Religious sisters hunker down, pray to stave off pandemic

Briana Gryzbowski

Sister Mary Albert and Sister John Catherine with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, whose main apostolate is teaching, work on lessons for their students online while they are confined to their motherhouse in Nashville during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been rough for Catholics around the world, with many churches and schools being temporarily closed, public Masses not being celebrated, Holy Week and Easter services being suspended, and retreats and other events being postponed until further notice or cancelled altogether.

But it has affected religious sisters in a unique way since they live in community with each other.

The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia and the Sisters of Mercy, two congregations of religious sisters here in Nashville, have had to take extra precautions lately with the ways in which they interact with each other and how they live out their apostolates.

The Dominicans have more than 300 members in their congregation, spread among roughly 50 different locations throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands and Scotland. Those who live outside of Nashville are currently sheltering in place where they are.

Fortunately for them, the Nashville Dominicans are one of the youngest religious congregations in the country, with the average age of its members being 36 years old. Because of this, many of their sisters are not in a high-risk category.

“Thanks be to God, we’re all still healthy,” Sister Anne Catherine, O.P., said. “We don’t have too many elderly sisters among us, but we are taking extra care of the ones who are. We’ve been following all the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines for social distancing: not going out unless it’s necessary, not traveling, keeping 6 feet apart from each other, keeping things extra clean around the convent, and washing our hands a lot more frequently than we used to.”

Because the Dominicans are a teaching and preaching order, and the sisters teach in schools throughout the diocese at the elementary, high school, and college levels, their teaching life has changed dramatically in the recent weeks. 

“When it was announced that diocesan schools have all been temporarily shut down, our teaching operations all got moved to the main building of our motherhouse,” Sister Anne Catherine said. “Since it was built in 1860, the wi-fi there was practically non-existent at the time. We all worked around the clock to get our internet updated there so we could make the transition to online lessons for our students.”

Additionally, the sisters have been offering extra spiritual support to their students. “The sisters at Overbrook School and St. Cecilia Academy have both been compiling spiritual resources for students and their families,” Sister Anne Catherine said. “They’ve been putting together pages on their schools’ websites with links to prayers, Masses that are streaming online, homilies from different churches, and much more.”

The Sisters of Mercy in Nashville are a much smaller community, with only 21 sisters in their convent. Their congregation in particular is classified as a retirement community for their order, said Sister Suzanne Stalm, RSM, with many of the sisters no lon­ger involved in active ministry.

Their convent does host retreats, though, and the last one it hosted was on March 7.

“On March 11, we received a letter from the leadership of our order with guidelines for how to move forward, and all of our retreats planned through the end of May have been cancelled. Until June, we’re not allowed to have outside visitors.”

Additionally, their community has been extra careful with how they’ve been interacting with each other and how often they go out.

“For starters, we don’t touch each other at all, and we’ve been washing our hands a lot more often now. We didn’t go out much in the first place, but now people on our staff are the only ones who can go out to purchase necessities for us. And we’ve been keeping more space between each other during meal times.”

Both congregations haven’t been able to go to Mass lately, but they still pray together in community and privately. After all, praying is the most important thing the sisters can do at the moment. 

“We’ve been praying more fervently than ever this past month,” Sister Anne Catherine said. “We’ve been lifting up the coronavirus victims, victims from the recent tornadoes in Tennessee, healthcare workers, for our students and their families, and all who have been affected by this crisis. And we pray most especially that it will all come to an end soon.” W