coming to pray as a boy.

"I wish it was God's plan that I would have died here," said Cataudo, 82, who will move to St. Peter's in Merchantville. "I have a great affection for this place and for the sisters. For them, it's a sad thing they can't keep on here. When you enter a cloistered community you figure you'll see the rest of your life there."

Cataudo's homily paid tribute to the nuns, who declined interviews and sat apart from the public.

The massive monastery spanning an entire square block, sits next to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital and a residential neighborhood of some new and many dilapidated houses.

Parkside neighbors say they don't know much about "the big church" on Haddon Avenue where steady street traffic in and out of the hospital can be heard from the foyer.

But inside the convent it's another world. Dark wood walls, colonial blue paint, and the faint smell of incense greet visitors.

Ring a bell and one of the nuns, shielded behind a grated window, greets you with a smile to buzz you into the chapel. That's about the only interaction the nuns have with the outside world, spending as close to 24 hours a day in prayer as is possible and leaving the monastery only for medical or personal necessities.

Few articles have been written about the nuns save obituaries published in local papers - four have died in the last three years - and one piece in the Courier-Post, granted a few years ago in an attempt to attract more attention to the order.

The Camden Diocese became aware a year ago that the order was considering moving, spokesman Peter Feuerherd said. "The reason was there are four nuns in the community and they are elderly and it was felt they would be better off in another community that was larger. Keeping the monastery was just no longer feasible," he said.

Feuerherd said the Dominican order will determine what to do with the valuable property it owns. The order operates autonomously from the diocese.

There has been a steady decline in the number of Catholic women entering religious life in the last 40 years. There were 180,000 in 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. It's down to 50,000 today.

Cloistered nuns declined even more sharply starting in the 1960s, said Kenneth Briggs, author and longtime former religion reporter for Newsday and the New York Times. The drop-off began as nuns shifted toward more modern lifestyles, teaching and moving out into the world. "The cloistered nuns have kind of been a remnant of the old days, the middle ages, when all nuns were required to be cloistered," Briggs said.

"There hasn't been, as you might imagine, a whole lot of interest by young women in the 20th or 21st centuries to be attracted to a life like that."

It's unknown what the order might do with the building, but Briggs said many convents that close, sell properties to pay for the retirement of nuns.

"Retirement has become a huge problem. It's not very well understood that nuns are accountable for their own finances," he said. "They're not supported by a diocese, so a lot of orders have sold lots and lots of real estate in order to provide funds to take care of their oldest, sickest, and most disabled."

Another reason for the decline in women entering convents is a lack of visibility for the calling, said Catholic University professor of theology Paul Sullins, an ordained priest. In the past, many women became nuns after being taught by nuns in school, but as the number of teaching nuns in the United States also has declined - from 114,000 in 1965 to fewer than 7,000 - so has the exposure to the lifestyle.

Exceptions to the trend exist in newer orders, such as the Dominican Nuns of St. Cecelia in Nashville with 300 nuns and an average age of 35.

"If I'm a young woman considering going into religious life and all these other sisters are as old as my grandmother, it's not very attractive. But if I look at these vibrant young orders, I see a whole community of young women," Sullins said.

Despite the decline, the nuns, Sullins says, are not "trying to build their own little kingdom but to build up the kingdom of God."

In Elmira, N.Y., at the Monastery of Mary the Queen, 11 Dominican sisters wake at 5:15 a.m. and engage in community and individual prayer and study - theology, philosophy, Scripture - until about 9 p.m.

Sister Miriam Scheel, prioress of the Monastery, who joined when she was 19, said the four nuns from Camden are the first to join her monastery from a closing convent.

The Elmira monastery has 11 nuns and was founded in 1944. "It's hard to hear about because these old monasteries were where we were founded," Scheel said.

The Camden monastery launched branches in Syracuse, as well as abroad in Scotland, Italy, and Portugal, only two of which remain.

She estimates the Dominican order is in 250 locations worldwide, including one in Lancaster County, which, too, has said it may have to consolidate.

Scheel said in all areas, but particularly in violent urban areas, the nuns fill a quiet but vital role.

"There is such great need for prayer in this particular society today. There's so much war, conflict, addictions, destroying people's lives and we're fully aware of it all and it's what gives us the impulse to really devote ourselves to pray that God will intervene."

jterruso@phillynews.com

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