It was founded 162 years ago by Roman Catholic nuns who sought to help their fellow Catholic immigrants adapt to American life. But now St. Joseph Monastery, the oldest Benedictine convent in the United States, is closing its doors in recognition of a new historical reality, the declining ranks of women entering religious life.
The Benedictine Sisters of Elk County decided last Monday to close the historic structure, according to Sister Rita Brink, administrator for the convent.
"It's hard on everybody," Sister Brink said.
The convent has 17 remaining members, their ages ranging from 58 to 91. They will move to various other Benedictine residences.
The timetable is yet to be determined, as is a decision about the future use of the property. The sisters own much of the property, while a portion of it is held by St. Vincent Archabbey, a Benedictine monastery in Latrobe, in trust for the adjacent St. Mary's parish, which will continue operating.
"It's certainly a loss for the community and for the Benedictine order," said St. Vincent Archabbot Douglas R. Nowicki. "They've been an important part of the Benedictine order for all these years."
The convent traces its roots in 1852 to the immigration of three Benedictine from Bavaria, Germany, who came at the invitation of the St. Vincent archabbot at the time. They have worked through the generations as teachers and in other roles while also living out a life focused on regular prayer and contemplation.
"When they came to this country, they realized that in order for the children and grandchildren of these [new Catholic] immigrants to really become part of the mainstream of American society, it would be important for them to be educated," Archabbot Nowicki said. "The success of their educational efforts is really proven if you look at the history of the people who have gone through the Catholic schools."
Historical highlights include the sisters' temporary hosting of the town hospital in 1934 when the hospital building was destroyed by fire.
The convent has several buildings, some agricultural land and a gift shop. Sisters work in various roles, one teaching art, another teaching piano and several assisting in area parishes.
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.