High schools turn to community for steps to combat racism

Video of the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer struck the country like a thunderbolt in May, sparking protests around the nation and a fresh recognition of how racism warps life in America.

Institutions across the country are re-evaluating their own processes and cultures for signs of racism so they can make changes. Among them are the two diocesan high schools in the Diocese of Nashville.

Father Ryan High School and Pope John Paul II High School have each hired Derek Young, a nationally recognized consultant on diversity and inclusion, to lead a review of the cultures of the schools and develop an action plan to improve them.

“Racism is an unbelievable problem that we have to own,” said Mike Deely, head of school at Pope John Paul II High School. “I’m not doing enough myself.”

After George Floyd’s death, Deely reached out to members of the JPII community, particularly African-Americans. Among those he talked to was Young, whose has a daughter who is a current student at JPII and a son who graduated from Father Ryan.

Deely asked Young and others for help in crafting a response to the events in Minneapolis. In a letter to the JPII community posted on the school’s Facebook page, Deely said: “All of us, regardless of race, have experienced a profound sense of pain in the last three months, whether it was due to isolation, loss of employment, fear of what the future holds, illness, or death of a loved one. Maybe that shared pain gives us the chance to listen to one another now. …

“I don’t have an answer, and I know I cannot get everyone to agree on the solutions,” he added. “I cannot solve the sins of our history. However, I write this letter to be clear: I will do anything to help our nation and our community heal. I will open my heart to listen and not judge anyone with an opinion opposite of mine. Our faith compels us to take this moment in time to have discussions about racism and justice. Our faith compels us to address every person’s pain. Our faith compels us to be in solidarity when it comes to human rights for our brothers and sisters in Christ. There are no ‘others’ in God’s eyes.”

Father Ryan President Jim McIntyre and Principal Paul Davis posted a similar letter on the school’s website.

“The senseless and preventable deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many others awaken us to our responsibilities as Christians, as educators, as citizens, as human beings,” they wrote. “Just as Christ calls us, Father Ryan is deeply committed to a culture of inclusion, justice and equality for all, with no place for racism in any form.”

“Today, we embrace our legacy of social justice and stand in solidarity with our global neighbors in calling for true reconciliation and meaningful change,” they added. “We offer our most heartfelt prayers to all the victims of prejudicial violence and racial bias. We recommit to educating our students and our community to encourage a peaceful and unrelenting resolve to challenge systemic injustices in our world.”

While many in both communities posted comments on social media thanking the school leaders for their letters, others were dissatisfied with the response, described instances of discrimination they experienced or witnessed as students at the schools, and called for concrete action.

“At first there’s a natural defensiveness,” Deely said. But he said he understood that some alumni felt his letter was merely an expression of “thoughts and prayers” and the school needed to take specific steps to address the problems.

He contacted many of the alumni who posted comments about his letter to talk about the issue. “We really made an effort to reach out,” he said. “We have alumni willing to work long term on this.”

Deely arranged for Young to meet with JPII’s student leaders and some of its African-American students in the week after Floyd’s death, he said. “I decided we need to keep doing this.”

Meanwhile, Father Ryan’s leadership was reaching a similar conclusion. In a second letter to the Father Ryan community, McIntyre and Davis wrote: “Our community recognizes that we need to look at our school and ourselves to make sure we demonstrate an inclusive environment for Black students and other students of color. The Father Ryan community, in collaboration with the Diocese of Nashville and its leadership, is committed to doing the work necessary to make this initiative a reality.”

In the letter, McIntyre and Davis announced that the school was partnering with Young to develop “a process for our work that begins with listening to representatives of our community.”

“Our goal is to create effective and lasting solutions – ones that emerge from an informed and thoughtful process, ones that will help prevent racism on our campus,” they added.

At JPII, Young has already been meeting with groups of students, parents, alumni, teachers and staff, to discuss “what’s working at the school and what’s not,” Deely said.

“It’s like a moral audit,” Deely said. 

“Derek told me, ‘If I find something that’s a problem, I’m going to call you on it,’” Deely said. “That’s why you want to use Derek, because he’ll challenge you to do the right thing.”

“He’s really teaching us to listen,” Deely said of Young, who attended Catholic schools growing up in St. Louis and has sent his own children to Catholic schools in Nashville.

Father Ryan has created a page on its website – www.fatherryan.org/about-us/inclusion – outlining the process Young will lead. It begins with an online survey that members of the school community have been invited to fill out to provide insights, experiences and feedback. The survey will be open through July 31.

The survey will be followed by a series of in-person focus group meetings of students, parents, alumni, teachers, staff and others that will take place through the summer and fall semester.

In the second step of the process, according to the school website, “In cooperation with the Catholic Schools Office of the Diocese of Nashville, Father Ryan’s leadership will assemble a group of people from the school’s constituencies. This group will review and recommend specific action steps that the school can implement to achieve the goal of a more inclusive environment, with a greater feeling of belonging for Black students and other students of color.”

The third step, beginning in the spring of 2021, will be adopting and implementing the action steps identified. “These steps will be monitored by the school leadership, with progress reported on a regular basis to the Catholic Schools Office of the Diocese of Nashville and the Board of Trustees of Father Ryan High School,” according to the Inclusion page on the school’s website.

At JPII, the focus groups Young has organized have “brought a lot of different people together,” Deely said.

“Our Black alumni have come in to take a lot of the lead” in the process, Deely said. 

