They worked and lived together at a Michigan convent: some for more than a half century, many pursuing higher education and each with a variety of interests. In the end, 12 Felician sisters, ranging in age from 69 to 99, would also die in the same way — of Covid-19 and its effects — within a month, according to their order.
After the first 12 deaths from April 10 to May 10, a 13th sister at the convent, the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in Livonia, Mich., died of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, on June 27.
The virus, which preys on the elderly and thrives anywhere people are in close contact, may have posed a particular danger to the sisters, who live communally. Just as residents living in nursing homes have especially been hard hit by the pandemic, aging populations around the world are particularly vulnerable.
“We grieve for each of our sisters who has passed during the time of the pandemic throughout the province, and we greatly appreciate all of those who are holding us in prayer and supporting us in a number of ways,” said Sister Mary Christopher Moore, provincial minister of Our Lady of Hope Province, which oversees the more than 400 Felician sisters in North America.
The deaths cut deep in the communities where the sisters worked in schools, libraries and the medical field, the order said in a statement.
“Our ministries across the continent continue to serve those most in need and provide education and care for people from infants and children to our elderly,” Sister Mary Christopher said in an emailed statement.
The women were all members of the Felician congregation for at least 50 years, according to obituaries provided by Suzanne English, executive director for mission advancement for sisters. Many pursued higher education within their lifetime, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees; one earned a master’s degree in nursing. The sisters had a range of interests, including teaching, pastoral work and prayer ministry.
Sister Celine Marie Lesinski, who died at 92, worked for 55 years in education, including 27 years as a librarian. A former director of nursing, Sister Victoria Marie Indyk, who died at 69, was a nursing professor at Madonna University and was known for leading nurses on mission trips to support the Felician sisters’ mission in Haiti. Sister Mary Madeleine Dolan, who died at 82, “could play any song on the piano by ear” and was known for her passion for music and work in special education.
As the virus gained momentum across the country, the Felician sisters in Livonia lived under increased restrictions intended to slow the spread of the virus.
Across its convents, the Felician Sisters of North America put in place protocols including no-visitor policies, social distancing and limits on group activities. It also replaced in-person Mass with a livestream service.
The congregation has about 60 convents across North America that include 469 sisters, with some of its largest convents in Michigan and New Jersey. In April, it announced that all of its large convents were placed “in full-room quarantine,” with sisters receiving meals on disposable dishes and utensils.
Before the pandemic, the sisters usually convened about five times a day: three times a day for meals, in the morning for prayer and Mass, and in the afternoon for prayer and rosary.
Even though the terms “sisters” and “nuns” are often used interchangeably, Ms. English said the women of the order were not referred to as nuns.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Updated July 22, 2020
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- It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.
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- The coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air, infecting people as they inhale, mounting scientific evidence suggests. This risk is highest in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, and may help explain super-spreading events reported in meatpacking plants, churches and restaurants. It’s unclear how often the virus is spread via these tiny droplets, or aerosols, compared with larger droplets that are expelled when a sick person coughs or sneezes, or transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech. Aerosols are released even when a person without symptoms exhales, talks or sings, according to Dr. Marr and more than 200 other experts, who have outlined the evidence in an open letter to the World Health Organization.
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Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
- So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
Whereas nuns lead predominantly contemplative lives and dwell in monasteries, the Felician sisters are involved in various ministries including education and child care and provide help to inmates, at-risk youth and those living poverty.
Formal religious orders have historically worked on the front lines of medical care in the United States, contributing to the comfort of patients during epidemics, including the Black Death in the Middle Ages and the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Many helped to establish and work as administrators at medical care facilities that later became nonprofit or corporate hospitals. In 1889, the Sisters of St. Francis helped the Mayo family establish St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, Minn., an organization now known worldwide as the Mayo Clinic.
“A lot of them had a great deal to do with the origin of a hospital in the Middle Ages, particularly with the plague,” said Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan. “People came for succor and religious help and basic nursing.”
The communal living arrangements of convents and their close pastoral care in communities meant that they could be particularly susceptible to infections like the coronavirus.
“It is a great canary in a coal mine,” Dr. Markel, who studies epidemiology, added. “Even with the best kept measures, communal living at this point is high risk, especially for the elderly.”