A peaceful feeling washes over many who step onto the sprawling, quiet campus of the Loretto Convent. More than a dozen nuns reside on the property, which is tucked into a quiet corner of Wheaton at the end of a winding road in a large subdivision.
Provincial offices for the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary are housed here, as is the Loretto Convent and the Loretto Ministry Center. But it's two flights below the property's 1950s chapel, with its stained-glass windows and marble, that the true spirit of Loretto can be found.
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There, you'll find Sister Julie Stapleton nurturing a small group of 3- and 4-year-olds as they run around the Loretto Early Childhood Center with endless curiosity.
On a recent morning, Stapleton and her aide, Susan Schuh, spoke softly to the children, bending down to their level and asking them to help clean up and put on their jackets. One preschooler climbs up on the piano bench and plays a few notes. A group of students huddles around a brown box on the counter, listening to the chirps of newly hatched chicks.
After more than 60 years, though, the school is closing its doors due to declining enrollment. Today, the preschool is holding an open house from 1 to 3 p.m. for past and present students, teachers and families to say goodbye.
"We're just so happy that we've been able to touch so many lives, and that so many lives have touched us," said Sister Kay Foley, U.S. province leader for the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The institute bought the property in 1946 from a prominent Chicago banker. At the time, the only structure was a mansion. By 1952, the sisters had a chapel built and the Loretto Early Childhood Center opened as a kindergarten. In the early 1960s, there were about 80 nuns and the institute had a new building constructed to house them.
Now, most of the nuns who live on the property are in their 80s or older. With steadily declining revenue, the institute has set a goal to sell the property by the end of 2016.
"With the way things are changing today and expenses, it seems like it's the best thing to do," Foley said. "We're very grateful for what we've had for all these years, and all along the way, God has always provided."
The institute has been consulting with several people who are interested in purchasing the property, Foley said. A decision on a proposal that's before them could come by the end of the month.
If they must move, most of the nuns likely will enter a retirement center where they will be well cared for, Foley said. Still, that doesn't make the prospect of leaving any easier.
"It's like selling your family home," she said.
Foley also expressed concern about the future of the Loretto House, a ministry that provides resources for women who have been homeless and are working toward gaining independence.
"We value it highly as a ministry," she said.
Foley said the story is one heard in many religious communities, as nuns and priests retire with few younger people taking their places.
"It's so different. The concept of religious life is changing. We're doing our best ... to be part of it."
The only change that's for certain is the closing of the preschool.
When Stapleton started leading the preschool about a decade ago, there were close to 60 students; now there are about two dozen students.
Jennifer Fitzpatrick of Wheaton choked back tears as she told how she sent her now 8-year-old daughter there and how her 4-year-old daughter, Emma, is currently enrolled. She called Loretto "a little piece of heaven" and said she feels like she's stepped back in time when she enters the classroom.
"(Sister Julie is) just so sweet and just genuine and giving and kind. She teaches our children everything you would want them to learn," she said. "She gave them a personal relationship with Jesus."
Sheri Cody of Wheaton, who sent two of her daughters to the school, liked how the location enabled outdoor activities, such as sledding and apple picking.
"They do learn a lot, but it's not as academically geared as some of the other preschools," she said. "This is what a preschool should be."
On a recent morning, the students happily sang a song, thanking God for the beauty of spring.
Stapleton said she will be taking a sabbatical to think about what she might do next.
"It's bittersweet. I feel very sad because I know I'm going to miss the children and we have a great rapport. And the teachers, we get along so well," she said, adding with a smile: "There's excitement of what's before me, what door is going to open up, and I don't know what's behind that door yet."