Every weekend, people seeking retreat flocked to a Catholic spiritual center stretching across the rolling countryside east of Columbia, Lancaster County.

There, Catholics and non-Catholics, believers and seekers alike, found sanctuary from the everyday bustle where they could study, reflect and pray.

But last month, the Precious Blood Spiritual Center closed after 18 years, and the Catholic sisters who ran the retreats are looking for new places to serve.

Shuttering the retreat center is among several changes at the property off Prospect Road in West Hempfield Township.

The Adorers of the Blood of Christ, the religious order that owns the site, plans to sell 14 of the 142 acres to a developer who will create housing for low- to middle-income seniors. The community will be called Providence Heights.

Sisters will continue living at the Columbia property. They are among 330 Adorers in the U.S. province of the religious order, founded in 1834 by Maria De Mattias, a charismatic 19th-century Italian preacher.

They have been in Columbia since 1925. Many taught in Catholic schools and returned to the motherhouse in Columbia for the summers. At its height, the Columbia community counted 170 women in 1963, said David Braun, spokesman for the Adorers' U.S. region. Now, 25 mostly retired sisters remain.

For three decades, the number of Catholic sisters in the United States has fallen dramatically -- from 180,000 in 1965 to 60,000 today. Many orders spend time and money caring for their aging populations, as they sell properties and sometimes consolidate with others, experts say.

The Adorers decided to sell the property in Columbia for financial reasons, Braun said.

The buildings had been underused since St. Joseph's Academy -- a boarding school for girls -- closed in 1991. The convent housed 25, but there's room for more than 70.

Sister Mary Clare, a resident of the convent near Columbia, started out life a Mildred Reineberg of York. She had an acting career in Hollywood before
Sister Mary Clare, a resident of the convent near Columbia, started out life a Mildred Reineberg of York. She had an acting career in Hollywood before joining the Adorers of the Blood of Christ and becoming a teacher. (YDR - JASON PLOTKIN)

"In these days of economic challenge for all of us, it seemed prudent to seek a partner who could redevelop the building in a way that allows for our mission of compassion and care for our neighbors to continue," Sister Fran Schumer, a leader of the U.S. region, said in a statement.

And despite the popularity of the Precious Blood Spiritual Center, its prospects were dim as retreat centers lose their relevancy, said Sister Helen Moore, director of community life and mission for the sisters in Columbia.

"If you look at the history of spiritual centers throughout the U.S., you'll find that's happening," she said.

"In part, it's because many parishes throughout the United States have their own parish centers and staff who can lead retreats."

Not affected by the property sale are the sisters' cemetery, grotto and St. Anne's Retirement Community, an elder-care facility sponsored by the order. The sale won't be final until year's end, Braun said.

Among the 25 sisters living in Columbia is Sister Mary Clare, a long-time resident of the convent who grew up in York as Mildred Reineberg. She was an actress with a career in Hollywood before she joined the Adorers' community and became a teacher.

Mary Clare and her sisters sisters are moving out of the long-time home and into another building on the campus.

The 58-year-old convent and other buildings on the parcel will be converted to accommodate 75 one- and two-bedroom apartments by the Annapolis-based Homes for America, a nonprofit housing company.

During the past 12 months, the Columbia sisters observed a "year of gratitude" to help them look ahead and deal with giving up their home, Moore said. A lay facilitator visited regularly to assist with the grieving process.

"We are called to do this," Moore said.

"It's not to negate the fact that it will be hard. We will look to the positive, and we will work with what we need to work with to make it a good experience."

About the religious order

The Adorers of the Blood of Christ count about 330 sisters in the U.S., where they live and work out of Columbia, Lancaster County; Wichita, Kan.; Ruma, Ill., 45 miles southeast of St. Louis.

Maria De Mattias, a charismatic 19th-century Italian preacher, founded the order in the Italian hill town of Acuto in 1834.

Sister Emmanuel Palus reads a newspaper while relaxing in the coffee and snack room of the facilty where the nuns of St. Joseph Convent are moving.
Sister Emmanuel Palus reads a newspaper while relaxing in the coffee and snack room of the facilty where the nuns of St. Joseph Convent are moving. (YDR - JASON PLOTKIN)

For the sisters, sacrifice for the poor and oppressed and advocacy on social issues stem from the vision De Mattias set for them to follow. Pope John Paul II beatified De Mattias in 2003.

Once known as the Sisters Adorers of the Most Precious Blood, many Adorers abandoned their habits in the 1970s, when other orders did the same. Each nun wears a silver locket of a bleeding heart and a cross to signify Christ's love pouring out.

The sisters often work as teachers in Catholic schools, as counselors to prison inmates and in various other charitable endeavors. They also do missionary work. Five of them were killed in October 1992 while on missionary service in Liberia.

Sisters in Pennsylvania

Sisters of the religious community Adorers of the Blood of Christ established a center near Columbia, Lancaster County, in 1925.

Up until then, the sisters worked out of the Midwest. Leaders of the order in Rome directed U.S. administrators to seek a motherhouse in an eastern state.

They solicited several dioceses in the eastern states, mostly in Pennsylvania because a few of the sisters already taught there. The bishop of the Diocese of Harrisburg welcomed the community's move and helped find a suitable site -- the old Quay Mansion and the land surrounding it just east of Columbia.

The property was purchased in 1924 for $75,000, and the community moved in the next year. Most of the sisters, who moved from motherhouses in Alton and Taylorville, Ill., were originally from Bosnia. St. Joseph's Convent "on the hill" was completed in 1941.

Online

Precious Blood of Christ Spiritual Center, www.pbspiritualcenter.org

Adorers of the Blood of Christ, www.adorers.org

Homes for America, www.homesforamerica.org