The day begins before dawn for the nuns, who reserve the first hour for prayer before the morning takes hold and the rising sun stirs the birds to sing.

Sister Therese Durge of the Infant Jesus, 89, awakens in her small cell. The 8-by-10 room contains a wooden bed and firm mattress, a metal press for clothing, a wooden desk, and a wooden dresser.

She opens the chapel at 5:30 a.m. for two parishioners who pray every day before they go to work. Then she prays.

This is the peaceful rhythm of life at the Monastery of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns.

The order began on Mount Carmel in what is now Israel during the 12th century, initially a group of hermits striving for solitude and prayer. The same goals guide Carmelite nuns today. Their monasteries are enclosed by walls, creating conditions for a life of continual silent prayer.

Vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the Roman Catholic Church bind the sisters of the Discalced (barefoot) Carmelites, founded by St. Teresa of D'Avila, a Carmelite nun in the 16th century.

After the second Vatican Council, in the mid-1960s, church leaders in Rome made it possible for religious communities to reevaluate how they wanted to live. Gradually, some Carmelite nuns, such as those here, have ventured into the chapel for a daily Mass with the outside community. They believe this outreach allows them to elevate more souls through prayer.

Sister Angela Pikus of the Eucharist, 68, the prioress at Elysburg, got her first driver's license last year. Her mission: to drive down the hill in the monastery's 1998 Toyota Corolla to get Sister Etheldreda Kilbarger of the Infant Jesus her heart medicine and to visit other sisters in the hospital.

"It was something I had to do," Sister Angela said.

"Every time I go in the car I offer a prayer for safety. You know how driving can be," she said. The group of 13 nuns, 10 over 75, depend on her.

She and Sister Alberta Grimm of the Blessed Sacrament, 90, cared for Sister Etheldreda through years of illness until Sister Etheldreda died at age 96 in August, saying she was ready to go to heaven.

"My mother must be wondering where I am," she told those taking care of her.

Sister Etheldreda gave herself to God in 1934 when her name was Helena Kilbarger. Back then, religious vocations were more common and parents knew children joining orders would be cared for in the church.

Today, the sisters wait to see what will become of their order. There are no young nuns.

Brother Paul Bednarczyk CSC, executive director of the church's National Religious Vocation Conference in Chicago, said the Elysburg monastery is an example of a broad trend. Though its tradition of religious life will not die out, he said, "it will be much smaller."

Every minute of daylight is accounted for in the nuns' rotating system of chores: preparing meals, washing dishes, cleaning, phone duty, correspondence, preparing the chapel for daily Mass, shipping altar breads to parishes and cutting the grass.

After praying for an hour alone, all sisters who are able gather for morning praise at 7:30 a.m. They sing and give thanks for their blessings. They pray silently.

At 8 a.m., a Mass in the chapel is said by the Rev. Robert Plociennik, a Franciscan friar from Shamokin, Pa.

People from surrounding communities are welcome for the hour. Steve and Michele Resuta of Elysburg bring their five children every day. They all love the sisters.

The faithful consider the Carmelites' prayers for one's family a powerful blessing.

At 11:40 a.m. the bell rings to call the sisters for midday prayer and examination of soul and conscience.

They read aloud Psalm 146: "Let us serve the Lord in holiness all the days of our life."

At noon they eat their main meal of the day. Creamed tuna over white rice is a common dish, with green beans and salad. The lettuce comes from a farmer down in the valley. Fruit and pastries are gifts from a friend.

The sisters do not speak during meals but listen to scriptures and sermons from an old cassette player in the dining room.

Their duties are done in silence when possible until the bell rings again, calling them to evening praise at 4:45 p.m.

Private prayer is followed by a light supper at 6 p.m.

An hour of recreation starts at 6:45. Some sisters bring mending while others put their feet up and talk about topics from faith to the birds on the feeder outside the kitchen window.

They gather to pray at 8:15 p.m., before it's time for bed.

Then it is still within the enclosure. The faint sounds of nuns on the move fill the buildings. Canes lightly tap as feet shuffle; power scooters hum. Walkers with yellow tennis balls on the feet slide along linoleum-covered halls.

"We don't retire," Sister Angela said. "Prayer is the first work, and you don't stop that."

At the Monastery of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns, Sister Josephine Koeppel of St. Therese enjoys her morning meal within the enclosure.

After Mass, Sister Anna Kalinauskas of the Holy Face brings sweet bread to the table in a common room. The monastery is located in Elysburg, Pa.

Sister Regina Park of Jesus during morning praise, one of many prayer periods observed by the Carmelite nuns who live at the monastery.

Using a walker, Sister Josephine leaves the dining room after the morning meal. She wears oversized shoes because of a medical condition.

Sister Christine O'Brien of God prays after morning Mass at the monastery. She has been a Carmelite nun for 56 years.