“We learned we really have to let our current students have a voice in this,” he said. “They can teach us about what’s going on now because things can change over time.”

Like at Father Ryan, Young, throughout the school year, will facilitate the process of developing action steps for JPII arising from the focus group discussions and implementing them.

“I’m very optimistic,” Deely said.

Not all in same boat: Some communities ‘sink more easily,’ archbishop says

A person in a protective face mask walks along the Princes Bridge in Melbourne, Australia, July 17, 2020, during a lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic. CNS photo/Daniel Pockett, Reuters.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The global COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted humanity’s vulnerability and interdependence, as well as serious social and economic inequalities, the Pontifical Academy for Life said in a new document.

The eight-page reflection, “‘Humana Communitas’ in the Age of Pandemic,” details a number of key and “untimely meditations on life’s rebirth” in the face of a global health, environmental and economic crisis. They are “untimely” or “old-fashioned,” Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, academy president, said in a written statement, because such reflections do not seem to be a popular or “fashionable” part of the current debate.

“At a time when life seems suspended and we are struck by the death of loved ones and the loss of reference points for our society, we cannot limit ourselves to discussing the price of masks or the reopening date of schools,” he said.

“We will have to take the opportunity and find the courage to discuss better conditions to transform the market and education instead,” he added.

There has to be a recognition of the universal fragility of the human condition, a profound rethinking of humanity’s purpose in the world and a concerted effort to rebuild models of coexistence, health care and development, he said July 22.

“We are all in the same storm, but not on the same boat,” with many communities’ resources and infrastructures being so fragile or lacking that these communities “sink more easily,” Archbishop Paglia said.

The archbishop’s remarks accompanied the academy’s second document this year on the consequences of the global health crisis and how the world, particularly Christians, should respond.

Published on its website academyforlife.va in five languages, including English, the document includes the following considerations:

— To see the current pandemic as a “symptom of our earth’s malaise and our failure to care” and as a “sign of our own spiritual malaise,” which should compel people to reconsider their relationship with creation and each other, no longer seeing oneself as “masters and lords,” but as “stewards.”

— To understand that certain public policies and measures call for “the solidarity of the young and healthy with the most vulnerable” and for sacrifices from those who “depend on public interaction and economic activity for their living.”

— To recognize how the “common good of public health needs to be balanced against economic interests” and the need for international coordination and cooperation in finding and sharing remedies and vaccines.

— To recognize access to quality health care and essential medicine as a universal human right.

— To support and improve international cooperation through the World Health Organization.

 — To address and transform the “oppressive and unjust” structures in the global community, starting with a “real conversion of minds and hearts” that entails embracing one’s responsibility and no longer being unwilling to see the obvious wrongs in the world.

The document said “the narrow-mindedness of national self-interests has led many countries to vindicate for themselves a policy of independence and isolation from the rest of the world,” which will not be effective in addressing the global pandemic, will only worsen inequalities and will make even more people vulnerable and marginalized.

“Everyone is called to do their part” in being responsible toward others in need, it said.

“A responsible community is one in which burdens of caution and reciprocal support are shared proactively with an eye to the well-being of all,” it said.

Canadian court: Safe Third Country Agreement with U.S. violates rights

Canadian refugee supporters tape photographs of migrant worker Rogelio Munoz Santos, who died from coronavirus, during a pro-immigration rally by migrants, refugees and undocumented workers outside the office of Canadian Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino in Toronto July 4, 2020. A federal court in Canada ruled July 22 that the Safe Third Country Agreement, which allows Canada to send certain refugee petitioners back to the United States, is unconstitutional. CNS photo/Chris Helgren, Reuters

TORONTO (CNS) — Canada’s Federal Court has ruled the country’s Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by sending refugees who arrive at Canada’s land borders back to detention in the United States.

It is the second time a federal judge has struck down the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement on constitutional grounds.

For Catholic refugee advocates, the ruling is a victory, said Norbert Piche, Jesuit Refugee Service country director for Canada.

“If we’re going to be saying that we are Christians, that we believe in what Christ tells us, then we have to believe in welcoming the stranger,” Piche said. “The stranger is the refugee claimant, the person who is fleeing persecution. If we are truly, bona fide Christians, we will stand up for these people.”

“We can continue being Canada — a fair country and a country that protects refugees,” said Loly Rico, co-director of the FCJ Refugee Centre, a shelter sponsored by the Faithful Companions of Jesus.

The case was brought in 2017 on behalf of three women by the Canadian Council of Churches, Amnesty International Canada and the Canadian Council for Refugees. It was largely a reprise of a challenge the same parties brought to court a decade earlier. In 2007, a federal judge struck down the agreement on constitutional grounds, only to have the decision later overturned by an appeals court that ruled the three organizations did not have standing to argue on behalf of refugees before the court.

In the 2007 ruling against the Safe Third Country Agreement, Justice Michael Phelan found it is unreasonable to conclude that the U.S. complies with its obligations under the 1951 U.N. Convention on Refugees and the Convention against Torture.

In the July 22 ruling, Justice Ann Marie McDonald found “the evidence clearly demonstrates that those returned to the U.S. by Canadian officials are detained as a penalty.”

Both judges ruled that the Safe Third Country Agreement violates section seven of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees “life, liberty and security of the person.”

McDonald gave the government six months to either appeal her decision or exit the agreement with the U.S.

