In convents across the country, elderly women who have dedicated their lives to serving God sometimes spend their last days subsisting on welfare benefits, unable to afford prescription drugs or even a timely burial.

A nun's vow of poverty endures until death.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Augustine, Fla., who own Miami's Mercy Hospital, are acutely aware of this reality.

"We don't have enough money in the bank right now to support the entire 100 of us until we die," said Sister Florence Bryan, general superior of the Florida order.

Though many are veteran teachers and nurses, the 11 sisters who live in Lord's Hall, a retirement haven at the motherhouse in St. Augustine, share one nursing assistant. Some 35 percent of the order's 100 sisters are retired or disabled. More than half are older than 65.

Religious orders are independent. The Roman Catholic Church has no responsibility to support them.

Sisters, brothers and many priests take vows of poverty, and they are usually paid about half of what is made by typical secular workers.

As religious orders of nuns look to younger sisters to support the eldest in their final years, they are finding that the stipends they receive do not cover rising costs.

And with a dramatic decline in vocations for nuns in the Catholic Church since 1965, there is even less money coming in to meet the needs of the aged.

Many nuns face retirement without a sturdy safety net.

The retirement programs for the nation's 800 religious congregations of sisters, brothers and priests are underfunded by $6.4 billion, according to a survey of needs conducted by Arthur Andersen for church administrators.

Some orders have been slow to start financial planning, and nuns' wages are so low that little remains after bills are paid.

"There are some communities that have died in poverty and have had members held in the morgue because they couldn't afford to bury them," said Sister Theresa LaMetterey with the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange, Calif., director of a project to aid retired religious.

Stipends that nuns receive from dioceses or outside employers are sent to their motherhouses or convents. The money is then parceled out to sisters who work and those who cannot work.

One Sunday a year, Catholics donate to a national collection for the elderly religious in a campaign organized by the National Religious Retirement Office. The fund, a supplement for religious orders, has netted a total of $318.5 million -- $57,447 of which recently was given to Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Augustine.

With religious orders spending as much as $200 million in 1999 alone on skilled nursing care, much more assistance is needed. Some help is coming from money donated by the laity group SOAR (Support Our Aging Religious).

Religious orders are also selling property to raise money. Others peddle homemade knickknacks and sponsor creative fundraisers.

In a scene straight out of the movie "Sister Act," one of the more successful campaigns has been the release of a series of compact discs featuring a choir of 80 nuns: Sisters in Song. The group is pushing its third production, "Sisters in Song Rejoice!" which includes the vocals of Sisters Elizabeth Anne Worley of Miami, Jeanne Bouchard of Lighthouse Point and Frances Vass of Delray Beach. They were among hundreds of nuns to audition for the choir.

Since the chorus formed in 1994, its recordings -- one of which was a Grammy contender -- have raised more than $500,000 and sold about 70,000 copies. Proceeds help aging sisters, brothers and priests live more comfortably.

Nevertheless, at age 70, Bouchard, a trained musician who spent 30 years as a teacher and eight more working in an insurance office, still has trouble buying the medicine she needs. In the summer of 1999, she underwent emergency quadruple bypass surgery and takes pills to control her cholesterol and blood pressure.

"I almost went to God," said Bouchard, of the Sisters of St. Joseph of West Hartford, Conn., who left her convent in her golden years to work in Florida.

She is employed at Food for the Poor. Her stipend is sent to her motherhouse in Connecticut, which sends her $1,000 a month for living expenses. She spends $425 on rent for a two-room efficiency, pays out of pocket for visits to her heart specialist and for some prescriptions or gives her money to the needy. She has no dental insurance.

"Many a time when I first came, I got down to $5 for the rest of the month. I thought, 'Am I going to make it until the next check?' You pick and choose what you let go. That's what the elderly do."

Worley, 55, chairwoman of the board of trustees at Mercy Hospital, has her housing covered by money coming into the convent. She receives about $100 a month for expenses. "We live simply and are very happy with that," she said.

Most eligible nuns receive Medicare and Medicaid. But their monthly Social Security checks are tiny: Nuns get about $3,333 a year, compared with an average annual pension for secular retirees of $9,650.

Part of the reason is that religious orders could not participate in Social Security until federal law changed in 1972, said Brother John T. Patzwall, with the National Religious Retirement Office.

The average cost of care for a retired religious person is $22,254, according to a 1999 survey conducted for the retirement office.

There is an effort underway to push diocese and other employers to pay more competitive wages.

"They want to have a just wage that supports themselves and helps them to meet commitments," Patzwall added. But "they don't want to price their service out of the market" and cause cutbacks in health care or tuition programs.

LaMetterey, project director for Sisters in Song, said salaries were renegotiated in California.

"We used to get $25 a month to teach. Now we might get $32,000 a year."

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, Calif., who also earn competitive salaries at two Catholic hospitals, are among the most financially secure. They began saving for retirement in 1973.

"We have invested the money professionally since 1986. We've done stocks and bonds," said Sister Mary Bernadette McNulty, treasurer. "We are in it for the long term."

Even with more pay, there is another nagging problem. Vocation programs are not attracting enough new young sisters.

As of December 1999, fewer than 3,000 of the 87,338 people listed on the Religious Retirement Office database were younger than 40. More than half of nuns were older than 70.

Between 1965 and 1998, the number of sisters fell from 174,000 to 83,000.

Some died. Others defected after the Second Vatican Council, which, among other things, gave more opportunity for laity to work in the church. Nuns who wanted careers and children figured they could still serve the church as lay members.

Legions of loyal sisters remain, like 83-year-old Sister Margaret Zapf, who regularly visits the sick at Mercy Hospital.

Nuns at the convent nearby who don't have jobs pray for those who do and keep busy tidying up. When the work day is over, the "senior" sisters knit in a community room that has two rows of reclining chairs.

"We're lucky," says Sister Ruth Anne Baker, 85.

"We are well taken care of," agrees Sister Kieran O'Keeffe, 78.

Worley, who lives with them, is doing what she can to bring in more money.

"I do not sit and worry about having enough for retirement," Worley said. "The Lord expects us to work hard at what we do and give generously the gifts that he has given us."

Bouchard shares Worley's confidence: "We are on a faith journey. That doesn't mean there won't be hard times. God will provide."