Sisters innovate, adjust ministries in time of pandemic

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Sisters innovate, adjust ministries in time of pandemic


Sister Janet Barnard

Sister Betty Schumacher

Sister Kim Marie Jordan

From left, Sisters Barbara Ann Bielenberg, Elisa Martinez,  and Margie Schmidt at their Golden Jubilees in 2015. 


By Theresa Henson

The Benedictine Sisters of the Monastery of St. Gertrude, both at home and as far away as Los Angeles, are finding new ways to minister to others amidst shelter-in-place orders, rising unemployment and homelessness, and the illness caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sister Betty SchumacherSister Maria ElenaSchaefers, in her ministry to a local correctional institution, now has to make telephone calls to inmates because visits are prohibited. 

Sister Esther Velasquez, who lives in Spokane, was caring for an elderly woman when the pandemic struck and the woman’s daughter decided to take her mother out of the memory care unit into her home. With the stay-at-home order in effect, Sister Esther could no longer continue the care. Her work with the local parish of bringing Eucharist to the homebound also ceased. Now she keeps up her regular prayer routine on her own and focuses on being a loving presence to her neighbors in her apartment building. Being an introvert, she describes it as almost like being on an extended retreat.

Sister Mary Frances Kluss, who plays the keyboard for services at Sacred Heart Parish in Lapwai, was recently able to resume her support for liturgies and, with modifications, able to continue her work in elder care. 

Presence in hospitals
Sister Barbara Ann Bielenberg is the director of mission integration at St. Mary’s Hospital in Cottonwood and Clearwater Valley Hospital in Orofino, where she coordinates spiritual care and provides training to staff on implementing the organization’s core values. She was able to return to work on June 15.

She says a lot has changed. Everyone wears masks all day and the front door is locked. Somebody sits at the door and takes temperatures and hands out questionnaires. People who enter then wear an armband to let others know that they have been checked. Only one visitor is allowed per patient.

While Sister Barbara Ann cannot hold group trainings, she does visit employees on a one-on-one basis. “There is plenty I can do, but I am still limited in some ways. Day by day, I see how best to serve. I think there is a sense of feeling closed. We don’t get to give our hugs like we used to. For the most part, people in our area are not good about wearing masks. We need to think about the other person. I fear we will end up with more problems.”

Sister Margie Schmidt, director of pastoral care at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, also finds it hard to provide spiritual care in a time of social distancing. She used to be able to hold a patient’s hand when praying for them and gives hugs and handshakes to family members. 

“It’s so hard,” she says. “You see people who are hurting and the natural inclination is to put your arm around them and give them a hug. It’s what we do. We’re there,” she said. “The other change is smiling. We can’t see the smiles, which is a way of recognizing people. You have to smile with your eyes. Now I wave to acknowledge them. You realize how important those little things are.”

She can still sit with patients with her mask on, but must be careful not to touch them. She also rearranged the hospital chapel for social distancing. 

For two months, there were no visitors and no elective surgeries. This meant nobody in waiting rooms and hallways. “I didn’t realize how much time and energy went toward family and visitors. I would talk to families, tease people in the hallway.”

Yet hospital life has remained busy. “We are carrying on. I still come to work every single day. I can’t work from home. Even with all this protective equipment between us I am learning that yes you can, you can be there.”

Counseling in LA
Sister Elisa Martinez co-directs a mental health program at Soledad Enrichment Agency (SEA) in Los Angeles, founded by a group of mothers whose sons had been killed by gang violence. SEA’s mission is to give at-risk youth an opportunity to succeed. 

Because the pandemic has greatly reduced in-per-son services, Sister Elisa is now providing counseling mostly over the phone. She says Zoom and other ways of connecting over the Internet are not options because most of her people don’t have Internet. 

She helps victims of crime, abuse, and human trafficking. She counsels people who are often homeless and recovering from addiction. One of the people she serves is ill with the virus.

“It gets scary. Some of my people I meet in a former classroom, so we can keep our distance. It’s really a whole other world. I try to get a sense of their needs. Some don’t have food. Some don’t have transportation.”

Sister Elisa also collects food. She visits drive-by food banks and takes it to the families, leaving it at the door.

She sees more and more people becoming homeless and needing food. “It’s immense. We can’t keep up with it. L.A. is the worst in the country.” Unemployment caused by COVID-19 has resulted in more evictions, and thus homelessness and hunger.

She also helps people with the depression, anxiety, and other ailments caused by these times of turmoil and crisis. “You get really involved, and I know these times are not going to change that fast.”

