Convent to open doors to 14 nuns

By Christmas, the number of Episcopalian nuns living in Augusta will nearly triple.

The Order of Saint Helena can't afford to keep its two New York convents open, so the organization voted in Augusta to sell both.

The Augusta convent, established in 1962, will eventually close, too, as the nuns look for a new location to build one, larger facility. But that is likely at least five years away, said Sister Mary Lois, a nun from the Manhattan convent and a member of the order's leadership council.

The eight Augusta nuns are preparing for 14 nuns from the closing convents in Manhattan and the Hudson Valley.

To make room, the Augusta convent will close its guest house, a source of income for the nuns, who were hosts of spiritual retreats.

"It's going to affect many people throughout the Southeast," said Sister Cintra Pemberton, an Augusta nun and member of the leadership council.

She said the convent has guests most weeks.

The facility will still be available for daytime visitors, but all programs are canceled after Oct. 13 and refunds will be given.

The nuns say they are unsure what will happen to the New York properties.

They hope to preserve the land, especially the Vails Gate convent in the Hudson Valley, from development.

It'll be difficult to leave the Augusta convent -- a lush 26 acres of forest near the Green Meadows Country Club -- but the sisters feel the Holy Spirit leading them to another opportunity, Sister Pemberton said.

For several years, the order has faced an "increasingly serious budget deficit" while its numbers have also been in decline.

The convent receives no income from the Episcopal church, but is self-supporting, relying on donations, the guest ministry, honoraria from programs in the community, sisters who are salaried and a small endowment.

The decision, Sister Lois added, is more than eight years in the works.

"It took a long time to bring everybody on board," she said. "But in the last year, the market gave us a real reality check ... We live off of an investment portfolio, and while we've got good people to manage that, it wasn't enough."

The decision ultimately required a leap of faith, she said.

"In many ways it'll be a great joy to be together," Sister Lois said. "It was a logistical nightmare to get the three houses together. And now we'll be close -- very close."

Reach Kelly Jasper at (706) 823-3552 or kelly.jasper@augustachronicle.com.

WHAT IS THE ORDER?

The Order of Saint Helena is a religious group for lay and ordained women in the Episcopal Church. The community was founded in 1945, and it opened its convent in Augusta in 1962.