Religious communities pull through pandemic: Suffering, mourning, adapting and learning typify experiences
May 12, 2021
Over the last 14 months the COVID-19 pandemic forced religious communities to shut their doors, cease travel, temporarily halt certain ministries and creatively adapt others.
Like the rest of the world, religious brothers, sisters and priests have suffered through the disease and mourned the loss of loved ones.
But now as cases have declined and vaccines have become widely available, they are resuming many of their activities.
Members of several communities agreed to be interviewed by the Catholic Voice to discuss how the pandemic has impacted them.
SISTERS OF MERCY OF THE AMERICAS
Among all the religious communities in the archdiocese, perhaps hardest hit has been the Sisters of Mercy in Omaha, who had four sisters die within a short time last fall. All four had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and lived at Mercy Villa, the sisters’ senior residence.
Many other Mercy sisters and those they employ contracted COVID and survived, said Sister Susan Sanders, head of the Sisters of Mercy West Midwest leadership team, a region that covers the United States west of Detroit.
The deaths were difficult, Sister Susan said.
Mourning sisters stayed far enough apart during graveside services at Resurrection Cemetery in Omaha that they had to yell to be heard. One tent for a service would go up at a grave site, and three days later another would go up, soon followed by another, she said.
An eastern U.S. community of the Sisters of Mercy had more deaths: 46, with a dozen and a half within two or three weeks, Sister Susan said.
The deaths of those sisters were difficult, too, she said. “We knew them, and we struggled.”
The Sisters of Mercy in Omaha watched those services online, and families could participate that way, too, which was a blessing, Sister Susan said.
As spring approached, the Sisters of Mercy saw life return to near normal, as they were vaccinated and began to be able to celebrate Mass together.
On Easter, some gathered for coffee and cake.
The sisters have been gradually and safely resuming ministries they had to stop for a time. They have, for example, again joined the Notre Dame Sisters, the Servants of Mary and others in pro-immigrant demonstrations on Thursdays along South 72nd Street in Omaha.
The Sisters of Mercy learned to adjust in some circumstances, including holding the FIESTA annual fundraiser for Mercy High School in Omaha completely online this year.
“People were very supportive,” Sister Susan said. “We rely on those funds to offset tuition for Mercy students.”
Sister Delores Hannon, president of the high school, “put in a tremendous amount of work to keep students safe and on campus” this school year, Sister Susan said.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the Sisters of Mercy know they are blessed, she said, especially when they see the challenges others are facing.
“We haven’t been displaced because of an inability to pay rent or have an inability to pay for health care,” Sister Susan said. “We look at our friends and nieces and nephews, and we see the toll.”
The sisters help where they can, she said, and “we try not to complain too much. We have security. … We’re blessed.”
NOTRE DAME SISTERS
The Notre Dame Sisters in Omaha have mourned the loss of one sister who died in February after contracting COVID-19.
Others have had to isolate themselves after coming in contact with someone who had the disease, but otherwise the sisters have stayed safe, said Sister Margaret Hickey, provincial president.
Now, 14 months after pandemic restrictions began, many are feeling some relief after every Notre Dame Sister in Omaha and throughout the United States has been vaccinated, said Sister Margaret.
Before the vaccinations the sisters were cautious and stayed isolated, she said. Christmas marked the first time Sunday Mass was offered at a Notre Dame residence in Omaha for the sisters and others who live there.
Sisters who teach, serve as hospital chaplains, help victims of domestic violence or fight human trafficking have continued their work during the pandemic by phone, via the internet and more recently in person.
“There’s been a lot of loss for us in this time,” Sister Margaret said. “We don’t have the same way of being together, and so we look for different ways, with phone calls and one-on-one visits, things like that. But I also think it’s given us time, in our prayer, in our contemplation. And what I noticed is that we are also aware of the needs of the larger world.”
Issues such as racism, immigration and other global problems are tied together, she said, and “we’re doing a lot of education on how these are intersecting with each other and how we can help. … Through our prayer and through our ministry, we hope that we can help change some of the issues that are happening and through a lot of collaboration with other religious communities as well.
“I think there’s been a loss, but there’s also been gain. There’s also learning of new ways of how to do things. So it’s been a learning time for us, for sure.”
As the sole member of her religious community serving in the Archdiocese of Omaha, Sister Mary Ann Miller of the Sinsinawa Dominicans experienced extreme isolation for much of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was overwhelming actually,” she said.
For decades the Sinsinawa Dominicans served in Catholic schools, including St. Cecilia, Sacred Heart and the former Holy Angels School, all in Omaha.
Sister Mary Ann served in the archdiocese Catholic Schools Office from 1978 to 1984 before helping to start St. Wenceslaus School in west Omaha and serving as principal at St. Bernadette in Bellevue. She is now retired and serves as a volunteer.
For months Sister Mary Ann was unable to see her Omaha relatives because of health risks to her and other elderly members of the family. From her southwest Omaha residence, she called her sister every day and participated in livestreamed Masses and online Zoom meetings with her religious family in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin.
In Wisconsin the religious sisters were able to visit and be together as long as they kept 6 feet apart and wore masks. Employees were regularly screened and also followed health protocols.
During a phone conversation with her sister, Sister Mary Ann mentioned how her religious sisters were able to live healthy lives in community during the pandemic.
Her sister told her “it was crazy to stay all alone and not see a human being,” so she urged Sister Mary Ann to join the community in Sinsinawa.
After months of living alone, she made the move Sept. 29.
A nephew and his wife drove her on the six-hour trip.
Having to be quarantined for 14 days “didn’t sound so bad after being alone for a couple months,” Sister Mary Ann said. “It was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made, a gift from my sister.”
At Sinsinawa, Sister Mary Ann has been able to join her fellow retired or semi-retired Dominicans in prayer and in watching movies, concerts and poetry recitals on closed circuit television.
“There’s some kind of entertainment every day,” she said. “It’s better than being alone in Omaha.”
She said she hopes to return soon to visit her family and friends from the former Cathedral High School Class of 1957.
“Omaha has given us (the Sinsinawa Dominicans) many vocations,” Sister Mary Ann said. “When a car goes, we’re going to fill it up.”
POOR CLARE NUNS
The pandemic had few physical effects on the Poor Clare Nuns in Elkhorn, who reported no cases of COVID-19 among their community of nine and who, in normal times, live a life of prayer isolated from the outside world.
“Many have been affected by lockdowns, but we take a vow of enclosure,” said Sister Theresina of Jesus Santiago, abbess for the community. “It didn’t matter too much to us.”
The pandemic has, however, impacted the nuns’ mission of prayer as they’ve prayed for people around the world affected by the virus, Sister Theresina said.
She likened their efforts to that of their foundress, St. Clare of Assisi, who in the 13th century fended off invaders by raising the Blessed Sacrament before them, causing them to flee.
Imitating that tactic, the Poor Clares in Elkhorn turned to the eucharistic Lord for help, praying that he go to all those affected by the pandemic.
Those prayers before the Blessed Sacrament have been vital, Sister Theresina said, during a time when many could not receive the Eucharist, which is “so important to nurture and strengthen us.”
The sisters participated in livestreamed Masses and were able to have holy Communion distributed among the community.
Members of the public have since been able to join the nuns again for Sunday Mass, observing social distancing.
“We’re happy they can come back to Mass and receive Communion,” Sister Theresina said.
BENEDICTINES OF MOUNT MICHAEL
The Benedictines of Mount Michael have so far avoided contracting COVID-19, said Abbot Michael Liebl.
For much of the pandemic, members of the community wore masks and stayed isolated, including staying away from Mount Michael Benedictine School, where several teach. They taught remotely until after they were vaccinated, to avoid possibly spreading the illness to others in the monastery.
During the spring, those teachers have been able to return to their classrooms, and many of the Benedictines have helped Omaha-area parishes by celebrating Masses as COVID-19 cases have dropped.
The Benedictines prayed that with vaccines available, cases would fall off and people would be able to be out and about again, Abbot Michael said.
MISSIONARY BENEDICTINES OF SCHUYLER
“I can feel a little relief,” said Father Joel Macul, prior of the Missionary Benedictines of Schuyler, as members of his community were becoming vaccinated and were able to gradually resume ministries, at least in limited ways.
None of his nine fellow monks have become ill, despite several older members having health conditions that made them vulnerable, Father Joel said.
Doors to the community’s monastery, chapel and retreat house had to be closed during the height of shutdowns.
“It was very hard because we always had the doors open,” Father Joel said.
Some ministries, such as hospital and prison visits, had to stop. When in-person attendance at parish Masses stopped, the Missionary Benedictines weren’t needed to help fill in.
For a time, travel ceased for the congregation, which serves in countries in Asia, Africa and Europe. But members learned to use Zoom. Even some spiritual direction was done through the online meeting platform.
“It was quite a time for us,” Father Joel said.