“I think we can expect that it will be appealed,” Peter Noteboom, Canadian Council of Churches general secretary, told The Catholic Register, Canadian weekly.

Along with Amnesty International and the Canadian Council for Refugees, Noteboom urged the government not to appeal.

Canada’s churches have been fighting the Safe Third Country Agreement since it was first agreed in 2002 and entered into force in 2004. Fighting for a fair and open welcome for refugees is not something churches can back away from, Noteboom said.

“It’s not something extra. It’s not some sort of marginal or external thing to churches and faith communities in Canada. It’s part of how they see themselves,” he said. “For decades already, the whole initiative, the whole movement of caring for refugees, of working with refugees and immigrants coming to Canada has been in the genetic code of faith communities and churches.”

Harvard law professor Deborah Anker called the Canadian ruling “a very important decision.”

“It’s a human rights judgment against the United States for its asylum policy by a credible allied nation,” she told The Catholic Register. “It’s tremendously significant. It will get cited in litigation (in the U.S.) I’m sure and in policy documents. … If there’s a (Joe) Biden administration that takes office at the end of January, it will make a difference that a Canadian court so held.”

While the case was before the court in Canada, conditions in U.S. immigration detention centers have gotten worse, said Anker, who was an expert witness in the case.

“Conditions in detention are dangerous now because of COVID-19, more dangerous,” she said.

Even if many of the issues and individual cases at issue in the decision predate the Trump administration, the ruling highlights the deterioration of the U.S. refugee system in the last three years, said lawyer Don Kerwin, executive director of the Scalabrini Fathers’ Center for Migration Studies in New York.

“The United States has an administration in place right now that is doing its level best to eviscerate the U.S. asylum system,” Kerwin said. “It’s part of a broader effort to decimate all U.S. refugee protection programs.”

Kerwin called the Canadian court’s judgment on U.S. treatment of refugees “understandable” and “really lamentable.”

“What the Canadian court is pointing out is how badly the United States now treats refugees and asylum-seekers, and how precipitously it has fallen in terms of its response to people in great need,” he said.

Vatican foreign minister: Religious freedom must be protected

Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, Vatican foreign minister, is pictured in this 2018 photo on Capitol Hill in Washington. Archbishop Gallagher recently said the Catholic Church has grown complacent to the persecution of Christians. CNS photo/Bob Roller

MANCHESTER, England (CNS) — The Catholic Church has failed to defend Christians effectively, partly because it historically accepted persecution as part of its “community story,” a Vatican official said.

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s foreign minister, told an online forum in mid-July that efforts to counter persecution were now required because the entire fabric of human rights was at stake — even in the West — if religious freedom continued to be attacked.

He made his remarks on the first anniversary of the 176-page “Truro report,” the publication of which led to a commitment by the British government to address the global persecution of Christians specifically.

“I think that the Truro report was very timely,” he said from the Vatican via Zoom, the video-sharing platform. “It was a bit of a wake-up call.

“Speaking to some extent on behalf of the Catholic Church and the Holy See, I think in some ways perhaps we became too complacent in front of persecution, too used to it being a phenomenon in our community story, and thought therefore perhaps it was something you had to live with, something that we can’t do anything about. I think the Truro report was a very significant effort to do something about that,” he said.

“I think also we all know the denial of religious freedom is the beginning of the denial and erosion of so many other human rights; it is almost the litmus test of human rights,” said the Liverpool-born archbishop.

He said it was also important that Christians and other people of goodwill made “a renewed effort to underline the question of conscience in general, even outside the religious sphere,” because “we do see — even in the West, developed world — the progressive erosion of conscience and, therefore, also of human rights.”

“Never underestimate the power of prayer and the unity of the people of faith,” Archbishop Gallagher added.

The Truro report was commissioned by Jeremy Hunt, a former British foreign secretary, and launched July 8, 2019.

It takes its name from Anglican Bishop Philip Mounstephen of Truro, England, who led the independent commission that worked on the report.

The report revealed a surprising scale of persecution of Christians globally, leading Hunt, an Anglican, to conclude that he was “not convinced that our efforts on behalf of Christians have always matched the scale of the problem.”

The report recommended that Britain seek a U.N. Security Council Resolution to require all of the nations of the Middle East and North Africa to protect Christians and to permit U.N. observers to monitor security measures.

It also included the suggestion that new linguistic terms — such as “Christophobia” — be sought to describe anti-Christian discrimination in the same way that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are used to describe acts of violence toward Muslims and Jews. Catholic leaders have since voiced reservations about the merits of competing for victim status against other groups.

The report says the U.K. should establish independent national sanctions against countries where Christians are persecuted, and a fund should be established to help persecuted Christians and to care for those who have escaped persecution.

Hunt, who lost his Cabinet position after competing with Boris Johnson for the role of prime minister, joined the online forum and said he was grateful that Dominic Raab, his successor, was committed to fully implementing the recommendations of the report.

He said that while he was in office, it had become clear to him that “standing up for the rights of Christians had been somewhat of a blind spot in our foreign policy.”

Hunt told the forum that a variety of cultural and historic reason had “obscured some of the tragedies happening right in front of our eyes, the 250 million Christians persecuted every year for their faith, the terrible atrocities that we all know about,” adding: “I decided that we needed to do something about it.”

He said that Britain could not, however, “remove the scar” of persecution from the world alone and told more than 500 people who joined the forum that the country would have to form alliances with others committed to religious freedom.