Parish Care
Sister Betty Schumacher is a pastoral associate at St. Jude’s Parish in Redmond, Wash. The parish has a history of responding to the needs of the community, engaging in hunger relief projects, hosting Tent City (a homeless encampment) several times, and regularly participating in service days. Projects have included a retirement housing development and yard work for a women’s and children’s shelter.

With a desire to help address the great income disparity of the region, she helped begin a program in 2017 called Safe Parking. It allowed people who sleep in their cars to use church parking lots and bathrooms. Participants must pass a background check, consent to program policies, and demonstrate a plan to get back into housing. Up until recently, three quarters of the Safe Parking participants were working. They are single men and women as well as couples, young and elderly. 

Through the pandemic, the program has continued with 15 to 18 cars per night. Most of those who were working had jobs in the service industry were laid off. Parishioners rallied to provide support with gift cards, grocery shopping, and weekly homecooked meals. As some of those in the Safe Parking often spent their days at libraries, McDonald’s, or coffee shops – all now closed – the parish hall was opened to provide a place to spend daytime hours.

Sister Betty encourages them to wear masks and social distance. "To me that's the challenge. I keep reminding them we are responsible for one another. Nobody has gotten sick, which is a miracle."

Sister Betty finds much of her pastoral care work has also moved to the phone. She calls parishioners as she can no longer visit hospitals, care facilities and homes. It was especially difficult when two parishioners died from the virus early in the spring. Both the widows were infected and had to remain in isolation while grieving their spouses. “Grief is already so lonely. When people are in pain we can walk with them physically. Now we reach out through phone calls.”

She sees her parishioners as both challenged and invigorated with a greater sense of care. “People are missing Eucharist. We realize how important Eucharist is. I’ve learned how people really care about others. I am also impressed at how attentive children have been to their parents. People are much more aware of people in need. The amount of money they are giving to others blows my mind,” she said.

“We’ve learned connections. We’ve learned what we value the most. We are noticing nature and seeking connection with creation. It has caused us to slow down. I’ve learned about the suffering body of Christ, the gracious body of Christ – the caring, the compassionate, the self-giving, the humility. Let’s cherish it.”

Benedictine hospitality
back at home

Before the pandemic, the mother-house in Cottonwood would receive an ongoing stream of guests from throughout the region and beyond for retreats, services, concerts, lectures, visits to the Historical Museum and Inn, and more. All of that stopped on March 16, when local health officials requested that St. Gertrude’s temporarily close to the public.

Now the Welcome Center, Historical Museum at St. Gertrude, Inn at St. Gertrude, and Spirit Center are open with modifications. However, the main Monastery building, including the chapel, is closed to the public until further notice. Reviews of this closure are ongoing.

Sister Kim Marie Jordan, who over-sees all of the external ministries, has had to balance the safety of the elderly sisters with the thousands of guests who visit St. Gertrude’s each year. 

“The safety of the sisters, employees, and guests is my biggest concern and there are so many variables to that. My highest priority is to keep every-one safe. This includes making sure there are supplies, personal protection equipment, bleach, soap, masks, hand sanitizer as well as adequate training on proper sanitizing. All that is really important.”

She points out the many ways Benedictine hospitality is still shared. In addition to the ministries that have reopened, there has also been an online retreat, class, and exhibit as well as spiritual direction via video or on the phone. In August, the Monastery also launched St. Gertrude’s L.I.V.E. (Living in a Virtual Environment) – Online Monastic Studies, Spirituality, and Arts Wherever You Are.

Sister Janet Barnard, a registered nurse who oversees the assisted living floor of the Monastery, is also the community’s advisor and liaison with local health officials during the pandemic. She has implemented routine sanitizing and taking caregivers’ temperatures when they come to work.

She says the assisted living sisters are well, but challenged by cabin fever. “Our sisters didn’t go out a lot, but now they don’t go out at all. They are excited to just go to the dentist. We miss not seeing guests in the chapel or talking to volunteers or guests on the property. We’re all in the high-risk group.”

Sister Janet sees the isolation as a form of service. “It feels like we aren’t doing anything for other people, but we are keeping ourselves as healthy as we can by not using resources other people need. We are also more committed to common prayer because we know we are praying for the world and its needs. It’s what we can do right now.”

Sister Mary Forman, prioress, says the requests for prayer come daily. She sees the sisters stopping by the Prayer Board several times a day and carrying the prayer requests to Chapel. The prayer requests are often voiced at the Divine Office and at Eucharist. “Several Sisters maintain a ministry of letter writing to friends of the Monastery and making phone calls to see how folks are faring.”

Sister Mary is networked with other prioresses around the country, Mexico, the Caribbean and Canada, who all share how their communities are doing during the sheltering-in-place time and ideas for recreation and attentiveness to and education about issues like racial injustice.

Henson is director of creative services at the Monastery of St. Gertrude.






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