Congregations find creative ways to support health ministry amid shutdowns

August 1, 2020

Sisters, brothers provide presence, prayer, PPE


Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm novices create cards to send to residents of facilities affiliated with the congregation. From left are Sr. Sharon Rose Carmel, Sr. Dolores Carmel and Sr. Joanne Therese Carmel. Carmel is a "religious name." The novices do not use their legal surnames.

Sisters and brothers in congregations that founded Catholic health systems are staying actively engaged with the leadership, clinicians, staff and patients of hospitals and long-term care sites, offering support and encouragement through the long trial of the pandemic.

Provincial leaders and others from a sampling of congregations say their members are connecting in-person when they safely can, and also by phone, videoconference, social media, closed circuit TV, email and regular mail with patients and staff in the Catholic health ministry.

Sr. Helmlinger

"We have a personal connection with these folks," said Sr. Jayne Helmlinger, CSJ, general superior of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, in California. "We just want to support them, to provide a listening ear and to pray for them. (Health care workers) are true heroes, and we want to help them to cope with what they are facing and help ensure they don't succumb psychologically and spirituality" to the strain of practicing health care in a pandemic.

During the pandemic, Alexian Brother Torch Acosta, at left, has continued his ministry of encouragement with clients at AMITA Health Center for Mental Health in suburban Chicago.

Sustained stress
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange and the Sisters of Providence are founding congregations of Providence St. Joseph Health, which has 51 hospitals and a network of outpatient and long-term care facilities in seven Western states. The Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm sponsor or serve in 18 long-term care facilities in Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Ireland. The Congregation of Alexian Brothers is the founding sponsor of two acute care hospitals and six long-term care sites that are among the facilities Alexian Brothers Health System brought into a 2011 merger with Ascension. And the Burlingame, California, province of the Sisters of Mercy has relationships with the four hospitals that province founded in two states.

Each congregation is connected with facilities that have experienced or continue to experience intense circumstances during COVID-19 caseload spikes. When hospitals and nursing homes closed their doors to all outside visitors in mid- to late March, staff took on the added weight of comforting frightened, ill and dying patients in their care.

Mother Randall

"All of this takes an emotional toll" on the people in health care facilities, said Mother M. Mark Louis Randall, O CARM, prioress general of the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm.

Power of presence
The provincials and other congregation members who spoke to Catholic Health World said much of the sisters' and brothers' activity during the pandemic is focused on meeting the emotional and spiritual needs of ministry staff members.

Sr. Thuy Tran, CSJ, delivers homemade masks to departments throughout St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California, in April.

Where possible, sisters and brothers who had in-person ministries at Catholic health facilities prior to the pandemic have continued that work, observing infection control precautions.

"Most of our sisters are on the front line" of Carmelite-sponsored nursing homes, said Mother Randall.

Likewise, several Providence and St. Joseph sisters continue to report to work at hospitals or nursing homes their congregations founded. To avoid spreading the virus, some active St. Joseph and Providence sisters have temporarily moved out of their communal living situations, or have altered their routines to avoid contact with other sisters.

Br. McCormick

Br. Dan McCormick, CFA, provincial of the Alexian Brothers' Immaculate Conception Province, said some brothers never stopped visiting legacy Alexian facilities that are part of Ascension despite strict visitor restrictions.

Br. McCormick said the brothers follow appropriate contagion protocols, but it would be anathema to them to step back from ministry for their own safety.

"We're there to reassure people," he said. "This actually is a big opportunity now" to illustrate the value of presence.

Sr. Fe Sumalde, SP, is geared up in personal protective equipment for her chaplain service in Yakima, Washington.

An article in the Spring 2020 issue of The Alexians newsletter reports that as COVID-19 began to spread in nursing homes, the Alexian Brothers collaborated with their namesake ministries in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, Milwaukee and St. Louis to find appropriate ways for the brothers to provide support, even if it was on a more limited basis.

Brothers lead morning prayers over a closed circuit TV network at one residential facility. Following strict safety procedures, another brother distributes Holy Communion there.

Br. Torch Acosta has continued his usual visits to AMITA Health Alexian Brothers Medical Center and AMITA Health St. Alexius Medical Center, both in the Chicago area, rounding to thank staff, from clinicians to cafeteria workers, and to provide them with spiritual care.

