ROME – As the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, women religious throughout the world have been working in areas such as prevention and awareness, and caring for the poor, sick and elderly.
Speaking to Crux, Sister Pat Murray, executive secretary of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), said their communities “are on the front lines” of both efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and to care for those who are ill.
“They are, because they’re preparing for (it) or they’re healing, so they are very much part of the front-line response, particularly in the poorer part of the world,” Murray said.
An umbrella group of women religious, the UISG oversees roughly 2,000 different women’s religious congregations worldwide, each of which have their own communities spread throughout the globe that are working in different ways to combat the coronavirus.
Many sisters, Murray said, are working as either doctors or nurses, often in small rural hospitals in Africa and Asia as well as medical clinics, healthcare centers and mobile clinics providing education and medical assistance to those in need.
While in the Global North sisters have already been engaged in fighting the coronavirus, in other parts of the world nuns are busily preparing for an outbreak by trying to procure equipment for the centers in which they work, “which in some cases is very difficult,” Murray said, noting that many sisters in the Global South have found sourcing equipment such as ventilators and facial masks extremely difficult.
As a result, they have at times gone to individual homes to help families make their own medical masks for protection.
Sisters have also been active in slums and small villages in poor countries, carrying out education campaigns on proper sanitation and distributing government leaflets about precautions to take. They have also taken the time to explain the measures to those who cannot read.
Murray cited a specific example of sisters in Africa who, in one area with a single water pump that people had to walk long distances to get to, built a small wooden frame with a plastic water jug attached and brought it to nearby villages to demonstrate proper handwashing. In India, sisters have drawn lines in the sand at food distribution centers so that those who come engage in social distancing, rather than crowding around trying to get to the head of the line.
Not only are the sisters working local NGOs and other organizations to distribute food, but in some cases, Murray said she’s heard of sisters who share their own food with the poor, “going out onto the streets” and offering some of what they have to beggars and those who cannot afford groceries.
For sisters who work in schools or with parishes, they have found “creative ways” of continuing their programs, Murray said, noting that like many other teachers and companies, the sisters in these cases have not only launched online courses, but they are also providing online spiritual direction and mentorship and are leading online prayer sessions and retreats.
They are also making an effort to be in touch with the elderly to ensure they are not alone, and those who work with refugees, migrants and victims of human trafficking have all found ways to stay in touch and check in to make sure that these people are okay.
The sisters, Murray said, not only provide food, medical supplies and training, but they also try to be “a praying presence, a supporting presence, a presence of hope and reassuring people that they are not alone.”
Noting how the eruption of contagion inside convents has been a major concern in countries such as Italy, Spain and the United States which have been more severely hit by the coronavirus, particularly European communities that have high numbers of elderly, Murray said there have been many deaths among sisters, but the UISG does not keep track.
“Each religious congregation is autonomous, even if they are members of UISG, so we would find that very intrusive, because behind every sister that dies there is the whole community and the whole congregation; there’s her family, there’s the people she knows in ministry.”
“We would know because we’re in contact with some communities, but we have no sense of the overall and nor would we seek it,” she said, insisting that “Each loss is huge for a community, particularly in these kind of situations where the normal practices of being able to bury a sister, like for families worldwide, has been interrupted.”
Calling the pandemic “a time of grief and sadness,” Murray said religious communities are no different than families. There is even a “double-weight” when a sister dies, she said, because both their immediate family and their religious family suffer.
In terms of precautions they are taking, Murray said the sisters are following the regulations in the countries where they live but are generally all engaged in basic sanitation practices such as frequent handwashing, wearing face masks and social distancing.
“The prudent precautions are being taken to separate. But we know so little about this coronavirus,” she said, noting that in many cases in Europe specifically, the virus entered communities before there was an awareness of how infectious it was and the high number of asymptomatic people who pass the virus to others.
In larger convents, in addition to the basic sanitary practices, some have staggered their meals to ensure that proper distance is maintained, even inside the convent walls. Sisters who work in hospitals, clinics and rest homes are doing their best to self-isolate, even in the convent, to ensure that the other sisters have a limited chance of infection.
“It’s a big challenge within communities,” Murray said, adding that, “these communities are not just communities, but they are caring organizations for the members of their congregations.”
Murray said the UISG has been hosting video conferences and webinars with different communities and congregations as a means of support.
Recently, two were offered by Sister Marianne Loughrey, a Religious Sister of Mercy and a psychologist who has worked with organizations that work in difficult situations. One was on coping in a time of pandemic, and the other addressed how to face personal and social grief in a time of pandemic.
This is important, Murray said, because “each one of us is dealing with grief, first of all in the persons we know who have died, but also grief in the loss of our normal way of life, of our normal way of living, and that’s a grief in itself that we have to confront.”
They are encouraging sisters to share the information from the webinars with their parishes, families and friends in order to ensure people have resources on how to cope amid “a tsunami of grief.”
Referring to an Easter message sent by UISG President Sister Jolanda Kafka Murray said, “we’re women who anticipate the dawn while facing the darkness…We’re facing this darkness with all of humanity (and) we can draw on our own spiritual resources to be nourishers of hope.”
“In living and working through this time of crisis of humanity, we can also point to the growth of seeds of hope and compassion that are there,” she said, pointing to the “rich spiritual tradition” of the Catholic Church.
“We want to share those traditions at this time, with people of faith and people of no faith,” she said. “We want to nourish the humanity and the faith of ourselves and of all others so that together we can find new ways of living together, not only in this situation but in the future, for the sake of the poorest on the earth, and for the sake of our own world and our way of living together.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen