U.S. Convents Were Ravaged by COVID-19. They’re Still Terrified.
Dozens of nuns died in the pandemic this spring. For those left behind, life is unrecognizable.
In three weeks of spring, the Our Lady of Angels convent in Milwaukee lost six of its sisters to the novel coronavirus.
The first to die was Sister Mary Regine Collins, just shy of her 96th birthday. Another nun was taken the next day—then four more in rapid succession. The surviving members of the convent, which specializes in memory care for aging nuns, were placed on lockdown while they and the rest of the country waited for the threat to subside.
By the end of May, the disease that had ravaged Our Lady of Angels and other religious orders across the nation looked to be under control. Then, little more than a week ago, the School Sisters of St. Francis got another dose of bad news: A sister on their main campus had tested positive for COVID-19.
“I kept waiting for the other shoe to fall,” Sister Kathleen O’Brien, who leads the School Sisters’ U.S. province, told The Daily Beast. “I'm just hoping they can contain it.”
The coronavirus has torn through American convents, carving into their already dwindling numbers. At least 26 sisters across the country have died so far, though that is likely a dramatic undercount because not every convent has made the deaths public. For the women left behind, life in the convent has become unrecognizable: masses canceled, funerals held without mourners, and meals eaten in their bedrooms. For some, it is unclear what’s more harmful: the virus, or the unrelenting isolation it has wrought.
“There’s just so much more trauma and impact than I’m aware of,” O’Brien said. “We’re not going to probably know the results for some time.”
Our Lady of Angels is a subset of a larger School Sisters of St. Francis convent in Milwaukee, a 48-bed memory care unit that they share with the nearby School Sisters of Notre Dame. Five miles away is the St. Francis sisters’ main campus, where more than 100 women live in a combination of assisted living and independent apartments. Founded by German missionaries in 1849, the convent retains much of its Bavarian heritage, from its sweeping Gothic chapel to its annual beer garden fundraiser. (This year, the event was a drive-through.)
The facility’s existence is itself a symbol of the decline of American nuns, whose numbers have been falling—and whose average age has been rising—for more than 40 years. At the peak of women’s religious communities in 1965, there were roughly 180,000 sisters in the United States. Last year, there were 31,350. The average age of a Catholic nun is nearly 80. To handle this aging population, many convents have converted partially to nursing homes, turning dorm-style buildings once reserved for novices into assisted living facilities, and selling off valuable parts of their properties to cover health-care costs.
The sisters’ advanced age and close living quarters make them particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. The Felician Sisters convent in Livonia, Michigan, made headlines last month after 13 sisters died of COVID-19—what one Catholic publication called “the worst loss of life to a community of women religious since the 1918 influenza pandemic.” Fifteen of the Maryknoll Sisters in Ossining, New York, have died since March; seven were confirmed to have COVID-19. In New Jersey, the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth have lost 16 members since the start of the pandemic, though they have not specified how many contracted the virus.
For the surviving sisters, every facet of life has been turned upside down. At the San Domenico School in California, three resident nuns were removed from their homes this summer to make room for an infirmary for returning students. At the Maryknoll convent, 24 women had to be sent to another facility when the caseload overwhelmed nursing staff.
O’Brien said the workers at Our Lady of Angels have been struggling to explain to the memory-care patients what exactly is going on. In May, when the sisters believed they had finally gotten the outbreak under control, a facilities manager told her that almost every sister with dementia had regressed as a result of being isolated.
The first sister to die at Our Lady of Angels was a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Four of the women who followed were sisters of St. Francis, who served a combined 295 years in ministry. One, Sister Annelda Holtkamp, lived to age 102 and—according to her obituary—used to ride a horse and buggy to mass as a child. Sister Josephine Seier, who died at age 94, was herself a caregiver for the elderly before retiring to Our Lady of Angels; the other two women were school teachers. All four were diagnosed with the virus postmortem.
The School Sisters implemented their lockdown March 17, about a week before Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued his “safer at home” order. The 25 staff members in charge of running the province were ordered to work from home—for O’Brien, that meant a farmhouse she shares with four sisters on a nearby college campus —and the residents of the assisted living facilities were confined largely to their rooms. More alarmingly, all group worship services were canceled. Daily liturgies and meditations were scrapped, and sisters streamed mass on their phones or closed-circuit TV.
