From the Kentucky Standard.
Nazareth is a place known to be full of life and community. Amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, however, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth have had to adapt to a new way of living from a distance, which has been accompanied by both opportunity and loss.
“On this campus, because it houses our elderly Sisters, we have to take such care,” said Sister Luke Boiarski, director of the Lay Mission Volunteer Program and member of the SCN’s Office of Mission Advancement. “When we talk about an abundance of caution, we follow the same guidelines that are out there for nursing homes and then some.”
This includes placing the campus on a lockdown of sorts.
“We do not receive anyone into the building, with special exceptions,” Boiarski said, adding that the campus is large enough the community can still come and walk the grounds.
A few, like Boiarski, are able to leave campus periodically to pick up groceries for others, but they must take care to separate themselves from the more vulnerable residents upon their return.
“Our Sisters who are in the nursing home section, we do not interact with them, which is a suffering to us and to them,” she said. “These are women who have served for years who are in their … 90s and 100s, and they are vital.”
For the older Sisters especially, concepts such as social distancing and wearing a mask are difficult to grasp.
Some activities have taken place to help lift the spirits of the elderly Sisters left sequestered within their dormitories. Raised flowerbeds were installed in small, contained courtyards, for example, so residents could tend to gardens. The campus has also welcomed some socially-distant entertainment, such as concerts held on the lawn with musicians performing for the Sisters as they watched from their windows.
“There were several window concerts over the summer,” commented Dana Hinton, communications director for the SCN’s Western Province, adding the activity was well received. The Sisters also take advantage of nice weather to be outside when they can and to find ways to stay active, even if it means exercising in the hallway.
Nazareth employees and leadership try to provide a sense of normalcy for the Sisters when they can, such as allowing a beautician to visit the campus to do their hair after months of not being able to offer that.
“There’s a visiting booth maintenance constructed for some of the Sisters on campus to meet through,” Hinton added, explaining the booth includes a Plexiglass barrier.
The pandemic and concern of spreading illness also mean the SCNs interact less with residents of the Nazareth Villages, which provides housing for elderly and disabled community members.
“It’s been a hard time for the Sisters, but you know, it’s that balance between keeping them healthy, but also trying to keep them mentally healthy and to not feel so isolated,” Hinton said.
Gatherings and traditions impacted
The restrictions have required changes to how the Sisters mark important moments. Celebrations of accomplishment, such as jubilees to acknowledge years of service and vow renewals, are events that would normally generate large crowds. So, too, would funerals.
“The night before the funeral, we would have come together to share stories about the person and the family would be present. That is not happening,” said Sister Sarah Geier, who also works with the Office of Mission Advancement. “The very first funeral of one of our Sisters, only 10 were able to be there.”
Funerals at Nazareth typically include a Mass, a wake and other opportunities to gather and celebrate the person’s life. Under current restrictions, however, Nazareth’s Director of Communications Diane Curtis said only private graveside burials are taking place.
“All funerals will be done at a later date,” she said.
Some creative efforts have been made in light of the restrictions. A drone was used at one service to produce a video to be shared with the family and with Sisters unable to pay their respects in person. Another brought in some musicians to play from afar.
“It’s taken a whole new twist because it’s had to,” Boiarski said. “I just think it’s really hard on the families, especially.”
Curtis added that with so many of the Sisters unable to be together, a Sister or an associate passing away hits even harder. She mentioned an associate who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.
“Normally, if a Sister or someone who is close to them is in the process of dying, they have what’s called a presence committee. It’s truly a beautiful ministry in that people are taking shifts and they’re there walking with them through to their death,” she explained. “Again, this is being impacted.”
Mass is also a different experience.
“For a while, Mass was only online,” Hinton said. “I think some Sisters are now going once or twice a week, depending on what part of campus you’re in. No outside visitors to Mass, though.”
The transition has also allowed some of the Sisters an opportunity to conduct prayer services that were broadcasted for the Sisters to watch from their rooms.
Keeping busy with crafts, projects
Many of the SCN are making the most of their time semi-isolated from the world, including picking up different crafting projects to stay busy.
Some Sisters are part of a sewing ministry and have been making facemasks to be distributed around the community as well as shipping them around the country. Others are making Afghans for the homeless and mittens for those living in Appalachia.
“We have Sisters that are spending their time writing letters, checking on people or making phone calls,” Curtis said.
One of the SCN, Sister Evelyn Hurley, who is 105 and has lived through her share of history and pandemics, is making calls every day, whether it’s to shut-ins or checking on her former students.
Two Sisters, Boiarski said, are working on paintings to sell to support a mission in India.
“They are trying to keep busy, they really are,” she said. “It’s amazing. It’s great”
Boiarski is also proud of volunteers who are still looking for ways to give back despite mission trips being canceled this year.
An exception was volunteers recently working to complete the renovation of a men’s shelter in Bardstown and plans to help with a women’s shelter in Louisville.
“Lots of things have been taken away, but we try to take small steps,” she said.