New accusation surfaces against former U.S. prelate McCarrick

Then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, arrives in procession for a Mass of thanksgiving for Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Nov. 22, 2010. A new lawsuit against McCarrick, who was laicized in 2019, accuses him of managing a sex ring among seminarians, altar boys and priests at a New Jersey beach house. CNS photo/Paul Haring.

WASHINGTON (CNS) — A firm that has filed previous legal complaints against former Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick and church entities added another complainant July 21 against the defrocked prelate, leveling a new accusation that he allegedly abused its new client as a boy at a beach house in Sea Girt, New Jersey, in the early 1980s.

In a July 22 news conference via Zoom, Jeff Anderson of Jeff Anderson & Associates of St. Paul, Minnesota, announced a new lawsuit he said was filed in Middlesex County Superior Court in New Jersey. He said his client, named only as John Doe 14, was groomed by a priest and “procured” for McCarrick when he was bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey.

Anderson said the new complaint identifies at least seven children who were “groomed by others for McCarrick,” and in addition to McCarrick it names several Catholic entities as defendants including the Diocese of Metuchen, the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, and Essex Catholic Boys High School, which closed in 2003. 

The suit alleges that at age 11, the boy began to be sexually abused in 1978 by a priest at a New Jersey parish and the abuse continued at the hands of another cleric at the Catholic high school he attended, and then with McCarrick in 1982, when the boy was urged to talk to the prelate because his family has having a difficult time affording tuition.

The complaint says the client was not the only boy suffering such abuse on the premises. In the news conference, Anderson said John Doe 14 was just one of a group called “the crew” who would go on overnight stays to a beach house paid for by diocesan funds. There the boys were instructed where to sleep “and in the night, with the assistance of others, McCarrick would creep into this kid’s bed and engage in criminal sexual assault of him, whispering, ‘It is OK.'”

Anderson categorized the venue as “McCarrick’s sordid beach house child sex ring.”

“I would like to thank Doe 14,” Anderson said of his unnamed client. “Before he came to us, he was suffering in silence, secrecy and shame for what Cardinal McCarrick did to him.”

“While we have not yet received the complaint, our prayers are with all survivors of abuse, today and always, and we stand with them in their journey toward healing and hope,” said Anthony P. Kearns III, spokesperson and chancellor for the Diocese of Metuchen in a July 22 statement.

“With God’s grace, all survivors of abuse, particularly those wounded by members of the church, will continue to heal and move forward,” Kearns said. “Our diocese renews our commitment to prevent these types of abuse from ever happening again.”

The diocese also encouraged anyone harmed by clergy in New Jersey to notify law enforcement.

The Archdiocese of Newark in a statement July 22 said it would not discuss or comment on matters in litigation.

“The Archdiocese of Newark remains fully committed to transparency and to our long-standing programs to protect the faithful and will continue to work with victims, their legal representatives and law enforcement authorities in an ongoing effort to resolve allegations and bring closure to victims,” it said.

Anderson’s firm also continued to call on the Vatican and other church entities to “come clean” about what others knew about the alleged abuses leading all the way back to St. John Paul II, who created McCarrick as a cardinal.

“Doe 14’s complaint exposes ongoing system of papal permission for the unbridled abuse of power by McCarrick and others,” Anderson said.

On May 15 the postulator for the sainthood cause of Pope John Paul said he and the commission involved in investigating the life of the late pope for sainthood found no evidence the pope knowingly neglected or covered up abuse scandals.

Last November, when the U.S. bishops met for their annual fall meeting in Baltimore, Boston’s Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley gave the U.S. prelates a brief update about the status of a report that may reveal what the Vatican knew about the ascent to power of now-disgraced former U.S. cardinal. He said that it was taking longer than previously believed because it involved various dioceses and that perhaps it would be made public by Christmas, or the New Year, but that has not happened .

McCarrick was dismissed by the Vatican from the clerical state in February 2019 following an investigation of accusations that he had abused children early on in his career of more than 60 years as a cleric, and that he also had abused seminarians as a bishop.

He had long been one of the premier U.S. bishops, traveling the world on behalf of the church as an esteemed member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, leaving many wondering how he could have ascended in church ranks when many are said to have been aware of his alleged abuses.

“We made it clear to Cardinal (Pietro) Parolin at the leadership of the curia that the priests and the people of our country are anxious to receive the Holy See’s explanation of this tragic situation, how he could become an archbishop and cardinal, who knew what and when,” Cardinal O’Malley said of meeting with the Vatican secretary of state in early November.

“The long wait has resulted in great frustration on the part of bishops and our people and indeed a very harsh and even cynical interpretation of the seeming silence,” the cardinal said.

Public service workers tell of job strains of serving in pandemic

Garbage cans are seen in a Washington neighborhood July 23, 2020. CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn.

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Workers whose jobs put them in direct contact with the public related both the pride and fear of doing their work amid the coronavirus pandemic during a July 22 forum sponsored by the Catholic Labor Network.

“We are the proverbial tip of the spear,” said Stephen Mittons, a child protection investigator for the city of Chicago’s Department of Child and Family Services. If there’s an allegation of abuse or neglect, he added, “we physically knock on that door and try to ensure the safety of that child. We have not missed a beat. There has not been a day when I or one of my colleagues has not been in the field.”

Mittons has protective gear to carry out his work, but the families he visits may not. “I visit four homes a day,” he said. “I could pick up something from one home and give it to another family I visit. Or bring it into my home.”

