Since 1960, Sister Mary Veronica has devoted herself to a strictly centered prayer life at the Monastery of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at Lititz Pike.
As a cloistered Dominican nun of the Perpetual Rosary, Veronica rarely left the property where a chapel is open to the public but the living and working quarters are off limits to most outsiders.
Veronica still prays today, but her prayers no longer come from here — they come from Corpus Christi Monastery, the new Bronx home since Wednesday for Veronica and her fellow Lititz Pike Monastery sisters.
“The main thing is the life, not the building,” Veronica said in an interview at Lititz Pike Monastery ahead of Tuesday’s move. “I suppose our mission may have been fulfilled here anyway. With a bit of luck.”
The end of the Monastery of the Immaculate Heart of Mary follows two decades in which no new nuns joined, sisters died and the remaining nuns became increasingly frail. In the end, only four nuns — all of whom use walkers — still lived at the monastery, a 35,000-square-foot, five-acre property designed to accommodate nearly 10 times that number.
The exodus of the nuns closes a unique religious chapter in the life of Lancaster County while opening up the question of the future of the monastery building originally built in the middle of farmland, but which now sits on an open expanse and desirable along a major Manheim Township corridor. For several years, the property, whose potential uses are limited by its zoning designation, has been quietly available for sale. Now that the nuns’ move is official, it will be widely marketed.
“It’s a prime property, but I haven’t let the world know about it,” said Marilyn Berger, a longtime Lancaster County realtor who handles the property. “They didn’t want to massively market it globally until they were located in another region.”
The relocation is seen by the nuns as a call from above.
“We’ve aged and our health has gone with it and we realize we can’t maintain the place ourselves,” Veronica, 80, said. “It is a clear call from God. It’s a wake-up call, as they say.
History of the monastery
Founded in France in 1880, the Dominican Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary are an offshoot of the order established in 1206 by Saint Dominic, a Spanish priest who founded communities of nuns and monks. Unlike communities oriented towards education or preaching, these nuns withdraw from worldly life to the cloister, devoting their lives to seeking God through prayer.
An order of Dominican nuns of the Perpetual Rosary was established in South Enola in 1926, but moved to Lancaster after the physical deterioration of its monastery. Initially, 18 sisters came in January 1953 to a renovated farmhouse on Lititz Pike, making it their temporary monastery while a new one was being built. The property was purchased from the estate of Elmer J. Eshelman, a descendant of animal feed manufacturing company John W. Eshelman & Sons whose downtown Lancaster grain elevators inspired the painting of artist Charles ‘Demuth “My Egypt”.
Completed at a cost of $450,000, the Monastery of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was dedicated in May 1955 in a “closing” ceremony after which all but the public chapel became off-limits to anyone except nuns. Four wings of the two-story building surround a central courtyard, with living quarters on the second floor and common areas, dining rooms, and meeting rooms on the first. Large windows and doors offer a view of the courtyard and several cherry trees.
“These are happy crying trees. They are beautiful,” said Sister Mary Albert, 68, who had lived at the monastery since 1977. “It is beautiful in the spring, it was like a cascade of pink flowers.
The daily schedule of the nuns begins with prayer at 6 a.m. followed by mass at 6:45 a.m. The midday meal is taken in silence, followed by a period of recreation. Mid-afternoon prayer begins at 3:00 p.m., with prayers and the rosary continuing until supper at 6:00 p.m. Night prayers begin at 8 p.m. Until recently, nuns held a 24-hour prayer vigil, with at least one nun praying through the night.
“You know what your life is. You learn it at the beginning,” said Sister Maria Joseph, 78, who had lived at the monastery since 1959.
decide to leave
Although the monastery has benefited from financial support as well as extensive voluntary help, the continuing lack of new members is a growing threat to the community. The last new nun joined in 2002, no novitiate having arrived since to test religious life before taking formal vows.
“Vocations weren’t coming, things were happening all over the world. Not just ourselves, but many communities have suffered from a lack of vocations,” Veronica said.
Faced with the possibility of having to close if new recruits did not come, the sisters conducted several media interviews in 2013, publicity intended to generate new interest in the monastery. Although the news articles generated some awareness, they did not induce new recruits to what was then a nine-person community.
For the declining community, the prospect of change became a reality in 2018 after Pope Francis issued new guidelines for religious communities, including how they should be dissolved when their numbers dwindle. The teaching, “Cor Orans”, outlined the necessary steps to follow for communities that have only a handful of members.
“They are no longer allowed…to continue. In the past, that was not the case,” said Sister Denise Marie, a nun from a monastery in Summit, New Jersey, who became the community’s vicar in July and manages the “suppression,” or closure, of the monastery, including its sale.
Marie is a nun at Orate Semper, a monastery which, like Lancaster, is part of the North American Association of Dominican Monasteries, which has 11 members. With Albert, she will be at the monastery for several months to finalize the details of the move.
The Bronx monastery that the Lancaster sisters join is also part of the association, which provides limited oversight to otherwise independent monasteries.
“Today many monasteries are struggling to find candidates,” Marie said. “Ordinarily, another monastery could send other candidates if a place was low, but everyone is low.”
Priscilla “PJ” Kegel, an English teacher at Lancaster Catholic Secondary School and a longtime volunteer at the monastery, said she was heartbroken by the nuns’ move.
“I will miss them terribly. I will miss their presence. I will miss their prayers,” Kegel said as she helped with some chores before the nuns moved out. “And, personally, they are amazing women to be with. They have great stories to tell. I don’t have good quotes for you for the newspaper, but my heart is breaking.
Preparing for what’s next
In recent years, a series of potential buyers have visited the monastery’s private living quarters and community halls, which remained off-limits to members of the public, including family members of the nuns. The nuns hoped limited viewings would lead to a sale without the publicity of an official property listing, fearing they would attract too many visitors to their homes to say goodbye.
Berger, who has long supported and volunteered at the monastery, helping the nuns she calls “my daughters on the pike,” said even with limited marketing she has garnered interest from churches, schools and communities. potential developers for the property being offered at $3.5 million.
Proceeds from any sales would be used to support nuns who were part of the Lancaster community, with any supplements distributed to other Dominican monasteries in the United States or other parts of the world, Sister Denise Marie said.
A compromis de vente was struck last winter with a group led by restaurateur Eric Perrone, who are said to have built a bar in the chapel and offered the space for events while exploring the possibilities of a drug addiction rehabilitation center and alcoholism in the rest of the complex. . The sale would have required buyers to move all 24 graves from the cemetery to the monastery grounds, an effort currently being undertaken by the nuns.
Perrone owns Fiorentino’s at Lancaster Airport as well as Sandwich Factory Sports Lounge and Club Twenty3 – formerly The Jukebox – in Manheim Township. Perrone said the sale fell through due to the property’s restrictive zoning. The 5-acre monastery property is an R-2 residential zone, meaning it requires specific approval for most new uses, changes that are likely to prove controversial for the neighborhood.
Fred and Bobbie Tugend, whose home on Sturbridge Drive is just behind the monastery, say they are particularly concerned that the property will become a drug rehabilitation center when all the nuns are gone. The Tugends, who have lived next door to the monastery for 40 years, are on the lookout for public notices of a town meeting to consider possible new uses.
“I can tell you this, once it comes out, you’ll have this whole neighborhood in this municipal building,” Bobbie Tugend said.
Mary Steffy, who lives next to the Tugends on Sturbridge Drive, says she hopes the monastery property can continue to be used for “something spiritual”.
“This world is such a wreck,” she said. “Any place, if it’s used for spiritual purposes and then they’re going to turn it into something else, then I’m sad about that. That’s my bottom line.