26 deaths in 3 US convents, as nuns confront the pandemic

MIKE HOUSEHOLDER and DAVID CRARY

LIVONIA, Michigan (AP) — At a convent near Detroit, 13 nuns have died of COVID-19. The toll is seven at a center for Maryknoll sisters in New York, and six at a Wisconsin convent that serves nuns with fading memories.

Each community perseveres, though strict social-distancing rules have made communal solidarity a challenge as the losses are mourned.

Only small, private funeral services were permitted as the death toll mounted in April and May at the Felician Sisters convent in Livonia, Michigan — a spiritual hardship for the surviving nuns.

“The yearnings, throughout the pandemic, were to be with our dying sisters and hold our traditional services, funeral Mass and burial, to comfort each other,” said Sister Mary Christopher Moore, a leader of the Felician Sisters of North America.

For weeks the Livonia nuns went without Mass and dined in shifts, only one per table.

Those and other restrictions have eased in recent weeks as regular activities slowly resume.

But strict social-distancing rules remain in effect at the Our Lady of the Angels convent in Greenfield, Wisconsin, which provides memory care for nuns of the School Sisters of St. Francis and the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

Nearly all communal activities have been suspended since March, and the 40 remaining residents are not allowed to see visitors, said Michael O’Loughlin, communications director for the School Sisters of St. Francis.

“The changes are confusing for the sisters — the loss of their religious activities has been very difficult, with no Masses or daily Rosary in chapel,” he said. "They do not understand the virus and find it difficult to stay confined to their rooms.”

At the Maryknoll Sisters’ center in Ossining, New York, as at the Greenfield convent, there have been no new coronavirus cases in recent weeks.

“Thank God things are stable,” said a Maryknoll spokeswoman, Chelsea Lopez. She said 177 sisters are still residing there and abiding by health officials’ recommended social-distancing protocols.

In several important respects, convents share some of the same health vulnerabilities as nursing homes, the hardest-hit sector in the U.S. in terms of COVID-19 deaths. In many cases, their populations are elderly and live in close quarters with one another.

“We realize that our communal lifestyle makes us, along with other religious communities, a target for this virus,” Sister Mary Christopher acknowledged back in May.

In Livonia, some of the nuns who survived COVID-19 infections have continued to experience weakness and respiratory problems, according to Sister Mary Christopher. Though in-person Masses have resumed, some of the sisters continue to participate via closed-circuit television or other electronic devices.

The 13 deaths — more than 20% of the convent’s population — have been a huge blow for the surrounding community, where the nuns played important roles. Those who died ranged in age from 69 to 99; they included a librarian, a nurse and several teachers.

The Felician Sisters “have been taking care of people in our community literally from cradle to grave,” said Livonia Mayor Maureen Miller Brosnan. “Now we have less nuns that are available to work in the hospital, less nuns that are available in our teaching institutions, less nuns that are out there taking care of making sure our souls are protected.”

Brosnan, who took over as mayor of the city of about 93,000 in January, cited the nuns’ role in a school, a university, a hospital, a home for retired clergy and a hospice, all within walking distance of their Livonia compound.

“They’re responsible for my education through grade school,” she said. “They’ve educated my husband. They educated my three children. We put our hearts in their hands.”

At Our Lady of the Angels in Wisconsin, the nuns who died in March and April had retired years ago. Some moved into the facility when it opened in 2011.

Among them were Sister Josephine Seier, 94, who had been with the School Sisters of St. Francis for 79 years, and Sister Mary Francele Sherburne, 99, who spent 34 years as an English professor at Mount Mary University.

The eldest was Sister Annelda Holtkamp, 102, who spent 33 years at St. Joseph’s High School Convent in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

According to her order, Sister Annelda grew up with six siblings on a farm in St. Paul, Iowa, walking more than 4 miles each way to the Catholic school she attended.

In her 20s she joined the School Sisters of St. Francis. Her first duties were working in a convent laundry facility.

Her last assignment was at St. Mary’s Convent in Chilton, Wisconsin, where, according to the order, she was known for her embroidery skills: “I could make almost anything,” she said after winning ribbons at the county fair.

O’Loughlin praised the work of Our Lady of the Angels’ staff as the pandemic took its toll — working double shifts without any days off for weeks.

“The staff focused on all aspects of caregiving and, because of restrictions, also had to do their own shipping and receiving, housekeeping, pastoral care, maintenance and technical support,” he said. “They truly are heroes who have been going above and beyond the call for months.”

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Crary reported from New York City.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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