Sisters Innovate, Adjust Ministries in a Pandemic

Sisters Barbara Ann Bielenberg, Elisa Martinez, and Margie Schmidt at their Golden Jubilees
in 2015. Sister Barbara Ann and Margie are serving in hospitals and Sister Elisa counsels
at-risk communities in Los Angeles, California.

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

Sister Maria Elena Schaefers, in her ministry to a local correctional institution, now makes calls to inmates as visits are prohibited. 

Sisters Maria Elena, Esther Velasquez,
and Mary Frances Kluss.

Sister Esther Velasquez, who lives in Spokane, Washington, was caring for an elderly woman when the pandemic struck and the 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 Communion 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 the Sacred Heart parish in Lapwai, Idaho, was recently able to resume her support for liturgies and, with modifications, able to continue her work in elder care. 

Changing How to Provide Presence in Hospitals

Sister Barbara Ann Bielenberg is the director of mission integration at St. Mary’s Hospital and Clearwater Valley Hospital (Cottonwood and Orofino, Idaho), 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 people’s temperatures and gives them a questionnaire. People who enter then wear an armband to let others know that they have been checked. Only one visitor is allowed per patient.

While Sr. 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, Idaho, also finds it hard to provide spiritual care in a time of social distancing. She usually holds 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 that 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. 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. 

She says that 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 Los Angeles

Sister Elisa Martinez co-directs a mental health program at Soledad Enrichment Agency (SEA) in Los Angeles that was 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. 

As the Covid-19 pandemic has greatly reduced in-person services, Sister Elisa is now providing counseling mostly over the phone. She says Zoom and other ways of connecting over the internet are not an option as most of her people don’t have access to the technology. 

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 Covid-19 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. LA is the worst in the country.” She explains that the 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 and Response

Sister Betty Schumacher is a pastoral associate at St. Jude’s Parish in Redmond, Washington. 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.

Sr. Betty at St. Jude’s Parish before the pandemic.

With a desire to help address the great income disparity of the region, in 2017 she helped begin a program called Safe Parking. The initiative allows people who sleep in their cars to use the church parking lot and bathrooms. Participants 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 15-18 cars per night. Most of those who were working had jobs in the service industry and were laid off. Parishioners rallied to provide support with gift cards, Costco runs and other grocery shopping, and weekly home-cooked 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 works at encouraging them to wear masks and practice safe distancing. “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 of Covid-19 early in the spring. Both the widows were infected and had to remain in isolation while grieving their spouses. “Grief is already so lonely,” Sister Betty explains. “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.

“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.”

Director of Operations
Sister Kim oversees external ministries.

Benedictine Hospitality Back at Home

Before the pandemic, the motherhouse in Cottonwood, Idaho, 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 will be ongoing.

Sister Kim Marie Jordan, who oversees 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 everyone 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 now. In addition to the ministries that have reopened, this has included an online retreat, class, and exhibit as well as spiritual direction via video or on the phone. More online programming is being planned.

Sister Janet with the assisted
living floor’s certified
therapy cat, Stormy.

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 don’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.”

Sr. Mary, prioress, leads the community in prayer.

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, which are often voiced at the Divine Office and 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.

Addendum: In early September, several sisters received Catholic Extension’s Sisters on the Frontlines grants that they will use to help individuals and families suffering in this time.