The religious sisters, who were retired at the Dominican Life Center in Michigan, followed strict rules to avoid a coronavirus outbreak: they were kept in isolation, visitors were banned, and masks were required from everyone on campus.
But months after it was held in check, it found its way in.
On Friday, the Adrian Dominican Sisters said nine sisters died from complications from Covid-19 on the Adrian campus, about 75 miles southwest of Detroit, in January.
“It’s numbing,” said Sister Patricia Siemen, head of the order. “We had six women die in 48 hours.”
The death of the sisters in Michigan contributed to a well-known trend in the spread of the virus as it destroys religious communities by infecting retired, aging populations of sisters and nuns who had tacitly dedicated their lives to others.
Now some of these sisters have come out into the open as details of their names, ages, and lifetimes are highlighted as part of the national discourse about Americans lost to the coronavirus.
“It’s a moment of reckoning with the place they now have in our culture,” 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 you were the face of American Catholicism, in schools and in hospitals.”
Some of the women who died on the Adrian Dominican Sisters campus were nurses or teachers. Others had devoted decades of their lives to worship.
“Americans are being reminded that they are older and are still there,” said Dr. Holscher. “But now they live in these communal situations and take care of each other.”
Accounting for deaths in the nation’s religious communities began in the first half of 2020 as the country took note of the fatal transmission of the virus and the lives associated with it.
Last April, May and June 13 Felician sisters died of Covid-19 at the presentation of the Convent of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Michigan. They pursued teaching, pastoral care and prayer service.
In a suburb of Milwaukee, at least five sisters died at the Convent of Our Lady of the Angels as of April last year. They worked in parishes, schools and universities, taught English and music, and served the elderly and the poor.
In December, eight Roman Catholic sisters, educators, music teachers and social activists died of Covid-19-related diseases in a Wisconsin old people’s home in Notre Dame by Elm Grove, near Milwaukee.
“Nuns were the real grassroots workers in the Church,” said Jack Downey, professor of Catholic studies at the University of Rochester. “It is really the nuns that people interact with on a daily basis. You made Catholic life in the United States possible. “
Jan. 29, 2021, 4:46 p.m. ET
“This is how communities of nuns that go this way become particularly tragic,” he added.
While deaths have increased, losses have placed a focus on the future of these communities in a country where its population is not only shrinking but aging rapidly.
Michael Pasquier, a professor of religious studies and history at Louisiana State University, said interest in institutional religious life had waned since the 1960s, an era of cultural change that brought more women into the workplace. There are now about 40,000 Roman Catholic nuns or sisters in the country – mostly in the mid to late 1970s and older – compared to about 160,000 in the 1970s, he said.
The death toll from the virus, he said, “reminds us all that the makeup and face of Catholic sisters today are old.”
The losses have underscored the virus’ tendency to hunt down older adults, people with underlying medical conditions, and places where people are in close contact, such as nursing homes, which are particularly hard hit by the pandemic.
Dr. Holscher said the “poignant or tragic” part of the nuns’ deaths was that, unlike nursing homes, women forego a traditional family structure when entering religious life.
“They have no children, spouses or close family members,” she said. “And they signed up to take care of each other.”
Many of the aging religious orders took precautions in early 2020 to protect their communities. At Elm Grove, the nuns followed federal guidelines on masks and social distancing, as well as staggered meal times in the communal dining room.
The Dominican sisters imposed similar restrictions, including weekly tests for staff and sisters, cancellation of meals and personal prayers, and permission for the sisters to leave for medical appointments only.
“We worked so hard to keep it in check because when it gets into a building like a nursing home you are really pretty helpless,” said Sister Siemen. “The residents are already so vulnerable.”
However, on Jan. 14, the order announced that there had been an outbreak of nurses and workers at the Dominican Life Center, a qualified care center that had had a Covid-19 unit in place for months and not in use.
The first positive test took place on December 20th and several sisters died within weeks, some within days of each other.
Sister Jeannine Therese McGorray, 86, died on January 11 and Sister Esther Ortega, 86, died on January 14. Sister Dorothea Gramlich, 81, died on January 21.
Three sisters died on January 22nd: 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 last death was this week: Sister Helen Laier, 88, died Tuesday.
Sister Siemen said that the Order is used to mourning their sisters due to its aging population, but this series of losses has given them a sense of “solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of families who have lost loved ones to Covid. ”
Even so, she said that her faith helps them get through.
“There is obviously grief,” said Sister Siemen, “but as women of faith we know that going through this door of death is not the last for us.”