"I had intended on healing them, but they have reciprocated that healing for me — it has been inspiring and fulfilling" to visit health care staff, Br. Acosta said.

By early April several brothers had self-quarantined after possible COVID-19 exposure, but as of mid-July no one in the order had contracted coronavirus, said Br. McCormick.

Sr. McBride

Sr. Margaret McBride, RSM, is vice president, mission integration, for Dignity Health St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. She is one of four Sisters of Mercy who live in Phoenix and support the hospital. Arizona's coronavirus caseload exploded in late June and early July. Throughout the pandemic, Sr. McBride has continued to provide staff and physician support, work in the incident command center, help cover the spiritual care department and work with community partners.

She said she and other Mercy sisters are "in the thick of things" at their health care facilities. They're keeping a watchful eye on clinicians, encouraging them to take pauses and reflect, to have a respite from the stress. They're helping staff process their grief.

Like many in the U.S., the Carmelite sisters are using video technology to continue their work, including a program to teach local parishioners to visit the homebound and another that focuses on spiritual development training for pastoral ministers who work with the elderly.

One St. Joseph sister, Sr. Thuy Tran, CSJ, has made it her mission to secure personal protective equipment. She coordinated with dozens of her contacts to sew more than 30,000 masks. The masks went to hospitals, medical groups, nursing homes, community health clinics and nonprofit organizations — mainly in Orange County, California, but also elsewhere in California and in other states.

Sr. Tran also provided advice and access to connections for a Mission Hospital Mission Viejo nurse. That nurse and her family built a face shield-making cottage business from the ground up in just several days. The group the family assembled has produced more than 25,000 face shields for use in hospitals and nonprofit agencies.

Recharging the weary
Sr. Helmlinger said the sisters know that some of the deepest needs of health care staff are spiritual, and those needs will go on long after the pandemic is over. She said, "We'll continue to support them, to provide a safe place,'' to hear their struggles and offer comfort and care. "They've been giving their all, and we're here for all who come."

The St. Joseph congregation provides prayers, meditations, readings and reflections for caregivers on social media and sends messages of encouragement to staff through the Providence St. Joseph Health corporate office.

Sr. Schamber

Sr. Barbara Schamber, SP, provincial leader of the Sisters of Providence's Mother Joseph Province, said Catholic health care has a long history of responding in heroic ways to the needs of the vulnerable. "Catholic health care is certainly called to respond to these times and is rising to that challenge." With gratitude, the founding sponsors are doing all they can to support the people who keep the mission vibrant and vital.


Congregations say 'our faith is our edge' in pandemic

When someone asks for prayers, Sr. Mary Wilson, SP, writes the request on a paper heart that she keeps in a prayer basket at her home in Seattle. She includes those petitions in her daily prayers.

Like so many others around the world, sisters and brothers in the congregations that built the Catholic health ministry have largely been physically isolated from others as they follow public health directives to shelter in place to reduce the risk of contagion.

Sr. Jayne Helmlinger, CSJ, general superior of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, California, says of the dozens of sisters who are sheltering in place in their own homes, primarily in California, during the pandemic: "The social distancing is an act of love, done for the common good."

Many of these women and men religious are using the increased at home time to intensify their prayer and contemplation practices, according to a sampling of congregation leaders who spoke to Catholic Health World.

Sr. Barbara Schamber, SP, provincial leader of the Sisters of Providence's Mother Joseph Province, calls the pandemic "imposed contemplative time."

Sr. Annette Seubert, SP, prays at this table in her apartment in Spokane, Washington.

Since the founding of their health care ministries, women and men religious have supported their sponsored works with prayer. Sr. Schamber was among congregation leaders and members who said those prayers have increased during the pandemic.

Sr. Margaret McBride, RSM, vice president, mission integration, for Dignity Health St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, said there has been more time for reflection during the pandemic. To promote contemplation, her Burlingame, California-based community, part of the West Mid-West group of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy, has hosted virtual retreats that are open to anyone.

The Institute of the Sisters of Mercy and its West Mid-West group have provided members across the U.S. with prayers and reflections that speak to this turbulent time. The institute is encouraging sisters to write about how they are experiencing the pandemic. Some of those essays are being published in the congregation's ¡Viva! Mercy newsletter. The congregation is archiving all submissions.