The same is true for Phil Cisneros, a financial specialist in the public guardian’s office of Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago. The office represents the interests of both children and adults with disabilities. Cisneros works in what he called the “adult division” of the office, protecting seniors from scammers. “It pays bills for seniors who can’t handle their own finances,” he said.

Yet senior citizens have shown to be more likely than other segments of the population to be infected by the coronavirus.

Clayton Sinyai, executive director of the Catholic Labor Network, noted how the National Nurses United labor union “put out 164 pairs of white shoes” July 21 to honor 164 nurses who have died since pandemic reached the United States early this year.

From both a public health and an economic perspective, Sinyai said, “we haven’t seen the recovery many of us had hoped for.”

He added, “It’s shocking to think what will happen if our public health agencies are underfunded.”

The coronavirus is “out of control, especially in the Sun Belt,” said Becky Levin, assistant director of the federal government affairs department for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents both Mittons and Cisneros.

Making the situation more dire is that “people aren’t spending money the way they used to,” which is lowering sales tax revenue to states, counties and cities, Levin said. “It’s really changed our economy overnight in a way none of us could have foreseen,” she added. “I don’t think anybody envisioned this for a rainy day fund.”

Despite the economic plunge, most states are constitutionally required to balance their budgets, “and we’re looking at maybe a 20% drop in revenues, maybe even bigger,” Levin said. “The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities put out a new revision estimating that we’re looking at a two-year revenue shortfall of $555 billion. That doesn’t include counties and it doesn’t include cities.”

AFSCME had declared July 22 as a “day of action” for its members to call their representatives in Congress to pass the HEROES Act. The House passed a version in May, but the Senate has not acted on the bill amid intraparty wrangling among Republicans, who control the Senate.

“It looks like Democrats are starting to have some talks with Republicans, which is as it should be,” Levin said. “There is a lot of pressure for them to get it done before they go on vacation.”

AFSCME is just one of many unions pressing their case before lawmakers to include funding for critical needs in the HEROES Act, or the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act.

The Amalgamated Transit Union is urging funding for public transit and the motorcoach industry, and stronger health protections for workers. National Nurses United is demanding more and better protection for health care workers. The Utility Workers Union wants Congress to improve protections for all frontline workers still on the job during the pandemic. The Machinists and the Association of Flight Attendants want airlines to live up to their obligation to keep their workers on the payroll.

Actors Equity seeks health care protection for theater workers whose shows, and health care coverage, have been canceled due to the pandemic. The NewsGuild wants Congress to provide stimulus money to local newspapers to preserve newsroom staffs cut even more severely in recent months than in the past decade. Two unions want the White House to activate the Defense Production Act to get factories making ventilators, gloves and other protective equipment.

Levin estimated a cost of $128 billion for school systems nationwide just to buy more school buses and hire drivers for them. “You can’t shove that many kids on a bus anymore,” she said.

‘Our most tragic time’: Felician sisters bear loss of 13 sisters to COVID-19

An empty room on the first floor of the care center in the Felician sisters’ convent in Livonia, Mich., is seen June 10, 2020. CNS photo/Dan Stockman, Global Sisters Report

LIVONIA, Mich. (CNS) — 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 on mission trips to Haiti.

All of them 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, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Eighteen other Felician sisters at the convent in Livonia had the illness as well.

“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. … 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.

Though sisters worldwide have died from the illness, no one is tracking how many. News reports show that as of July 16 at least 19 other sisters have died in the United States, including a Felician sister at the order’s convent in Lodi, New Jersey; six sisters from two communities at a shared convent outside Milwaukee; and three Maryknoll sisters in Ossining, New York.

Internationally, at least 61 sisters have died, including 10 Comboni sisters in northern Italy, seven Sisters of Sainte-Croix in Montreal, seven Ursuline sisters outside Montreal, six Sisters of St. Anne in Quebec and six Little Missionary Sisters of Charity in northern Italy.

The Felicians in Livonia may have experienced the worst loss of life for a community of women religious since the 1918 influenza pandemic. 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 remain 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 were dining in three different shifts, with one sister seated at each table. As of July 6, they are back to two to a table.

The community had 65 sisters before the pandemic. 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,” Sister Mary Andrew Budinski, superior of the Livonia convent, told Global Sisters Report. “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 Holy Thursday, even that ended.

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.

“I first heard two aides had contracted the virus,” Sister Andrew said. “We don’t know who they are, and we don’t want to know. Then it hit sisters on the second floor, and it went through like wildfire.”

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

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

A new reality began. 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 Luiza’s table companion at meals, Sister Nancy Jamroz, 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 told Global Sisters Report. “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 a few days. Then would come the news that 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 Celine Marie Lesinski, 92, and Sister Mary Estelle Printz, 95, died on Easter. Sister Thomas Marie Wadowski, 73, followed April 15. Then Sister Mary Patricia Pyszynski, 93, April 17.

Sister Nancy 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.

Closing the convent was anathema to the sisters. They had dedicated their lives to serving others. So 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.”

“We are not hidden behind these walls,” Sister Joyce said. “We will always continue to pray for the world and especially the people of Livonia.”

But now, it’s turned around, she 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.”

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 community lost three sisters in three days in mid-April: Sister Mary Clarence Borkoski, 83, April 20; Sister Rose Mary Wolak, 86, April 21; and Sister Mary Janice Zolkowski, 86, April 22.

