BETHLEHEM, West Bank – The nuns of "Le Creche," the only orphanage in Bethlehem, have raised generations of children in this biblical town.
But only four aging nuns remain, down from a dozen 30 years ago, and the Roman Catholic church is struggling to replace them. In the meantime, they have hired a professional staff to do jobs once solely performed by nuns.
"I am happy for the life I have chosen," said Sister Elisabeth Noirot, 58, of the Company of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, one of the Holy Land's largest and oldest Catholic orders, which runs the orphanage. "But it is in the hands of God if others will follow."
Similar scenes are occurring across the Holy Land, where hospitals, schools and charities are feeling the effects of a dwindling population of monks and nuns to run them. In some cases, they have hired increasing numbers of lay people and professionals to cover the shortfall. In others, well-established orders have handed over emptied, coveted properties to newer Christian groups.
"We are going through a long period of passage, of transition," said the Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, head of the Franciscan order in the Middle East and a top church official in the Holy Land. "We are changing in different ways. We have not to be desperate."
The shrinking numbers of apostolic orders, where nuns and monks undertake a charity or service, mirror a similar trend in the Christian population in the Holy Land and the broader Middle East.
Less than 2 percent of the population of Israel and the Palestinian territories today is Christian, down from more than 7 percent around the time of Israel's independence 65 years ago, according to Naim Ateek, director the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, a leading Christian think tank.
Several factors are behind the decline, including higher birthrates of Jews and Muslims and an exodus driven by continued Israeli-Palestinian violence and better opportunities in the West. In some instances, particularly in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, Christians have been subject to intimidation by a minority of Muslims.
Before retiring, Pope Benedict XVI expressed deep concerns about Christians in the Middle East. On his final foreign trip, a visit to Lebanon last September, Benedict warned that a Middle East without Christians "would no longer be the Middle East." The plight of Catholics in the cradle of Christianity is sure to be a priority for the next pope.
Worldwide, the number of nuns has shrunk one-third over 40 years, from about 1 million in in 1970 to 721,935 in 2010, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, affiliated with Georgetown University in Washington. The number of monks and friars similarly dropped from about 80,000 in 1970 to 54,665 in 2010.
Even so, the church's struggles in the Holy Land are remarkable, given the area's importance to Christianity. According to Christian traditions, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, spent much of his life in Nazareth and the northern Galilee region of Israel, and was crucified and resurrected in Jerusalem.
According to the Vatican, the number of nuns in Israel fell from 983 to 959 between 2006 and 2009, contrasting with a rise in priests and members of religious orders in places like Africa, where the church is growing, and follows the trend of dwindling priests and members of religious orders in Europe, according to the statistics.
The troubles for Catholicism's apostolic orders have affected prominent Christian sites.
The Sisters of Saint Therese, which runs a guest house in Jerusalem's Old City, not far from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, on the site where Jesus is said to have been crucified and resurrected, has seen its numbers shrink from 120 to 90.
The Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Apparition, which operates a school in west Jerusalem, says just 30 of its 78 nuns are still working because most have retired or died.
The Franciscan order, the largest and oldest Catholic presence in the Holy Land, dating back to 1230, has seen its numbers cut in half in 60 years to 340 men with an average age of over 50, said Pizzaballa.
The orders have struggled to find replacements as Catholics from Europe — once the chief source of monks and nuns in the Holy Land — struggle to attract new members. While clergy say they can still draw on novices from Latin America, and Catholic strongholds in Asia and Africa, few come to the Holy Land.
The crisis was apparent on a recent day at "Le Creche," or "The Cradle," where paid staff and volunteers have mostly taken over the care of the orphanage's 32 children. As a gray-haired Italian nun coaxed a 3-year-old girl to eat, older Palestinian women rocked babies, including one found last month in a box on the doorstep.
The Franciscans, who oversee some of the church's most prized properties in the Holy Land, have handed over land and buildings worth millions of dollars over the decades. They include a property known as Domus Galilaeae perched over the Sea of Galilee, where Christian tradition holds that Jesus walked on water.
The property is now run by a growing, powerful Catholic lay community, the Neocatechumenal Way, which accepts singles and married people.
The Franciscans were barely clinging to other properties, Pizzaballa said, including a spot in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Basilica in Nazareth, where Catholics believe an angel told Mary she would bear a child.
"We are struggling to keep these places open," Pizzaballa said.
The stern, gray monastery and seminary of the Neocatechumenal Way on Domus Galilaeae highlights the changing face of Catholicism. The 15-year-old institution's jewel is a seminary boasting a bronze, life-size statue of Jesus preaching to his disciples as he appears to be floating over the sea.
Water poured over the Ten Commandments, carved into high walls in Latin and Hebrew. A fresco of Jesus and his apostles in rich shades of red, gold, blue and green shone on a church wall. Some 60 people, teenagers, young men and women stood in a circle on a recent day, singing and praying with white-clad priests.
A rare area of growth has been orders in which members live in isolated silence and prayer, such as the Monastic Sisters of Bethlehem and of the Assumption of the Virgin, and of Saint Bruno.
The order has at least 60 nuns, most in their 30s, in three convents who spend their days in meditation and contemplation, said one member who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with the order's tradition.
To accommodate growing numbers, it recently took over the Deir Rafat Convent south of Jerusalem from another Italian order of nuns that didn't have enough women to keep operating the picturesque building.
The changes show how the Catholic church is evolving, rather than fading away, said the Rev. David Neuhaus, a senior church official in the Holy Land.
"The church produces new movements to serve new circumstances," he said.
Associated Press writers Nicole Winfield in Rome and Daniela Berretta in Deir Rafat, Israel and Bethlehem, West Bank contributed to this report. Follow Hadid on twitter.com/diaahadid.