BRANFORD, Conn. (AP) The long, somber echo of a bell's toll resonates throughout the tiny chapel, a signal to the Benedictine nuns who live at the monastery that it is time to begin morning prayer.
Those who can, stand, but many do not.
Some have come through the chapel's doors in motorized wheelchairs, others have walked in gingerly with the assistance of crutches and still others simply do not have the strength to rise but all are welcome.
Since it was founded in France in 1930, the Roman Catholic order of Benedictines of Jesus Crucified has opened the doors of religious life to women whether they are sick, handicapped or healthy.
''Why should these lives, marked by the cross, not be able to live this kind of life?'' said Sister Mary Zita Wenker, one of the 21 sisters living in Connecticut's Monastery of the Glorious Cross.
At a time when women in poor health were routinely rejected from religious life, the order gave women with disabilities a chance to become a nun. More than 70 years later it remains one of the few orders that widely accepts women with physical limitations.
Their life is not easier than that of other nuns, the sisters say, but different.
They don't fast, because of health conditions. There are no midnight calls to pray, because many can't go without sleep. During Mass, a priest walks to those unable to come to him for communion.
But in the daily routine of prayer, work and silence, the sisters live as many of them always dreamed. And they become defined by their religious life, not by their disability.
''The bane of the sisters' existence has been that everyone calls them the handicapped nuns. That's simply not accurate,'' said the Rev. Mark Daniel Kirby, chaplain at Monastery of the Glorious Cross.
Since it was founded, the order has expanded around the world, establishing several houses in France and one in Japan. When the order was looking to come to the United States in the 1950s, Sister Marie Agathe Karunarantne, then a young novice, came to talk to church officials.
The lay people she met were encouraging, she said, but some clergy were not perhaps because they were used to people making fanciful requests to start a new order.
Despite their opposition, the order eventually established two houses in the United States. Regina Mundi Priory opened in Devon, Pa., in 1955, and St. Paul's Priory opened in Newport, R.I., in 1962.
Sister Angelina LaFemina joined just six months after the order came to the United States. Wheelchair-bound since she was a young girl in Massachusetts, she remembers hearing about the order when she was in the hospital for surgery.
She wrote to France to inquire and was accepted. As her father and brother brought her up the drive to the stately Pennsylvania monastery, her heart leapt.
''Oh Lord, now I'm home and I'll never leave!'' she thought.
The stories of the women in Branford's monastery vary: Some had been rejected from monasteries because of physical disabilities; some had never thought of applying because of their health.
Sister Anita Isidoro said she had been accepted to a monastery in the Philippines as a young woman, but after a doctor discovered she had a heart condition, she was told she couldn't join.
''They said my heart was not able to stand that kind of life,'' she said. But later, a nun from the monastery told her that a representative from an order in France that might accept her was coming to visit.
She was offered a place, and said yes.
''At first I thought, 'My God, what did I do?''' she said. ''But on my way home in the taxi, I was very, very certain I meant what I said.''
The sisters who live in Branford's monastery hail from all over the world: the Philippines, Ireland, Singapore. Many have spent time in several of the order's different houses, and have seen it evolve from a single house in France to a worldwide operation.
They also have seen changes in the United States.
The houses in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania merged in 2001, after the stately monasteries became difficult for the nuns to manage. The sisters were aging, and only a few could navigate the winding stairs.
They moved to the site of the former Connecticut Hospice, a handicapped-accessible facility that could be renovated to include a chapel, and eventually, a bell tower. The site was the first hospice in the country, founded on the park-like campus in 1980.
''There's a lot of tears and living that went on here, and they pray for that now,'' said Rosemary Johnson Hurzeler, CEO of Connecticut Hospice. ''They kept the ground sacred.''
The sisters want to maintain a presence in the United States in the years to come, Wenker said. But with an aging population, four deaths since moving to Branford and fewer American women entering the vocation, the order's future is uncertain.
LaFemina says it's been difficult moving to the new monastery. She misses the beauty of the old house and the vibrant flowers that used to grow in the garden.
But with change, she says, comes a new mission.
''When I first came, I was crushed,'' she said. ''But I'm seeing, feeling, something is growing. (God) is working to let me find what he would like me to find here.''
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