‘It’s Numbing’: Nine Retired Nuns in Michigan Die of Covid-19

The deaths add to what is becoming a familiar trend in the spread of the virus as it devastates religious congregate communities by infecting retired, aging populations of nuns and sisters.

The religious sisters who lived in retired seclusion at the Dominican Life Center in Michigan followed strict rules to avoid an outbreak of coronavirus infection: They were kept in isolation, visitors were prohibited and masks were required by everyone on campus.

But after months after being kept at bay, it found its way in.

On Friday, the Adrian Dominican Sisters said nine sisters died in January from Covid-19 complications at the campus in Adrian, about 75 miles southwest of Detroit.

“It’s numbing,” said Sister Patricia Siemen, leader of the religious order. “We had six women die in 48 hours.”

The deaths of the sisters in Michigan have added to what is becoming a familiar trend in the spread of the virus, as it devastates religious congregate communities by infecting retired, aging populations of sisters and nuns who had quietly devoted their lives to others.

Now some of these sisters have been thrust into the public eye, as details about their names, ages and lifetimes of work are being highlighted as part of the national discourse about Americans lost to the coronavirus.

“It is a moment of reckoning with the place that they have in our culture now,” said Kathleen Holscher, a professor who holds the endowed chair of Roman Catholic studies at the University of New Mexico. “Fifty or 60 years ago, they were the face of American Catholicism, in schools and in hospitals.”

Several of the women who died at the Adrian Dominican Sisters campus had been nurses or teachers. Others had dedicated decades of their lives to religious service.

“Americans are being reminded they are older, and still there,” Dr. Holscher said. “But now they are living in these community situations and caring for one another.”

The accounting of the deaths in the nation’s religious congregate communities started in the first half of 2020 as the country broadly began to take note of the deadly transmission of the virus and the lives it took.

Last April, May and June, 13 Felician sisters at the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary convent in Michigan died of Covid-19. They pursued teaching, pastoral work and prayer ministry.

In a suburb of Milwaukee, at least five sisters at Our Lady of the Angels Convent died, starting last April. They worked in parishes, schools and universities, teaching English and music, and ministered to the aged and the poor.

At Notre Dame of Elm Grove, near Milwaukee, eight Roman Catholic sisters, educators, music teachers and social activists died of illnesses related to Covid-19 at a Wisconsin retirement home in December.

“Nuns have been the real grass roots workers of the church,” said Jack Downey, a professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Rochester. “It is really the nuns who people are interacting with on a daily basis. They have made possible Catholic life in the United States.”

“So nun communities passing in this way becomes particularly tragic,” he added.

As the deaths have mounted, the losses have put a focus on the future of these communities in a country where their populations are not only dwindling but rapidly aging.

Michael Pasquier, a professor of religious studies and history at Louisiana State University, said the interest in pursuing an institutional religious life has tapered off since the 1960s, an era of cultural changes that brought more women into the work force. There are now about 40,000 Roman Catholic nuns or sisters in the country — mostly in their mid- to late 70s and older — compared with about 160,000 in the 1970s, he said.

The death toll from the virus, he said, “is a reminder to all of us that the composition and the face of Catholic sisters today is one that is old.”

The losses have highlighted the tendency of the virus to prey on older adults, those with underlying medical conditions and in places where people in close contact, like nursing homes, which have been especially hard hit by the pandemic.

Dr. Holscher said the “poignant or tragic” part of the nuns’ deaths is that, unlike nursing homes, the women forgo a traditional family structure when they enter religious life.

“They don’t have children, don’t have spouses or close family members,” she said. “And they have signed up to be in a position to care for one another.”

Many of the aging congregate orders took precautions early in 2020 to protect their communities. At Elm Grove, the nuns followed federal guidelines about masks and social distancing, and staggered meal times in the communal dining room.

The Dominican sisters imposed similar restrictions, including weekly testing for staff members and sisters, canceling communal meals and in-person prayers, and allowing the sisters to leave only for medical appointments.

“We worked so hard to keep it at bay, because you’re really, you’re pretty helpless once it gets into a building, such as a nursing home,” Sister Siemen said. “The residents are already so vulnerable.”

But on Jan. 14, the order announced there was an outbreak among sisters and workers at the Dominican Life Center, its skilled care center, which had a Covid-19 unit set up for months that had not been used.

The first positive test came on Dec. 20, and several sisters died within weeks, some within a few days of each other.

Sister Jeannine Therese McGorray, 86, died on Jan. 11, and Sister Esther Ortega, 86, died on Jan. 14. Sister Dorothea Gramlich, 81, died on Jan. 21.

Three sisters died on Jan. 22: Sister Ann Rena Shinkey, 87; Sister Mary Lisa Rieman, 79; and Sister Charlotte Francis Moser, 86. The next day, Sister Mary Irene Wischmeyer, 94, and Sister Margaret Ann Swallow, 97, died. The most recent death was this week: Sister Helen Laier, 88, died on Tuesday.

Sister Siemen said that, because of its aging population, the order is accustomed to having to mourn their sisters, but this string of losses has given them a sense of “solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of families who have lost their loved ones to Covid.”

Still, she said that their faith helps them pull through.

“There’s grieving, obviously,” Sister Siemen said but, “as women of faith, we know that passage through this door of death, for us, is not the last passage.”

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