The Missionary Benedictines were able to keep employees at the St. Benedict Center Retreat House, thanks to the federal Payroll Protection Program.
The monastic life of the monks was not affected. “That rhythm didn’t change at all for us,” he said. “That was a blessing.”
“The interior life and spirit in the house was good,” Father Joel said. “We’re like a family when you have nine people.”
For members of the public who often prayed with the Missionary Benedictines, daily prayers and Masses were livestreamed via Facebook.
“We had a chance to stay in touch with our praying community,” he said, “and that meant a lot.”
MISSIONARY SOCIETY OF ST. COLUMBAN
Most of the Columban Fathers in Bellevue are age 65 or older, so the community shut its doors and restricted travel to limit the risk of infection, said Father Chris Saenz, vice director of its U.S. region.
The Columbans minister in about 15 countries and are present on nearly every continent, providing spiritual and material aid to people in need.
Vaccinations should help them resume many of their ministries, which he hoped could include offering Masses at nearby parishes, he said. Individual priests would have a say in what they are comfortable doing, Father Chris said.
“There’s a little cabin fever,” he said of the half dozen or so priests at the regional headquarters. Throughout the pandemic, though, they’ve been able to take daily walks on their large grounds. And their sense of community has helped, he said.
For the first few months of the pandemic, no outsiders were allowed in. The priests were able to hold online retreats and eventually could receive people one or two at a time in a lounge area while keeping a distance and wearing masks.
Early on, the congregation’s superior general said no travel was allowed unless it was extremely necessary and using all precautions.
“Things just kind of stalled internationally,” Father Chris said. The Columban Fathers began using Zoom more to communicate with each other. And when some couldn’t travel, they ministered where they were, helping to get food and donations to those who had limited access to those resources.
The Columbans didn’t stop their work, Father Chris said. They “just had to adjust to a new reality.”
The congregation relies on donations, and donors have continued to be generous during the pandemic, he said.
SERVANTS OF MARY
None of the 26 Servants of Mary in Omaha contracted COVID-19, but some ministries had to be temporarily discontinued, said Sister Jackie Ryan, prioress of the congregation’s U.S. and Jamaica community.
In Omaha, the sisters work at Marian High School, which is attached to their motherhouse, and at a couple of elementary schools. They also minister to cancer patients, maintain a prayer ministry, offer counseling and spiritual direction and work with other religious communities to fight human trafficking and help immigrants at the U.S. southern border.
Many of the Servants of Mary in Omaha are elderly, but leaders worked to keep them safe, following all health protocols, Sister Jackie said.
Isolating was “a huge challenge” and “very difficult,” as it was for people everywhere, she said. Realizing that so many people had to be separated from each other made the sisters “see all of this in a different light,” Sister Jackie said, and they “incorporated everyone into our prayers each day.”
“We came to appreciate so many things we didn’t have during COVID,” particularly being present with family members and those with whom they minister.
Communicating with other Servants of Mary communities to keep updated on what was happening at each locale – weekly at first, then monthly – also intensified the Omaha sisters’ prayer. And it expanded their ministry, Sister Jackie said.
Like others, the sisters worshiped at Mass virtually because priests couldn’t be brought in for a time.
Staff members worked from home during that time, and “Zoom came into our lives in a much more frequent way than before,” she said.
But the sisters were vaccinated early on, Sister Jackie said. “That was a blessing.”
DAUGHTERS OF MARY
Some of the people served by the Daughters of Mary in Omaha have been lonely for months and want life to return to normal, said Sister Theresia Hhayuma, who with three other Daughters of Mary live in the convent at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Omaha.
The Daughters of Mary, based in Tanzania, serve in the fields of teaching, evangelization, medicine and social work.
“We work according to the needs of the local Church,” Sister Theresia said.
Vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 are making people more hopeful, including Sister Theresia, who works for Catholic Charities and has served as a pastoral minister at Our Lady of Lourdes.
“People are recovering from the fear they had in the beginning,” she said.
During the pandemic, the Daughters of Mary helped homebound seniors who were grateful to hear a human voice, Sister Theresia said. Some didn’t step outside their homes until they were vaccinated, she said.
With courage they returned to church for Mass, kept distanced, “and they were happy,” according to Sister Theresia.
Some with underlying health issues are still waiting to safely return.
At the beginning of the pandemic, bringing holy Communion to the homebound “was really challenging,” the sister said. People kept their doors locked, but the sisters prayed for them. Many were “very, very lonely.”
The sisters themselves have been healthy and were vaccinated, and they continue to follow health guidelines, Sister Theresia said.