In the late '50s, two Cistercian monks were dispatched from the Casamari Abbey in Italy with orders to open a monastery in the United States. The monks were provided with a few acres in then-rural Mount Laurel and established Our Lady of Fatima Monastery on the Burlington County property.
They grew vegetables, made wine from grapes, and traveled to fledgling Roman Catholic churches in the area to serve Mass and minister to the sick.
Humble beginnings for sure, but then in 1978, the Diocese of Trenton built the St. John Neumann Church adjacent to the monastery and put the monks in charge of it. The diocese also donated 100 acres to them and they built a dormitory building on the premises and created a peaceful rosary garden with life-size marble statues of religious figures.
Now, six decades later, it's the end of an era, as the monastery shuts its doors, "The friendliness, the warmth, the way the monks would speak to you is entirely different from what you experience with other priests," said Joe Coyle, of Mount Laurel, a parishioner who said his family developed a close relationship with the monks after his wife was hospitalized in 1977 and one monk quickly went to her bedside.
The township paid $4.6 million last month to purchase the monastery and the 71 acres that the Abbey owned at the time after previously giving away some of their land. Township Manager Meredith Tomzyk said the land will be preserved as open space and the monastery building will be converted into a community center. A land preservation tax approved by voters was used for the acquisition, she said, and it blocked a developer who was considering purchasing the land and building 58 houses.
Mount Laurel has been one of the fastest-growing communities in the area. Its population has exploded to about 40,000, eight times what it was in 1960, and the monastery was gradually being surrounded by developments and office parks.
Father Maurizio Nicoletti, 81, is the only monk still living at the monastery. In a recent interview, he said that he will miss the people he has met while serving the community. "After 26 years here, they became my family," he said, with a sigh.
In 1992, Father Nicoletti had volunteered to leave Italy and go to the monastery to help out the monks who were struggling to meet the needs of a rapidly growing parish. "It was two people and a huge parish and how could they go on? I didn't know any English at all and learned from hearing it," he said.
Father Nicoletti said the church started with 400 families and has grown to 3,000 families.
The Casamari Abbey closed the monastery this month because the Diocese of Trenton put diocesan priests in charge of the church, replacing the monks, about five years ago, Father Nicoletti said. The diocese confirmed that this decision was made as the monks reached retirement age.
"I have no more vocation so the decision was made to lock the door," Father Nicoletti said. "I came here to do Mass, visit the sick, take care of the congregation."
Within the next week or two, Father Nicoletti expects to return to Italy. The two other monks who were living in the monastery with him during the last three years left a while ago when the sale was being finalized. They were from the African nation of Eritrea and went to relatives, he said.
Father Nicoletti isn't sure what work awaits him back in Italy, saying the declining membership in the Catholic Church both here and in Europe means there is little service work available for monks. "If we do not have enough followers there's no way to continue," he said.
But Father Nicoletti is optimistic. "I am happy to do God's will," he said, smiling.
The monastery in Mount Laurel had six monks at its peak, he said, but most of the time there were three or four. Plans to build a monastery with a plaza as a retreat for contemplation were abandoned years ago when the monks ran out of funds. They settled for a building with a chapel, a dining room, and eight dormitories.
Coyle recalled how the monks would make homemade spaghetti and serve it at the dining hall to raise funds. He also remembered the "La Fiorta," or carpet of flowers, that they created by weaving thousands together to display a holy scene.
Township officials said the rosary garden the monks created will remain open. The nonprofit Friends of the Cistercian Monastery will restore it as it has become overgrown in recent years.