Virtual provides new opportunities
While the pandemic has changed life at Nazareth tremendously, virtual resources present an opportunity for the Sisters to remain connected. One example of was with the Oct. 20 Join the Journey event, the SCN’s annual fundraising luncheon where ministry stories are shared.
Usually, the event brings together hundreds of Sisters, associates, family, friends, colleagues and donors to Louisville. This year, however, the event was held virtually.
While a new approach, Boiarski believed holding the gathering virtually would allow for a more widespread event.
A virtual Join the Journey allowed those unable to make the trip to Kentucky to participate in real time and to broaden the recognition of ministry and volunteer efforts.
“You have to look during this period of time for blessings that occur and I think this is one of those blessings,” Curtis said.
That blessing extends to other aspects of the Sisters’ lives.
“When we talk about Zooming and using technology, that’s been pretty neat to watch,” especially with Sisters in their 80s, 90s and 100s, Curtis said. “We already had a lot of Sisters that embraced technology and connecting via video conferencing to have prayer groups. But now even more.”
She mentioned one of the Sisters, who is 103, was able to do a Zoom call with her younger brother, who is 100.
Curtis said SCN have always met in person for their decision-making events.
“This is probably historic that we are coming together virtually,” she said.
“You have this need to connect. You have this need to touch one another. You have this need to be with one another in prayer and to share laughter,” she said. “COVID can’t take that away, you just have to figure out new ways to be in community with people.”
Virtual SCN event shares stories of compassion
They were spread out across the country and across the globe, but Tuesday’s virtual Join the Journey event allowed the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth to connect, share and inspire despite the distance between them.
Typically held in Louisville, the event serves as the SCN’s annual fundraiser as well as a time to highlight ministries taking place around the world. This year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the program was broadcasted live from the Nazareth campus in Bardstown.
Much of Tuesday’s program focused on recognizing ways SCNs have impacted communities. Two stories were shared about work in the United States, including help provided here in Nelson County.
In June, Eric Shelburne, 5th District magistrate, learned of a woman in Chaplin who was living in her car because she was facing some legal and financial issues with being able to move into her mobile home. The woman, identified as Mary, who is in her early 70s, had been living in the vehicle for more than five years.
“I wanted to help her, but when I saw her situation, I knew it was going to take more help from the community,” Shelburne shared Tuesday.
Shelburne contacted Sister Luke Boiarski, who leads the SCN’s Lay Mission Volunteer Program, to see what assistance could be provided.
“I contacted the Sisters of Charity because a friend of mine told me about Sister Luke and some of the projects she has helped with through the SCN volunteer program. He said they help a lot of people in the area, and if I contacted them, they would probably be able to help in some way.”
Mary had spent years living in the vehicle, sleeping through cold winters and hot summers. For a few days a month, she was able to stay with some of her children, but they live in government housing where extended stays were not allowed.
“My car has a good heater,” Mary said with a laugh when asked about surviving the cold nights. “All the stuff packed in it, that’s my insulation.”
“Summertime, if you can find a shady spot, pick it,” she added. She had grown used to the way of life.
After Shelburne reached out, the magistrate and the Sisters worked together to get Mary back into her home.
“There were some legal challenges that had to be overcome” involving where the mobile home sat on the property, but they were able to take care of them, Shelburne said. Now, she is readying the home for winter and said she feels blessed.
“God has done a lot of wonderful things for me. A lot,” she said.
“I am grateful for the sisters and for all who helped her,” Shelburne said. “I know God had a hand in all of this. I want to say thank you to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth for caring for Mary and for so many others in our area and around the world.”
Also highlighted at this year’s program was a partnership between Camp Maria Retreat Center in Maryland and the St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen to address food insecurities in St. Mary’s County, which has been hit hard by COVID-19.
Recognitions from overseas included providing protective equipment for hospital staff in Bangalore; assisting migrant workers in southern India with food supplies; distributing provisions to more than 10,000 families in Patna; distributing food to 38 village communities in southern Belize; providing solar lanterns for school children without electricity, and continuing healing ministries at a hospice facility in Botswana.
The highlights provided Tuesday represent only a few of the ways the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth continue to serve despite uncertain times.
“Through the COVID-19 pandemic we have experienced uncertainty, fear and grief,” said Sister Sangeeta Ayithamattam, president of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, as she began the recognitions. “Lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing have left many of us with feelings of isolation.”
Ayithamattam said the SCNs turn their hearts to God during this time, live with a new awareness of essential workers and pray for change as tensions rise across the nation.
“So much weighs heavily on our hearts. And yet, if we step back and look with new eyes, we can see that there is hope and beauty, even in this time,” Ayithamattam said. “I am reminded of the long history of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, and the congregation’s radical response through so many other pandemics and turmoil. And I trust that when future generations look back on this time, they will see the same courage, compassion, and faithful response to the motto of our congregation: The love of Christ impels us.”
The 2020 Join the Journey program can be viewed at scnfamily.org. Those wishing to donate to support ministries can find more information to do so on the website.