The Journal Gazette
Friday, July 31, 2020 1:00 am

'Our most tragic time'

Michigan convent struggles to grasp devastation wrought by COVID-19

Dan Stockman

Editor's note: Former Journal Gazette reporter Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report, the National Catholic Reporter website where this story first appeared.

LIVONIA, Michigan – They were teachers. A librarian. A director of religious education. A secretary in the Vatican Secretariat of State. The author of a 586-page history of the congregation.

One was an organist. One helped her second-grade class write and perform a commercial for Campbell's Soup. One was a nurse and led nursing students' mission trips to Haiti.

All were members of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Felix of Cantalice, or Felician Sisters. They lived together, prayed together and worked together.

And in one awful month – from Good Friday, April 10, to May 10 – 12 sisters died of COVID-19. Eighteen other Felician Sisters at the convent in Livonia also had the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

“We couldn't contain the grief and the sorrow and the emotional impact,” said Sister Noel Marie Gabriel, director of clinical health services for the Felician Sisters of North America. “We went through the motions of doing what we had to do, but that month was like a whole different way of life. That was our most tragic time. It was a month of tragedy and sorrow and mourning and grieving.”

But as the world grapples with the economic and social fallout of the continuing pandemic, survivors are discovering the virus can cause lasting damage and recovery may not mean a return to full health. One of the 18 sisters who initially survived the illness died from its effects June 27, making her the 13th victim in the Livonia convent.

In many ways, because of the restrictions in place to prevent a return of the virus, sisters' grieving has yet to begin.

All aspects of community are still either prohibited or severely limited. Sisters could not attend the funerals. There are limits on the number of people allowed in the chapel. They cannot enter each other's rooms. They had been eating one sister to a table, dining in three different shifts. As of July 6, they are back to two to a table. But all the other restrictions still apply.

The community had 65 sisters before the pandemic. Now, the remaining sisters fear the day they can be together as a group and see how many are no longer there.

“I get chills thinking about that,” said Sister Mary Andrew Budinski, the superior of the Livonia convent. “The raw grief is yet to come, I think.”

As the pandemic progressed in March, so did the restrictions at the convent: no visitors, no shopping trips, no group activities.

At first, there was no Mass, only Communion services because the priest was not allowed to enter the convent. Then, Communion services were canceled, and Communion was distributed to the sisters in their rooms. On April 9, Holy Thursday, even that ended.

Sister Joyce Marie Van de Vyver said as the restrictions progressed, suppressing the community life the sisters held so dear, Communion became more and more important, making it even more difficult when distribution was ended.

“We have a much stronger sense of belief and acceptance of the validity of spiritual communion,” she said. “That's all we had.”

The 360-acre campus was home to 800 sisters in the 1960s, but convent life today has become concentrated around the chapel and the two halls where sisters live. Much of the sprawling building, dating to 1937, is unused.

The first floor of St. Joseph Hall, a three-story wing of the convent, is dedicated to sisters who need 24-hour nursing care. The second floor is for assisted living, and the third floor, independent living.

Though visitors were prohibited beginning March 14, the convent kept essential staff members, including nurses, nurse's aides and dining hall workers. Then, staffers started getting sick.

Then came the first death: Sister Mary Luiza Wawrzyniak, 99, on Good Friday, April 10.

“We all knew if it hit the place, it would be bad,” said Sister Mary Ann Smith. “But we never anticipated how quickly it would go.”

Almost all of the many traditions the sisters keep when one of their own dies had to be suspended. There could be a funeral, but only 10 people could attend. If they also went to the graveside, they had to travel one to a car. There would be no hugs.

“That whole part of the closure process has yet to be realized,” Sister Joyce said.

Sister Nancy Jamroz said accepting the reality of what was happening to the community was hard. Required isolation meant the sisters heard of their friends' deaths over the intercom during the daily 1 p.m. announcements.