“They weren’t giving us numbers,” Sister Andrew said. “Just every day, they’d say, ‘Another sister.’ ‘Another sister.’ ‘Another sister.’ It was very frightening.”

The Felicians have 469 sisters in six large convents in North America. Of those, only the convents in Livonia and Lodi had cases of COVID-19. Lodi reported 12 cases and one death.

The virus also hit the staff caring for the sisters. One sister was believed to have the virus, but the nurse caring for her stayed with her anyway, despite the risk to herself. Another staff member caught the virus but had an elderly relative at home, so she lived in a guest room at the convent for weeks until she recovered.

And there were volunteers, those who willingly came from across the country to work in a place where death stalked the hallways.

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 end of April saw the loss of three more sisters. Sister Mary Alice Ann Gradowski, 73, died April 25. Sister Victoria Marie Indyk, 69, died the next day, and Sister Mary Martinez Rozek, 87, followed April 28.

Sister Mary Madeleine Dolan, 82, died May 10. Sister Mary Danatha Suchyta, 98, one of the sisters thought to have survived the illness, died from its effects June 27.

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 the sisters lost in a slideshow. The Livonia sisters said they wept through the entire thing.

When it’s all over, they plan to hold a celebration of life for the 13 sisters they lost. 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.

“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.”

Schools make final preparations for students’ return

St. Edward School is preparing for the opening of the school year by implementing measures to protect students and teachers from the COVID-19 virus. Fourth grade teacher Lisa Rippy has set up study carrels that will be on each student’s desk to shield them from other students. Photo by Andy Telli

When students return to the Diocese of Nashville’s Catholic schools in early August, they will be armed with the must-have accessory of the moment: a face mask. They will have their temperatures checked on a daily basis; they will not be moving between classrooms as often; some will eat lunch in their classrooms or outside. They will sit at desks with dividers between them and their classmates, among other adjustments necessary for in-person learning in the age of COVID-19. 

Students at St. Ann School in Nashville will be asked to bring another unusual item to school this year: a beach towel. Beach towels can be “a great social distancer” for students when teachers move their classrooms outside, as some will on a regular basis this year, said St. Ann Principal Anna Rumfola.  

Since the St. Ann campus has lots of space, and shade trees, teachers plan to utilize that much more than in the past, Rumfola said. They will also keep windows and classroom doors open when possible to promote better ventilation and minimize the touching of common surfaces like doorknobs. 

St. Ann has also installed enhanced air purifying capabilities in the school’s HVAC system to improve air quality and ventilation. 

Planning for the safe return to school has “definitely been an all-summer project,” said Rumfola. “Things are constantly changing.”

‘Back to balance’

“Everything has to be re-aligned” as schools prepare to re-open in August, said Rebecca Hammel, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Nashville. 

With all the planning and preparation, “we really believe we’re going to offer a safe option for students to come to campus,” Hammel said. 

The Catholic Schools Office has mapped out a plan that makes recommendations for all schools, but, she said, “every school has their own set of protocols reflective of the conditions in their own community.” 

Even though the city of Nashville reverted back to a modified “Phase 2” of its reopening plan after an increase in COVID-19 cases, and Metro Nashville Public Schools announced they would not return to in-person learning until at least early September, Hammel is confident that the diocese’s Catholic schools are prepared for a safe return in early August. 

With more autonomy and only a fraction of the students compared with MNPS schools, local Catholic schools “can be more nimble” about closing a classroom or individual school if needed, Hammel said. Catholic schools will also be ready to quickly pivot to distance learning if necessary, she added. 

Dr. Alex Jahangir, Metro Nashville’s Coronavirus Task Force Chair, has said he supports local Catholic schools returning to in-person learning. “Given the safety measures to be in place at the start of the year, I support the Catholic schools in their decision to return to campus in August,” he said in a statement. 

Hammel, a former classroom teacher and principal, emphasized the importance of in-person learning. “There’s a great need children have to be back together” in the classroom with their peers and teachers, she said. 

The Catholic Schools Office has launched an ad campaign promoting the benefits of in-person learning with the themes of “back to balance,” and “now more than ever,” tapping into both parents’ and students’ strong desire to return to the routine of school. Some schools, including St. Ann, have received increased inquiries as a result and a small boost in enrollment.

Schools understand that some families do have reservations about the return to in-person learning. Some St. Edward School parents have expressed concerns about the risks involved in sending their children back into the classroom, said Principal Susan Blankenship. But at the same time, several new families have enrolled or are considering enrolling their children at St. Edward specifically because they will offer in-person learning, she said.

Blankenship has been referring to an article from the American Academy of Pediatrics that outlines the benefits of in-person learning. “Children thrive … through social actions and learning in schools and routine,” Blankenship said. “Our kids need this now more than ever.”

Minimizing the risks

“We’re having to relook at everything we do and decide if that needs to be altered or if that’s safe,” said Blankenship, who will start her first year as principal at St. Edward School after serving as a principal for Metro Nashville Public Schools for the last eight years.

St. Edward School is preparing for the opening of the school year by implementing measures to protect students and teachers from the COVID-19 virus. Fourth grade teacher Lisa Rippy prepares a box of math manipulatives for a student. To avoid  the potential risk of spreading the virus when multiple students share the same items, students at St. Edward will have their own individual items. Photo by Andy Telli

“We want to make sure our students and teachers are safe,” she said. 

