ROME – On Friday Italy’s Lazio region announced that 59 sisters belonging to two convents in Rome had tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus, sparking fears about how quickly the virus might spread within religious houses.
Alessio D’Amato, the head of the Department of Health in Italy’s Lazio region, made the announcement on March 20.
Of the sisters who tested positive, 40 belong to the Daughters of San Camillo convent in Grottaferrata, which is on the outskirts of Rome, and 19 are from the Angelic Sisters of Saint Paul convent in Rome, which currently houses 21 sisters.
Local authorities have been informed of the case and an investigation has been launched into how the infections came about.
The San Camillo convent specifically cares for young students and elderly sisters, raising concern about the survival of the 40 sisters who have been diagnosed with the COVID-19 coronavirus, as the median age of those who die in Italy is 79.5, which is below the average age of many convents and religious communities in Europe.
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In the United States, a similar coronavirus outbreak happened at a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, which has so far been tied to the deaths of 35 people and which is believed to be responsible for over 60 percent of the country’s total COVID-19 cases.
In comments to Italian bishops’ conference newspaper Avvenire, Sister Bernadette Rossoni, general postulator of the Daughters of San Camillo, said that overall “we are fine,” and that three of the 40 infected nuns are hospitalized, while the others are not showing serious symptoms and are at home in the convent.
While the number of infections inside the convent have gone public, Rossoni said that in reality, “we don’t know how many positive cases we have. We are still testing,” and that they were not notified before the numbers were shared with the public.
“I would like to say that we are facing the situation with great serenity,” she said, insisting that the guests who stay there have no contact with the sisters who have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Those sisters remain isolated in their rooms, she said, and meals are left outside their doors.
Rossoni said that looking at the bright side, the sisters are nurses, so “we are prepared to face health risks and take care of the sick.”
The situation at the two convents has drawn attention to the situation facing religious congregations across the world, where often very elderly religious live in close contact with each other, and their order’s apostolates can bring them into contact with the general public.
In a two-page letter dated March 16, Brazilian Cardinal João Braz Cardinal de Aviz, prefect for the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, wrote a letter to women and men religious around the world urging them to obey both civil and ecclesial authorities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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In the letter, he said the “most effective witness we can give is first of all a serene and committed obedience to what is demanded by those who govern us, both at the state and ecclesial level, to all that is disposed to safeguard our health, both as private citizens and as a community.”
But the cardinal also encouraged religious to offer “concrete signs of closeness to our people,” at a time when public celebration of the sacraments have been put on hold in most parts of the globe in an effort to contain the spread of the virus.
As of Friday evening, the number of current cases in Italy had risen to 37,860, while the number of deaths spiked to 4,032 – a staggering increase of 627 in just 24-hours. However, the number of those cured has also significantly increased, reaching 5,129 – a jump of 689 from Thursday.
On Wednesday Italy surpassed China in the number of reported fatalities related to the coronavirus. On the same day, the Italian bishops organized a nationwide day of prayer, including the praying of the rosary, for the sick, medical personnel and for an end to the outbreak.
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Among the casualties have also been several priests. In total, nearly 30 priests have died due to the coronavirus, 13 of whom were in Bergamo, birthplace to Saint John XXIII.
Private funerals are being offered for the deceased, open only to immediate family and a priest who presides, provided they keep the required distance of at least three feet from one another. In some areas, such as Bergamo, waiting lists for funerals are already up to three weeks. Some cities in northern Italy are sending their deceased to be buried in neighboring towns because their own cemeteries are running out of space.
Pope Francis has been making several phone calls to bishops in effected areas to show support, including a March 17 call to Bishop Antonio Napolini of Cremona, who himself has recovered from the coronavirus, as well as Bishop Maurizio Malvestiti of Lodi and the Bishop of Bergamo, Francesco Beschi.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen
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