They were just starting to lift some of these restrictions when the case counts in Wisconsin started to climb, hitting their largest single-day increase in late July, and another sister tested positive.
“Now with the latest tests and things upticking in the Milwaukee area, we’re back in a bit of limbo,” O’Brien said.
Around the country, group prayer—usually a daily or twice-daily experience for sisters—has ground to a halt. In Livonia, mass was canceled when the priest was no longer allowed to enter the convent. (At first, Holy Communion was issued to sisters in their rooms, but even that had to stop as the virus spread.) At the Adrian Domincan Sisters convent in Michigan, only leadership members are allowed to attend mass Sunday through Friday. Other members receive a “spiritual communion,” without the bread and wine.
The Maryknoll Sisters have slowly started to return to group worship, but in a very different form. Instead of twice-daily group prayer sessions, the congregation holds a weekly “Celebration of the Word”—similar to the opening of a mass—with sisters spread out among three different chapels and meeting rooms. At services, when the priest called for a sign of peace, the sisters used to hug each other. Now they nod silently from behind their masks.
What is hardest for the sisters, however, is not the canceled services or absence of the Eucharist, but their profound isolation. Many of these women have interacted daily with their fellow residents for decades, and are as close as family. What many picture as a dull, solitary life at a convent is in reality filled with socializing and celebration—sisters gossiping at meals, gathering for card games, and carving up cake for birthdays. “You don’t join a religious order to be alone,” O’Brien said. But that is exactly what the pandemic has done. Meals are delivered to bedrooms in brown bags, or in spaced-out shifts at the cafeteria. Gone are the birthday parties, the game rooms, the groups of school children coming to serenade sisters.
That isolation is perhaps most palpable when one of the sisters is dying. At the Maryknoll congregation, death is usually a communal event: There is singing at the sister’s bedside, then a two-day celebration of her life. But these days, there is no funeral mass; no sharing of memories or a meal. The only people at the burial are the congregation treasurer, facility manager, and gravediggers. The first of their members to contract the virus died at the hospital, alone. An obliging nurse let the sisters sing to her through the phone.
“That was the first COVID death for us, and it was the first time in our history that we were not able to accompany a sister at her deathbed,” said Sister Antoinette Gutzler, the congregation president.
“A lot has been taken from us. We miss one another,” she added. “[But] we’re having a whole new appreciation, I think, for one another.”
The thing about discussing a pandemic with nuns is that there is always a silver lining, always a lesson to be learned. For Gutzler, the pandemic is a chance to be drawn into a “total humanity,” united with others around the world who cannot be with their mothers, fathers, and grandparents when they are dying. The pandemic, she explained, sets up a global “prayer chain,” in which they pray not only for themselves, but also for everyone else who is suffering.
The sisters, too, have been beneficiaries of this global “prayer chain.” At Maryknoll, some of the largest contributors to their COVID-19 fundraising campaign were graduates of a school they started in Hong Kong, who sent money as well as hand sanitizer and face masks. (The campaign raised $500,000, but still did not cover all the sisters’ coronavirus-related expenses.) At the Sisters of the Holy Cross in Indiana, where six sisters and nine staff members were diagnosed with the virus, alumnae of the nearby Saint Mary’s College organized a letter-writing campaign for the lonely sisters in lockdown. More than 300 letters had arrived by May.
The pandemic has also drawn the sisters closer to one another. The sisters at San Domenico, who were kicked off campus to make room for the infirmary, have been welcomed by another community of nuns in neighboring San Rafael with “open arms—or virtual hugs, as it were,” according to communications director Eileen Mize. At Maryknoll, sisters in charge of packing brown-bag lunches slipped candy bars into the package of sisters with a known sweet tooth.
Two weeks ago, a sister at Maryknoll found out her younger brother in Peru had died. When Gutzler went to drop off a note at her room, she found a pile of letters from other sisters already sitting outside her door.
“I think an upside of this is that it’s deepened our bonds of sisterhood,” Gutzler said. “It’s taken out some of the outside stuff that can bother us and we see the heart of our sisters.”
O’Brien, of the Sisters of St. Francis, also attributed the sisters’ resilience during the pandemic to their mutual reliance.
“The older you get, the more you realize your life is about trying to help other people even more,” she said.
“I think that’s always been what we’ve striven for, but having gone through so many other things together… you feel like 330 other people are behind you, always.”