“We want the kids to come back to school and be as normal as they can be, and still be kids,” said Lisa Rippy, who will be teaching fourth grade at St. Edward this year.

But things will be different when students return to in-person learning on Aug. 10. “There’s going to be a learning curve for these children,” Blankenship said.

The children will have to adjust to wearing a face mask during the day, which can be a challenge. “A lot of my teachers are testing different facemasks and shields,” Blankenship said. A clear plastic shield would help in teaching subjects like reading and phonics where it’s important for students to see the teacher’s mouth, she said. 

The school also will be using study carrels, which are three-sided partitions that sit on a student’s desk if they are working independently. When using the study carrels, students will be allowed to take off their mask “because we know this is going to be hard for kids,” Blankenship said.

As Americans adjust to a “mask culture,” children are becoming more adept at using them for longer periods of time, said Rumfola, of St. Ann. “Do we like it? No. But it’s necessary,” she said. 

At St. Ann, students are encouraged to choose their own masks in a fun pattern, so “they can look at it as an expression of their personality,” Rumfola said. 

Schools are also making modifications for how students move through the halls, or don’t, this school year. At St. Edward, instead of junior high students moving to different classes for different subjects, as they normally would do, they will stay in their classroom and their teachers, with all their materials on a cart, will move to the students, Blankenship said. That will help avoid students sharing desks and other materials with other students, she explained.

For special classes such as music and art, the teachers also will move from class to class, Blankenship said.

Pope John Paul II High School in Hendersonville will modify attendance at the school’s weekly Mass; students will remain in their classrooms with rotating groups of students attending Mass in the auditorium. Communion will be distributed in the individual classrooms or the hallways. 

Hand sanitizing stations will be placed in the hallways and throughout the school, and there will be two lunch periods to limit the number of students in the dining hall at one time.

There are significant benefits to in-person learning, “only if you’re able to take the precautions to minimize the risks,” said Mike Deely, head of school at JPII.

Everyone in JPII will be required to wear masks at all times, and the school is asking parents to check students’ temperatures before they leave for school. Their temperature also will be checked before they are allowed in the building. If someone’s temperature is above 100.4 degrees or they are exhibiting the symptoms of the virus – cough, congestion, shortness of breath, or gastrointestinal symptoms – they should stay home.

There will be assigned seating on the buses and riders’ temperatures will be checked before they are allowed on the bus.

“We’re prepared to go online, but we feel we’ve done the work to open in person,” Deely said.

‘A stressful time’

Although the re-opening of a suburban high school and a small elementary school in rural Lawrence County will not be exactly the same, both are following very similar guidelines as directed by the diocesan Catholic Schools Office. Those protocols and guidelines for reopening “have been very helpful,” said Shelly Stepp, principal of Sacred Heart School in Loretto, one of the oldest and smallest schools in the diocese. 

A camera operator sets up a shot for a video advertisement produced by the Diocese of Nashville’s Schools Office. The Schools Office ad campaign, promoting the benefits of in-person learning, was filmed at St. Ann School in Nashville. Photo by Rick Musacchio

“They were pretty much protocols for Davidson County schools,” Stepp said, and schools in other counties, like hers in Lawrence County, were advised to confer with local school and health officials and make adjustments as needed.

“We’ve not gone far from the diocesan plan,” she said.

Sacred Heart is making many adjustments for this year, and that includes lunchtime. “We will be doing grab-and-go lunches in disposable containers” and students will be eating in the school gymnasium, Stepp said. “We’ve got tables spread out. Each class will have assigned tables with no class sitting where another class has already eaten.”

“We’re going to even spread out our break time schedule so only one class is at break at a time,” Stepp said.

Sacred Heart has purchased plastic face shields for all its teachers and students in kindergarten through eighth grade, Stepp said. Although the pre-kindergarten students will not be required to wear a mask or face shield, the school is acquiring plexiglass barriers for the tables in that class, Stepp said. Sacred Heart also is limiting the use of play centers and instead providing students with individual supplies to limit cross contamination that might occur if multiple students use the same items.

Cleaning and sanitizing of the building will increase as well. “We’ve had to double our budget for janitorial supplies and services,” Stepp said. 

“It’s been stressful” making all the necessary preparations to open school, she added. “It’s just a stressful time in general.”

Ready to adapt

Teachers at all of the diocese’s schools, whether in small towns or urban Nashville, are ready for students to come back, and ready to adapt their methods as necessary.

The St. Edward faculty’s approach to teaching during a pandemic may change over the course of the school year, Principal Blankenship said. “Some of it’s going to be trial and error and figuring out what’s working and not working.”

Until a change is necessary, Blankenship said, “We’re concentrating on doing in-person learning, doing it well, and doing it safely.”

Friends of the Poor Walk/Run set for Sept. 12

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul Conference at St. Matthew Church in Franklin is sponsoring a Friends of the Poor Walk/Run on Saturday, Sept. 12, to raise funds for its efforts to serve the poor.

The conference helps those in need with donations from its Food Pantry, monetary assistance and gift cards for rent, utilities and gas, and visiting neighbors to provide comfort and compassion.

All the proceeds from the Friends of the Poor Walk/Run will be used for the Conference’s activities to serve those in need.

The Walk/Run will be held 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Sept. 12, at the St. Cecilia Academy track. Registration will begin at 8 a.m. and the Walk/Run will begin at 9 a.m.

The cost of registration is $20 for adults and $10 for children under 18.