Br. Dan McCormick, CFA, provincial of the Alexian Brothers' Immaculate Conception Province, said the brothers have been praying for God's intervention to end the suffering connected with the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.

Sr. Schamber said the Providence sisters have written prayers for an end to the pandemic. They pray on an ongoing basis for doctors, nurses and other staff to be protected from harm. They pray for the homeless and the working poor who work in jobs that can't be done from home and for those who have lost jobs. They pray that good will come out of these challenging times. Some of the prayers and reflections are captured in a newsletter the congregation created as the pandemic began.

Sr. Helmlinger said in addition to praying for the safety of health care workers, the Sisters of St. Joseph pray with gratitude for the hospital and nursing home workers who are being the "hands and feet of Jesus" to the people who need them.

Mother M. Mark Louis Randall, O CARM, prioress general of the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm of New York, said the Carmelites pray in solidarity with staff in the Carmelite nursing homes and all health care providers in New York, who during patient surges have been overwhelmed and deeply exhausted as they cared for critically ill and dying patients for weeks on end.

The Carmelites also pray that the pandemic will help people everywhere appreciate that the frail elderly, a population that has been at the highest risk for poor outcomes from COVID-19, deserve love, safety, compassionate care and respect always.

Mother Randall said while the pandemic weighs heavily on the sisters' hearts and minds, "We have faith that we can all get through this. We are all in this together. Our faith is our edge, and we know that the Lord will provide."



Congregations keep members in nursing facilities feeling connected

Several congregations that spoke to Catholic Health World count centenarians among their numerous members who are frail and elderly and must be protected from viral spread. The motherhouses, communal residences and retirement facilities where many women and men religious live have been locked down for months.

Congregational leaders tell Catholic Health World that while the isolation measures have been necessary, they have been trying on many members, and so sisters and brothers are finding ways to keep spirits up, even with no end in sight for the restrictions.

The Sisters of Providence's Mother Joseph Province has members as old as 100. Many of the congregation's elderly sisters reside in long-term care campuses founded by the congregation. On one of these campuses, the sisters live among lay residents, and in the other, the sisters reside in their own building, separate from the lay elders.

The eldercare campuses have been closed to all visitors since February, when the campuses also discontinued nonessential outings, closed chapels, adjusted dining services to minimize personal contact and restructured activities.

"It's very hard on them since this has gone on so long and looks like it will continue into the distant future as well," said Sr. Barbara Schamber, SP, provincial leader of the Sisters of Providence's Mother Joseph Province.

The campuses require social distancing and masks in all common spaces including dining areas. Rather than having the residents serve themselves at mealtime, nutrition staff wearing disposable gloves plate the food.

At both of the Washington long-term care campuses where Providence sisters live, staff enter through a single door where someone stands ready to take their temperature and inquire about whether they are experiencing any symptoms of coronavirus. Every sister gets a daily temperature reading too, said Sr. Schamber.  

Even for the introverts, but especially for those congregation members who thrive on in-person connection to others, the isolation has been trying. Leaders of the Providence sisters make personal phone calls to each of the congregation's sisters to check on her well-being. And sisters who still are active in the ministry — as well as laity working for the province — have been writing cards and letters to frail elderly sisters, said Sr. Schamber. "The sisters have been very much touched by this kindness," she said.

Similar to the Providence sisters, the dozens of sisters who are part of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange congregation of Orange, California, have been sheltering in place in their own homes, which are primarily in California, during the pandemic. This is according to Sr. Jayne Helmlinger, CSJ, the congregation's general superior. She said the congregation has members as old as 100. Some of the congregation's frail elderly sisters live in a private skilled nursing facility. Many of their fellow sisters have been sending personal notes of cheer to them.

The Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm in upstate New York also has members as old as 100, and the congregation enforces infection control and social distancing rules similar to those of the St. Joseph and Providence sisters, said Mother M. Mark Louis Randall, O CARM, prioress general of the congregation. For instance, sisters pray six feet apart and skip a pew between worshipers in the convent chapel. 

The vast majority of Carmelite Sisters live in convents attached to the long-term care facilities where the sisters serve. The congregation sends a printed bulletin to their long-term care facilities, with uplifting content to support those sisters, as well as the administrative staff of the facilities.



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