HASTINGS, Neb. -- The headstones outnumber the monks at the Crosier Monastery, a sign of why the order is vacating its home of 68 years.
A bustling office park will replace the whispery silence of the Roman Catholic monastery's 16 wooded acres in this south-central Nebraska city of 23,000.
"There is a lot of grieving," said the Rev. Jim Moeglein, 57, who led the monastery for nine years.
The 13 priests and brothers, who range in age from 51 to 86, will move to other Crosier communities around the country.
Like so many religious orders in the United States, the Crosiers, or the Canons Regular of the Order of the Holy Cross, are faced with fewer members, and little prospect of young people joining their community.
The total number of priests in the United States, including monks, has dropped 20 percent since 1965, from 58,132 to 46,600, according to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The church blames that drop on materialism in society and a reluctance to make permanent commitments.
"Vocations to religious life are not there, or if they are there, people cannot hear the call," said the Rev. Charles Kunkel, who leads the Hastings monastery.
As the monks prepare to leave, they are hopeful.
"We're moving, saying goodbye," Kunkel said, "but it is no longer a funeral. It is giving birth to something new."
The Crosiers expect the new owner of their property to respect its religious heritage. An anchor of the office park will be a Catholic doctor who wants to incorporate mental health counselors and spiritual healing into his general practice.
The Crosier order, built around the theology of the cross, ministers to local needs.
Founded in 1211 in Belgium, the order numbered 750 in 1960, but today has just 482 priests and brothers in the United States, Italy, Indonesia, Belgium, the Congo, the Netherlands, Germany and Brazil.
The Crosiers established a seminary in Hastings in 1932 but moved it in stages to Indiana by 1955. The order started a retreat center at the monastery in 1973, which operated until this year. Gradually, the property has become a retirement home for older Crosiers.
But the 241-room, 111-year-old main building has only one elevator, which is designed to carry freight. Few of its 63 bedrooms have private baths and the building needs major repairs.
The order's aging population needs more accessible facilities, but the Crosiers could not afford the cost of renovation. They sold the chapel, building and property for $1 and their moving costs.
Eighteen headstones next to the monastery's main building mark the graves of priests and brothers who served the community, many of whom died in the last five years.
"I'll miss this sense of walking among old friends," said Barb Byers, 53, of Omaha, who attended or led retreats at the monastery for 20 years.
She added: "I credit my time in the monastery for strengthening my marriage, helping me to be a better parent."
The silence is palpable pulling off the street onto the monastery's grounds, shaded by orderly rows of ash, poplar, oak, maple and birch trees. A vegetable garden and a small hut used as a one-person, primitive retreat house grace the property.
Brother Joe DeLouw, 86, planted those trees, cut the grass and brought two jugs of water and a loaf of bread to the hut one night each month to be alone with God.
"It is extra penance to be here," the Crosier brother said as he glanced about the wooden room that holds an oil lamp, wood stove, desk and cushions on the floor for a bed.
DeLouw came to Hastings in 1982 and is the monastery's oldest resident. He is taking the move in stride.
"I'm convinced the right decision was made here," he said. "I was afraid the place would be demolished. I think it's God's providence that we can continue in spirit."
The Crosiers will be moved by Oct. 1 to centers in Anoka, Shoreview and Onamia, Minn.; Riverview, Mich.; Phoenix or New York.
The Hastings property, which has been in Catholic hands since it was built by the Visitation Sisters in 1889, was purchased in June by local developer Tom Lauvetz.
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