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The vanishing nuns: 100-year tradition ends with convent’s closing

The closing of a New Jersey convent -- where Catholic nuns have quietly worshipped for more than 100 years -- may not seem like big news, but to some it's a sign of a long-celebrated tradition quickly drawing to a close.

The Monastery of the Dominican Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary, where nuns long lived a cloistered life defined by a commitment to pray the rosary in shifts 24 hours a day, is shuttering this month, according to the Camden Courier Times.

The paper reports that as late as 1970, 20 nuns resided there, but the number had diminished to just seven by the century’s turn. Now – and in 2013 – the convent’s spiritual garrison, as it was, is down to just three or four.

“The diocese is always interested in keeping alive the vision of contemplative life,” Peter Feuerherd, spokesman for the Camden Diocese, told the paper. “We realize the lack of vocations to the monastic life made it impossible for this community to continue as is in Camden.”

The convent’s closure may sound like a very minor regional footnote, but there seems to be something more afoot in such news for the millions of American Catholics who grew up learning from sisters at Catholic schools. 

In 1994, the Los Angeles Times conducted a survey of 1,049 nuns in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, reportedly finding only 3 percent were 40 years of age or younger; 37 percent were older than 70 and 12 percent were over the age of 80. The Times discovered through its analysis that the median age for Catholic nuns was – at the time – 65 years old.

More recently, The New York Times wrote the number of nuns in the U.S. has dwindled from 180,000 in 1965 to about 56,000 in 2012. And the paper added the average age of an American nun was then 74 years old.

“American Catholics have no idea how very soon there will be no nuns,” Sister Patricia Wittberg, a church sociologist, told the Los Angeles Times in 1994, while Sister Eleace King, a research associate, added in the paper's account, “It tells me that the majority of religious congregations of women in this country will not survive. More are dying.”

The few nuns who remain at the Camden convent are reportedly expected to be transferred to a similar, Dominican facility in western New York State. Still, community members who know them are mourning their loss.

“The sisters are very good friends of ours,” Virginia Wacker, a 64-year-old Mount Ephraim resident who married her husband, Donald, in the monastery in 1999, told the Courier-Post. “I am sad to see them go.”

It remains unknown how the Dominican order, which owns the convent, will dispose of its property. Many of the nuns who had spent their life worshipping there are now reportedly buried on the grounds.

“A lot of girls think of it,” Sister Mary Joseph Anne, a member of the convent, told The Courier-Post in a 1998 interview given with the hope of sparking interest among younger women about potentially joining its dwindling ranks. “But they’re shy and don’t know how to say anything about it.”

Click for the story from the Camden Courier Times.