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

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.

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 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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