If you’re a long-time resident of Lancaster County, you’ve probably walked past it many times.
It’s a tree-lined property along Lititz Pike, with a mid-century modern building visible from the road. The sign on the front, however, is what may have piqued your curiosity.
“Monastery of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Dominican Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary,” it read. Perhaps you have wondered about the history of this monastery and the order of nuns it houses.
With the recent announcement of the closure of the monastery, we took a look at the PNL | LancasterOnline Archives to revisit the history of the property and the cloistered nuns who lived there.
Dominican nuns – also known as nuns of the Order of Preachers – trace their origins to 13th-century France. The Perpetual Rosary Sisters, a group of Dominican nuns dedicated to the unceasing prayer of the Rosary, was founded in 1880, also in France. In 1891, the order established its first monastery in the United States, in Union City, New Jersey.
The monastery along Lititz Pike was originally located in South Enola, near Harrisburg, where it was established in 1925, before moving to Lititz Pike in 1953. It was the 13th monastery of its order in the United States. United.
Newspapers and the public were very interested in the arrival of these nuns, who were the only cloistered order in the 15-county Diocese of Harrisburg.
On January 22, 1953, the nuns moved into a house on the former Elmer Eshleman property along Lititz Pike, which the Church had purchased in the fall of 1952.
The house had been remodeled to include not only living quarters for the nuns, but also small public and private chapels. However, it was only intended to be a temporary home, with an actual monastery to be built as soon as possible.
At the time of their arrival, there were 18 Sisters at the monastery. Leaving their home in South Enola, they traveled first to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Harrisburg for a service, then traveled to Lancaster, visiting St. Joseph’s Cemetery – where the remains of the deceased sisters of their order had been relocated from South Enola – before finally settling in their new home along Lititz Pike.
By the end of the following year, contracts had been awarded for the construction of the new Monastery of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The contemporary design was completed by architects Starr and Long of Harrisburg, with assistance from Fred Krug of Lancaster.
A few days later, on January 5, 1954, a groundbreaking ceremony was held, with the Reverend George Leech, Bishop of the Diocese of Harrisburg, blessing the site and turning over the first spade of earth. The new monastery was expected to cost around $450,000.
The progress of the construction project has been covered in the newspapers – here is a photo and brief construction update from July 1954, with the monastery about two-thirds complete.
As work neared completion in April 1955, newspaper photographers were allowed in and stories like this fueled public curiosity about the monastery.
A month later, just before the closing ceremony which would cut off the monastery from the outside world, the public was invited to a series of three open days and hundreds of people – faithful and curious – turned out to see the new building. .
They were able to personally inspect not only the chapel and the courtyard, but also the tiny rooms, or “cells”, in which the sisters resided. After the closing ceremony, all areas except the public chapel and the visiting rooms would be closed to outsiders.
On May 22, 1955, the new building of the monastery was officially inaugurated and the ceremony of solemn blessing and official closing was led by Bishop Amleto G. Cicognani, Apostolic Delegate to the United States of America.
More than 100 nuns, 50 priests and 11 monsignors from the Diocese of Harrisburg participated in the rites. The Dominican sisters observed the ceremony from their own private chapel, located perpendicular to the public chapel and separated from it by a metal grille symbolic of their cloistered life.
Once the closing ceremony was over, the Perpetual Rosary nuns began life in their new home, entirely out of sight of the public – except for two of them, tasked with interacting with the world. as necessary, such as dealing with construction contractors or repairers.
For the most part, the monastery also disappeared from the pages of the local newspapers – except for the annual Christmas sales promotion, during which the nuns raised funds to support themselves by sending handicrafts for sale. . Tailoring and needlework were the primary means of support for the Monastery of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, although over the years other arts and crafts were also created by the sisters.
(This 1958 article mentions another religious work undertaken by the Sisters, in addition to their main task of unceasing prayer: they baked the thousands of communion wafers used weekly in all Catholic churches in Lancaster County.)
There was also a Dominican Auxiliary Monastery, a Catholic women’s charity that during the 1960s held a wide variety of fundraisers for the nuns, from pinochle nights to candy drives to food parades. summer fashion.
Despite the intention during the closing ceremony that no public gaze would see the interior of the monastery again (indeed, one of the 1955 newspaper photos of a nun’s bedroom bears a caption stating that the room will not would never be photographed again), over the decades. on slightly loosened narrowings.
In 1975 the first newspaper article about monastery life appeared in the Lancaster New Era.
The prioress and sub-prioress spoke – through a metal grid, of course – with a reporter about their daily lives: how the need for unceasing prayer was met by the 19 sisters who took turns all hour, 24 hours a day. of 24. How their order encouraged all the artistic abilities a sister could have, but in the service of God. How a short period of daily recreation allowed the Sisters to break their habitual silence with conversation and laughter. How, on particularly rare recreation days, the Sisters enjoyed cycling, roller-skating or playing ball.
(The 1975 article, like similar future stories, couldn’t help but touch on the charming humor and wit of Mother Mary Thomas Aquinas and Mother Mary of the Immaculate Heart, the public faces of the order, including a tendency to make puns and seemingly unarmed jokes to all who interviewed them.)
Even then, however, a topic was present that would increasingly become the focus of newspaper stories about the order: The dwindling number of candidates.
According to Subprioress Mother Mary of the Immaculate Heart, following Vatican II – which from 1962 to 1965 served to significantly modernize and fundamentally alter the Catholic Church – interest in cloistered orders dropped dramatically. spectacular. Prior to Vatican II, the Monastery of the Immaculate Heart of Mary had approximately one candidate per year. From 1965 to 1974, there were no candidates. A woman applied in 1975.
Two years later, a similar article was published in the Intelligent Journal – this time with a photo of the nuns praying in their private chapel (the photo was taken from the public chapel, however).
In 1983, Dominican nuns were again featured as part of a larger new era report on the dwindling number of nuns in the Catholic faith. The private cemetery of the Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary welcomed an ever-increasing number of what the nuns called their “Silent Sisters”.
Over time, obituaries of the Sisters became more frequent in Lancaster newspapers, and in 1991 the original prioress and foundress of Lititz Pike Monastery, Mother Mary of the Immaculate Heart Ricco, died aged 91. . Born in Nyack, New York, she was one of 17 siblings and joined the Dominican Sisters in 1916.
By 2003, the sisters were down to 11, but restrictions around the media had eased again – for that year’s ‘slice of cloistered life’ article, most of the remaining sisters posed for a photo in the monastery garden.
In 2009, the Sisters sent their faith out into the world in a new way – via “Now and at the Hour”, a CD of their sacred music, recorded by Cass Jendzurski, a member of the Fraternities of Saint Dominic who organized the recordings and the accompaniment played on the CD.
After 60 years of cloistered life confined to their monastery’s five acres of land, in 2013 the Perpetual Rosary nuns for the first time publicly raised the possibility of closing the monastery. Membership had fallen to single digits and the remaining nine nuns had not welcomed a new member since 2002. Their average age was 70.
The sisters had begun discussing what would happen if their numbers continued to dwindle – a likely event, they said, given modern life’s emphasis on secular things. Perhaps they would join another monastery.
But despite everything, they were happy in their life of prayer and quiet contemplation, and hoped to delay this eventuality as long as possible.