Online registrations and more information about the Conference and the Walk/Run are available at svdpfranklintn.org.

Event supporting seminarian education moves online July 28

Bishop J. Mark Spalding leads a prayer during the 2019 Seminarian Education Dinner and Auction, an event held each year to raise money to help pay the cost of educating the diocese’s seminarians. This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event will be held online. People can participate in the virtual Seminarian Education Mass, Event and Auction, which will begin at 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 28, by logging on to www.dioceseofnashville.com/seda. Bidding for the auction items is already open at the same address.

The faithful of the Diocese of Nashville are invited to go online to participate in the 11th annual Seminarian Education Mass, Event and Auction at 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 28.

Normally, the event is a live dinner and auction that draws more than 600 people from across the diocese to raise funds to help pay the cost of educating the diocese’s seminarians. Those plans were disrupted this year by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the organizers opted for an online event.

“We wanted to gather online to celebrate our priests and our future priests,” said Ashley Linville, stewardship director for the diocese. “Through COVID we’ve learned how important the spiritual leadership of priests is. Even though we’re facing hard times, we still want to provide future priests for our Church. The need is greater than it’s ever been.”

The goal for this year’s event is to raise $275,000. “All of that will go directly toward the education of seminarians,” Linville said. 

The total cost of educating the diocese’s seminarians is about $1.4 million a year.

The evening will begin with a livestreamed Mass celebrated by Fathers Mark Simpson and Hung Pham, who were both ordained in 2019.

The Mass will be followed by videotaped messages from Bishop J. Mark Spalding; Director of Vocations Father Austin Gilstrap; Father Simpson; Deacon Javier Suarez, who will be ordained as a priest on Aug. 15; and Lloyd and Elizabeth Crockett, members of the Serra Club of Williamson County and parishioners at St. Philip Church in Franklin who helped launch the annual event to support seminarian education. The Crocketts are long-time members of the Serra Club, an organization dedicated to promoting vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and  Lloyd is a former president of Serra International.

Online visitors to the event also will see and hear a brief introduction of each of the diocese’s 25 seminarians.

This year’s event won’t include a dinner, but it will have an online auction. Bidding for auction items opened on Wednesday, July 22, and will continue through the event on July 28.

To join the event online, to bid on an auction item, or to make a donation to support seminarian education, visit www.dioceseofnashville.com/seda or seminarian.education.

“The night of the event from 6 to 8:30 we’ll have seminarians answer phones for anybody who wants to call in and make a donation directly to them,” Linville said. The number to call to make a donation over the phone is 615-383-6393.

Linville is hopeful that people who haven’t been to the event in the past but participate online this year “will get interested and come to the dinner next year.”

Among the auction items this year will be: 

• A dinner with Tennessee Titans Head Coach Mike Vrabel and his wife Jen and Bishop J. Mark Spalding.

• A Chef’s Table dinner from the Clean Plate Club.

• An alabaster Nativity set from St. Mary’s Bookstore.

• A round for four at the Tennessee Grasslands Golf Club in Gallatin.

• Vacation at a house in Gulf Shores, Alabama, with five bedrooms and three baths.

• Bourbon tasting for eight people with Father John Hammond, judicial vicar and vicar general of the Diocese and pastor of St. Patrick Church in Nashville, and Father Andrew Forsythe, chaplain at Pope John Paul II High School.

• A Brazilian dinner prepared by Father Gervan Menezes, the chaplain at University Catholic and a native of Brazil.

• Three prints by Nashville artist Phil Ponder, a parishioner at St. Stephen Church in Old Hickory.

• Gift certificate from Morris Orthodontics in Hendersonville.

• A dinner featuring wild game with Father Eric Fowlkes, the pastor of Our Lady of the Lake Church in Hendersonville who will begin a new assignment as pastor of the Cathedral of the Incarnation on July 27.

• Four Club Level seats for a Tennessee Titans game.

• An Italian barbecue dinner with Father Rhodes Bolster.

• A hamburger cookout with Deacon Javier Suarez, who will be ordained on Aug. 15.

• A handmade quilt.

A complete list of the auction items will be available at the event website, www.dioceseofnashville.com/SEDA.

Organizers sent a letter to people in the diocese inviting them to participate in this year’s event online, Linville said. “Already, we’ve had a lot of people respond to the mailing. We’re grateful for that.”

The Serra Clubs of Williamson County and Nashville and the Tennessee Knights of Columbus again are sponsoring and organizing the event.

Other sponsors include: Marina Manor East; Mary Queen of Angels Assisted Living Facility; Villa Maria Manor; St. Henry Property Development; Mr. and Mrs. John P. Donnelly; Catholic Community Investment and Loan Inc.; Wood Personnel Service; Taylor, Pigue, Marchetti and Blair Law Firm; Steier Group; Miracle Ford; Miracle Jeep/Eagle; Daniel Schachle Insurance, the general agent of Knights of Columbus insurance in Tennessee, Kentucky, and eastern Arkansas; Athens Distributing; Prenger Solutions; Father Ryan High School; Pope John Paul II High School; and WBOU Radio.

“Our sponsors have been great,” Linville said. “We’re thankful for them.”

For more information, visit www.dioceseofnashville.com/SEDA or contact Linville at 615-645-9768 or ashley.linville@dioceseofnashville.com or Anna Beth Godfrey at 615-783-0775 or annabeth.godfrey@dioceseofnashville.com.