8 nuns die of COVID-19 in one week at Wisconsin Monastery: “We didn’t expect it to go that fast”

Eight nuns living in a nursing home for the Milwaukee sisters died COVID-19 complications in the last week – including four who died on the same day. The deaths were a grim reminder of how quickly the virus can spread to congregated life situations, even when precautions are taken.

Notre Dame in Elm Grove has been free of the virus for the past nine months, but the congregation that runs the house learned on Thanksgiving Day that one of about 100 sisters living there had tested positive. Despite the social distance and other mitigation efforts that were already in place, several positive tests followed, said Sister Debra Marie Sciano, the provincial leader for school sisters in central Pacific province of Notre Dame.

Outbreak of the Wisconsin Nuns virus
This aerial image taken with a drone shows the school sisters from the Central Pacific province of Notre Dame, on Thursday, December 17, 2020, in Elm Grove, Wis. Eight nuns living in the suburbs of Milwaukee Convent have died in the past week from COVID-19, according to the assembly.

Morry Gash / AP

The first death occurred last week, and announcements about the death continued to come. Four of the eight nuns died on Monday alone, a difficult situation for other sisters in the household and members of the larger congregation, who consider themselves family.

“Even though I’m older and most of the sisters who went to God came in the late ’80s,’ 90s … we didn’t expect it to go that fast,” Sciano said. “So it was very hard for us.”

Sciano said the congregation isolated sisters who tested positive in the same area so that they would not have any contact with others. They are advised to stay in their rooms, where their meals are brought. Funerals and memorial services are broadcast on CCTV. Sciano declined to say how many other sisters gave positive results, citing privacy from residents.

The outbreak comes months after similar houses reported more deaths from coronavirus. In July, 13 nuns died at a convent near Detroit and seven died at a Maryknoll center in New York. At least six nuns also died at Our Lady of Angels Monastery in Greenfield, Wisconsin – a home that provides memorial care for the nuns of St. Francis School Sisters and the Notre Dame School Sisters.

Earlier this month, church officials said 76 Catholic nuns tested positive for COVID-19 after an outbreak at a Franciscan monastery in northwestern Germany, forcing health authorities to quarantine the entire monastery.

Sciano said the Mother of God of Angels in Greenfield has not had additional positive cases for several months, and the facility does not yet allow visitors.

Deena Swank, communications director for Felecian sisters in North America, who lost 13 sisters – about a fifth of the population at Livonia Monastery, Michigan – said they had no further deaths there and are eager to vaccinate the sisters when may .

Sciano said he did not know that anyone at Notre Dame of Elm Grove was on a list of vaccine priorities, but administrators were contacting local pharmacies to try to align vaccines for the future.

The monasteries share some of the same issues as nursing homes, which are the most affected sector in the US in terms of deaths caused by COVID-19. In many cases, their population is elderly and lives nearby.

Linda Wickstrom, a spokeswoman for the Waukesha County Department of Health and Human Services, said disease investigators in the county have been working with the facility since the Notre Dame school sisters contacted them in November.

Given the extreme contagion of this virus, it is extremely important that assembly settings practice basic protocols to stop the spread of the disease, Wickstrom said. She said the Sisters of the Notre Dame School disinfected the high-touch surfaces, washed their hands frequently, socially distanced themselves, and wore appropriate face wraps. Sciano said all residents with the virus have been isolated and visitors are not allowed.

The Notre Dame school sisters founded the Notre Dame of Elm Grove in 1859 to provide an orphanage for children in the area. It later became a home for elderly and sick sisters, according to its website.

The plant’s first COVID-19 death occurred on December 9, when sisters Rose M. Feess and Mary Elva Wiesner died. Sister Dorothy MacIntyre died on December 11, and Sister Mary Alexius Portz died on Sunday, according to the congregation’s website. Sisters Cynthia Borman, Joan Emily Kaul, Lillia Langreck and Michael Marie Laux died on Monday.

Sciano said all women work as educators. Some were missionaries. Some were musicians. Some have worked on peace and justice issues. One was a published poet. According to the congregation’s website, one was a teacher and principal who enjoyed working in the summer on an American Indian reservation in South Dakota. Another taught Catholic elementary schools for more than 40 years and worked part-time as a gift shop coordinator at Elm Grove.

“We believe that each and every one of these sisters has really made a difference in this world,” Sciano said, adding, “I think it’s important for people to know that and to be employed until the end of their lives.”

She said she hopes others can learn from the sisters’ lives and continue their mission to “make this world a little better place because of them.”