Charity in the time of the coronavirus

Posted by Spalding Hurst

September 2, 2020

Sheltered, supported, and encouraged by God’s strong and enduring love

At the Mexico border, SCNs Brenda Gonzales and Rosemarie Kirwan were halfway through their service experience at the Humanitarian Center in McAllen, Texas, when the coronavirus began to grip the United States.

The Sisters went out to buy food for migrants as the store shelves were becoming bare. “There was no rice and no large boxes of oats or sugar,” says Sister Brenda. Adding that the week took a whole different direction. “No college students were volunteering because the schools had canceled all trips. No more journeys were being made across the border to Matamoros because officials didn’t want the virus coming in from the U.S.”

Brenda Gonzales, SCN, prepared meals while part of a service experience at the Humanitarian Center in McAllen, Texas near the Mexico border.

Sisters Brenda and Rosemarie completed their time of service and rushed back to Kentucky, to their home in Nazareth, where they joined the other Sisters in preparing for the days ahead. One week they had been volunteering at the border, the next they began making and mailing masks for healthcare workers in the wake of COVID-19.

Quickly what began as a public health concern became a worldwide crisis.

In the early months, safety precautions were emphasized and implemented at the Motherhouse, convents, and all ministries to prevent the spread of the virus.

In Nazareth, Kentucky, a difficult decision was made to close the Motherhouse and chapel to visitors, and employees were asked to work from home if possible. The same took place at St. Louise Convent in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Long-term care ministries also closed to visitors.

At the onset of the pandemic, and in the months since, a new normal has taken shape for people all over the world, so too for the Congregation.

Daily, Sisters in Nazareth, Louisville, and Pittsburgh have their temperature checked and are screened. Sisters wear masks, except in the privacy of their own rooms. At the Motherhouse, Sisters have volunteered to pre-wrap silverware and serve meals. Tables are spread apart and only two Sisters sit at each table mindful of social distancing. Access is limited in Carrico Hall where those who need some medical assistance reside. Sisters do not leave their areas and have kept in contact with others by phone, cards or notes. Sisters in Boston and Memphis, have been taking safety measures and offering support as well, in whatever way possible that is safe.

As mandated lockdowns have been in effect across the world, the Sisters globally have adopted the required safety measures.

Despite stringent safety measures, at Nazareth Home – Clifton in Louisville, Kentucky, a number of residents and staff tested positive for COVID-19. Steps were taken around the clock to care for those with the virus. Everyone has been devastated at the loss of lives. Staff at both Nazareth Home ministries have worked tirelessly in the face of the pandemic which has impacted so many long-term care facilities.

In the face of fear and loss, Sisters in all locations desired to help those most vulnerable. The call to be of service, impelled by the love of Christ, is a part of the fabric of two centuries of ministry and history.

Jessie Saldanha, SCN, oversaw the design and production of personal protective equipment at St. John’s Academy of Health Sciences in Bangalore, India.

In India, day laborers, who often leave their home-states for work are affected severely by the lockdowns. Throughout India in convents, medical facilities, and educational centers, Sisters reach out to migrant workers and others who need the most basic necessities to survive.

To date, Sisters in the Bangalore Province have provided assistance to 979 families and 1,972 migrants, as well as medical assistance and counseling. The numbers of those helped in the Patna Province are in the thousands as well, showing the impact that both provinces are making across India. Sisters are ministering every day in key roles making personal protective gear at hospitals, seeing patients, assisting migrants with getting home to loved ones, and making sure students maintain their studies by offering classes online.

In addition to making masks, Sisters have been teaching others how to make masks as well, and other best practices to stay safe and healthy, and prevent the spread of the virus. Sisters have also been collecting, packing, and distributing food to the poorest in cities and people living in remote villages. They have collaborated and coordinated with like-minded groups, and the Government, in reaching out to those most affected.

In Botswana, of the 22 known cases of COVID-19, five were in the village of Metsimotlhabe where Sisters minister in Pabalelong, a hospice. They have taken extreme safety precautions and used creative measures to protect themselves, their staff, and particularly their patients. In Belize, the Sisters share that officials have done well at safeguarding citizens against COVID-19. The country reports 22 cases, including 2 deaths, and 18 have recovered. The Sisters continue outreach while following safety protocals, and are doing well in Belize City and Toledo.

Sisters at SCN apartments in Louisville, Kentucky, stop to talk while following safety precautions that include wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.

In the U.S., Sisters have been making face masks, joining their efforts with a very devoted off-campus sewing group that shifted from making clothing for children in Appalachia and Belize. These masks have been distributed to Sisters and healthcare workers at Nazareth, and delivered to those at Nazareth Home. Masks have also been sent to other places around the United States.

Sisters decided to use stimulus checks the congregation received to help those most in need in the areas of food, rent, immigration and homelessness. The congregation gave financial support to organizations helping those on the margins in Bardstown, Boston, Louisville, Memphis, and Pittsburgh as well as other international communities of women religious who are severely impacted by the coronavirus.

Sisters are working tirelessly in Nepal. In Surkhet, they are relied upon to continue health clinics and distribute relief materials such as food and medical supplies. Rosita Kavilpurayidathil, SCN, says the coronavirus has brought a sense of unity to the community. “It has taught us to be better human beings,” she reflects.

Across the congregation, prayer and a deep spirituality remain at the heart of the Sisters’ lives. As Mass was canceled at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Nazareth, it was a special joy when a small group of Sisters gathered in the chapel for Easter Triduum services, while others joined via livestreaming.

When a death of a Sister has occurred, rituals are modified according to current restrictions of small gatherings and graveside services. Videos of the services are shared with all.

At Nazareth, Sisters join one another via closed-circuit TV as prayer is shared and broadcast daily.

Together, Sisters around the world are offering prayers during the pandemic, individually and collectively, for those ill and dying, families unable to see loved ones in isolation in the hospital, and for healthcare workers and essential employees working around the clock.

In dealing with the coronavirus, Western Province Provincial Mary Elizabeth Miller, SCN, says of the Congregation, “It is not always easy, but we are trying to live the truth, with compassion.”

There is a real sense of living in a moment that will be remembered in history. The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth are remaining true to the legacy of charity that weaves through so many other moments of crisis in the world.


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