“You started to become numb,” Sister Nancy said. “You were caught between the Twilight Zone and la-la land. ... When this is death No. 8, this is No. 9, it just became a numbing participation.”

Sister Nancy, a table companion of Sister Luiza at meals, said no one knew Sister Luiza had the virus. She went to the hospital for heart palpitations.

”Everyone said, 'She'll be back in a few days,' ” Sister Nancy said. “She never came back.”

That became a pattern. One sister would go to the hospital overnight because she could not breathe but would call in the morning to say she was feeling better and would be home in two or three days. Then would come the news she had died.

“It was the classic case of what we had heard about the virus,” Sister Nancy said. “It's vicious, and it's quick.”

The community lost four other sisters in that first week.

Sister Joyce said when faith is rooted in tradition, a break in those traditions seems to change everything.

“The faith we share with sisters as they are dying, the prayers we share with sisters as they are dying: We missed all that,” she said. “It kind of shattered our faith life a little bit.”

Closing the convent was anathema to the sisters. They had dedicated their lives to serving others. So on March 13, the day before the doors were shut to the outside world, 10 of the sisters went to the chapel steps and held up a banner to the Livonia community that said, “We're lifting you up in prayer.”

But it's turned around, Sister Joyce said. “Now it's: 'Sister, we're praying for you.' The number of cards and letters we've received is unbelievable.”

They also believe there are others praying for them who cannot be seen: the sisters who died.

“There are some days when I say, 'God, we have 12 sisters up there, just like the 12 apostles,' ” Sister Nancy said June 10, before the community's death toll rose to 13. “Anyone who knew those sisters knows they have companions [in heaven] now. They're looking down, letting us know it's going to be OK.”

“I don't think it's a coincidence that all of this began in Lent, and the worst of it started during Holy Week,” Sister Mary Ann said. “All of us as a community had to go through a total death.”

It's not yet clear in what ways, but each member of the community has changed, she said.

“We haven't been together enough to know how, but we're different people than we were in March,” she said. “None of us are the same.”

The virus seemed to be as random as it was fast.

“We had sisters in their late 90s who survived and sisters much younger who went,” said Sister Mary Serra Szalaszewicz. “Their ministries were over. The others must still have some ministry to perform, some function yet to do.”

Those who survived, however, do not know why.

“You ask, 'Why am I here when these other sisters are gone?' ” Sister Mary Ann said. “I value the time I've been given, but I'm not sure what to do with it yet.”

Not thinking about the grief and just doing what needs to be done is a common coping mechanism in times of great trauma. But eventually, the trauma must be dealt with.

“We all have post-traumatic stress,” Sister Noel Marie said. “Not full-blown post-traumatic stress syndrome, but some indications of it. People couldn't grieve because of the urgency of getting through it. Now, we've got bad dreams, high anxiety, emotional distress.”

The ordeal needs to be discussed and people need to tell their stories, she said, but it's difficult because they still cannot be together.

In the middle of that awful month, the Felician Sisters across the continent gathered on a Zoom call to their sisters in Livonia. They brought a message of comfort, of community, a message of love. They remembered in a slideshow the sisters lost. The Livonia sisters said they wept through the entire thing.

And when it's all over, they plan to hold a celebration of life for the 13 sisters they lost

They don't know what the celebration will entail or even when they'll be able to have it, but they know how important it will be.

“We'll let the Spirit lead us through that,” Sister Nancy said.

In the meantime, there is still the semi-quarantine to deal with. The last person came out of a 28-day isolation June 8, but there are still many restrictions. Sister Serra said everyone's stockpiles – toothpaste, candy – have been used up.

“We're down to our last Hershey bars,” Sister Joyce said.

But no one will be going to the store anytime soon.

“I look at it like an accordion that can open and close, and right now, that accordion is still really tightly closed,” Sister Noel Marie said. “We're not touching each other, not hugging, not doing the things we usually do. ... We miss that part of how we live. It's on a cellular level for us.”

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