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‘A month of tragedy’: Coronavirus ravaged a convent, claiming the lives of 13 religious sisters

Top, left to right: Sisters Mary Clarence Borkoski, Mary Madeleine Dolan, Mary Alice Ann Gradowski, Victoria Marie Indyk, Celine Marie Lesinski and Mary Estelle Printz. Bottom, left to right: Sisters Mary Patricia Pyszynski, Mary Martinez Rozek, Thomas Marie Wadowski, Mary Luiza Wawrzyniak, Rose Mary Wolak and Mary Janice Zolkowski. (Not pictured: Sister Mary Danatha Suchyta) (Courtesy of Felician Sisters of North America/Felician Sisters of North America)
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When word spread in the spring that the novel coronavirus had infiltrated a convent near Detroit housing the Congregation of Sisters of St. Felix of Cantalice, the residents there swiftly prepared for the worst. At the time, about 60 sisters called the convent in Livonia, Mich., home — and a number of them were elderly, having devoted decades of their lives to the congregation.

But none of the Felician sisters could have predicted just how devastating the virus would be for their close-knit community.

“We all knew if it hit the place, it would be bad,” Sister Mary Ann Smith told the Global Sisters Report (GSR) this week. “But we never anticipated how quickly it would go.”

By early April, the virus had already claimed its first life, Sister Mary Luiza Wawrzyniak, 99. Over the next month, it would sweep through the halls of the convent, taking the lives of 11 other sisters and infecting 18 more in an outbreak members are now calling “our most tragic time.”

The death toll, which recently increased to 13 after a sister who initially survived the disease succumbed to its effects last month, marks what may be the worst loss of life to affect a community of religious women in the United States since the 1918 influenza pandemic, according to GSR, an independent, nonprofit Catholic news organization.

“We couldn’t contain the grief and the sorrow and the emotional impact,” Sister Noel Marie Gabriel, director of clinical health services at the Livonia convent, told GSR. “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.”

Nationwide, facilities that house or care for the elderly have been ravaged by the virus, which poses much higher risks to people in advanced stages of life and those with underlying health conditions. In Livonia, the convent has a three-story wing dedicated to providing various forms of elder care, including 24-hour nursing support as well as assisted and independent living, GSR reported.

More than 25,000 nursing home residents and 400 staff members have died during pandemic, federal report shows

So in early March, as cases of the virus skyrocketed across the United States and the country began shutting down, the Felician sisters in Livonia followed suit, Gabriel told The Washington Post in a statement late Wednesday.

Mass was canceled, quickly followed by group Communion services. By the second week of March, visitors had been banned from the convent, a sprawling 360-acre property where the sisters lived and worked. Soon, all resident sisters were quarantined in their bedrooms, getting their meals served to them and having to watch chapel services via closed-circuit TV or on their electronic devices. Only essential staff members and nurses were allowed to come and go from the convent as the weeks passed. Social distancing, mask-wearing and hand hygiene was also widely enforced while staff members were trained in how to properly don personal protective equipment.

But despite their best efforts, the virus still made its way within the convent’s walls — reportedly introduced after two unnamed staff members tested positive, according to GSR.

“We will never be sure or accurate as to how the virus got into the convent,” Gabriel said in the statement to The Post. “It could be a combination of sisters and employees and visitors who were asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic who were present in the convent and moved freely about among the group of sisters as well as staff."

“We are not attaching the blame to anyone,” she added.

Instead, Gabriel said members of the convent focused their energy on stopping the virus’s spread and caring for those who had fallen ill.

Then, on April 10, Good Friday, Wawrzyniak died. The native of South Bend, Ind., had been a member of the congregation for 80 years, joining the Felician Sisters after graduating from high school.

Two days later, Sisters Celine Marie Lesinski, 92, and Mary Estelle Printz, 95, died on Easter Sunday.

From that point on, until May, almost every week came with news that more sisters had passed.

“It was the classic case of what we had heard about the virus,” Sister Nancy Jamroz told GSR. “It’s vicious, and it’s quick.”

By May 10, a dozen sisters had died, including Sisters Thomas Marie Wadowski, 73; Mary Patricia Pyszynski, 93; Mary Clarence Borkoski, 83; Rose Mary Wolak, 86; Mary Janice Zolkowski, 86; Mary Alice Ann Gradowski, 73; Victoria Marie Indyk, 69; Mary Martinez Rozek, 87; and Mary Madeleine Dolan, 82. Sister Mary Danatha Suchyta, 98, became the 13th casualty on June 27.

Read their obituaries here

As the virus exacted a physical toll on the convent, it also leveled a crushing emotional blow to the surviving sisters, who were unable to properly mourn the sudden deaths of their friends because of the stringent restrictions still in place.

“The faith we share with sisters as they are dying, the prayers we share with sisters as they are dying: We missed all that,” Sister Joyce Marie Van de Vyver told GSR. “It kind of shattered our faith life a little bit.”

A number of traditions could not be followed amid the pandemic, Sister Mary Christopher Moore, the convent’s provincial minister, said in the statement to The Post. Members were not allowed to gather at a vigil the night before a sister’s funeral to share stories about her, and funerals were limited to 10 people. To visit a gravesite, each person had to take her own car.

“We miss our sisters deeply and greatly appreciate all of those who have reached out to us so kindly in their memory,” Moore said. “We look forward to holding a celebration of life for each of the sisters, along with their family members, as we are able.”

Meanwhile, Gabriel noted that the strict rules had paid off. The convent is now coronavirus-free, she said in the statement.

The virus’s exact effect on convents nationwide and worldwide is still unclear, as such cases are not formally tracked. At least 30 sisters in the United States have died of the virus in addition to about 60 others spread across Canada and Italy, according to GSR, citing recent news reports. Even before the coronavirus pandemic reached the United States, the country had already been seeing a consistent decline in the number of nuns as the population dropped from more than 179,000 in the 1960s to just under 50,000 by 2014, according to the Pew Research Center.

Now, as cases of the virus are once again spiking nationwide, Gabriel said members of the Livonia convent are continuing to practice critical health precautions, such as wearing masks and social distancing.

“Every one of us is a COVID survivor; every one of us focused on praying, helping, sacrificing our accustomed way of living so our sisters, our employees, our local community, our state, our country can survive,” she said. “This has become our corporate ministry, our way of service to others.”