Above: Presentation Sisters use video conferencing tools to stay connected during the coronavirus pandemic.
Staying Connected Yet Apart
by BETH KRESS, PBVM
“Staying at home,” “sheltering in place,” “social distancing” – all have become new ways of being since March 2020. During these pandemic months, Presentation Sisters have been part of groups and partnerships in which communication has taken on a new look. Individual sisters in ministry, sisters and their families and friends, the congregational leadership team and administrative staff, sisters as members of committees and groups near and far – all have shifted gears and creatively stayed connected while staying apart.
Staying Connected at the Motherhouse
Staying connected with family, friends and each other is a priority for sisters at the motherhouse. Since late March, the motherhouse has been closed to visitors and the sisters have been taking all the necessary precautions by social distancing and isolating. Communication by exchanging emails, making phone calls, writing letters, utilizing social media, video chatting via Facetime, gathering and meeting via Zoom video conferencing have allowed the sisters to stay connected with others while remaining safe and healthy.
Sister Anne McCormick enjoys reaching out to family friends, former teaching associates, Mount Loretto staff and sisters in a “no-contact” fashion. “It’s keeping us safe to be socially distant and socially responsible,” she declares. “The reward for whomever receives one of my communiques is a plate of my famous homemade cookies!”
Sister Ellen Mary Garrett resides in the infirmary at Mount Loretto. “Those of us in Nagle Center gathered in the lounge recently for a Zoom visit with the leadership team,” she shares. “It is also special to know that rocks painted with our names are placed in the courtyard so that others can remember and pray for us when they go there. Whoever found our rock also wrote us a letter.”
Other sisters in Nagle Center connect with family and friends by an occasional view through the windows. In addition, Sisters Lois Lehmann, Marian Sweeney, Rosanne Rottinghaus and Ellen Mary often pray together and play cards in a socially-distanced group.
Because our most vulnerable sisters are quarantined to the Nagle Center infirmary, Sisters Rita Cameron and Paula Schwendinger organize weekly entertainment to maintain a connection with other community members. Activities are presented in Presentation Center allowing other sisters to participate while Nagle Center sisters enjoy the activities on the in-house circuit big screen TV.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, sisters gather daily to pray a litany composed by Sister Paula entitled, Companioning Our Vulnerable In Distress. We continue to pray for healing and strength during these challenging times.
Staying Connected in the Workplace
While communication with the sisters in Bolivia has progressed over the years, a new normal is in place with COVID-19. Sisters Marge Healy and Therese Corkery have been in Tarija in strict quarantine and are allowed one nine-hour day, weekly per person to be in the streets. In Entre Ríos Sisters Mery Cari Paz and Suzanne Takes experienced three-day periods of encapsulation (stricter limitations) because of new COVID-19 cases in town. All four sisters join the community through group Zooms.
Volunteer for Dubuque’s public library and food pantry, Sister Leanne Welch has found her work significantly altered due to the pandemic. “Delivering books to the homebound halted when the library closed, eliminating my opportunity to visit with clients. However my hours at the Dubuque Food Pantry increased due to COVID-19. I returned to two days a week and subbing for others. In this work, there is less chance to visit with clients who receive the food at their front door from a cart.”
Sister Cheryl Demmer has a new normal for doing ministry as director of faith formation for Muscatine/Wilton, Iowa parishes. “I use Zoom and make many phone calls to our older parishioners and to parishioners who have lost loved ones during this time. Communication with parents of our confirmation and Holy Communion students has been through mail.” Preparing for the 2021 faith formation year, Sister Cheryl has worked with Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic publisher, planning online programming with parents, online sacramental preparation and RCIA.
Always resourceful, Sister Beth Driscoll, liturgy and music coordinator at College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska, initiated “Mercy Mondays,” a bi-monthly midday prayer opportunity that focuses on the Sisters of Mercy, their foundations, ministries and critical concerns. “Participation via Zoom makes it possible for many faculty and staff members to join in this prayer,” comments Sister Beth.
“When school closed last March and students left campus, I made the commitment to keep in contact with those who had served in liturgical ministries. I sent individual emails every two weeks while they were at home taking online classes,” shares Sister Beth.
She has enjoyed being invited for ice tea or coffee and scones while socially distancing with Omaha friends on their front porches. She continues to enjoy Zoom faith-sharing with parishioners from St. Joseph the Worker in Dubuque and connects with her family via phone calls, texts and an occasional Zoom gathering.
Following CDC guidelines at her place of work is how Sister Marilou Irons approaches her ministry as resident manager for a senior independent living facility in Dubuque. “We wear masks while sitting outside and catch up on each other’s lives. Add relaxing, chatting and telling jokes and we have a great recipe for a new social event.”
After work hours she participates on Zoom with committee members of the Tri-state Coalition against Human Trafficking and Slavery. She also enjoys connecting with her six sister siblings. “We now have regular telephone conference calls. We have always been able to finish one another’s sentences, so we have had to learn how to do that with seven of us on one call. Once we sharpened our listening skills, we were again in sync and enjoying conversation and many laughs.”
In preparation for her final vows, Sister Mary Therese Krueger was to participate in the Life Commitment Program of the Religious Formation Conference in July. This 8-day immersion program was to bring together women and men discerning/anticipating profession of final vows. Due to the pandemic, plans changed to offering the program using Zoom. Taking part in this program allowed people to participate from around the globe including the United States, Kenya, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. “To be able to share this experience with the other participants and to have a global perspective of religious life was a blessing,” shares Sister Mary Therese.
“However, the challenge of the virtual experience was not being able to have the side conversations or informal social time,” comments Sister Mary Therese. “We felt this loss during our program and have decided to continue to meet once a month via Zoom to continue to deepen our relationships and together navigate perpetual vow preparation in a time of a global pandemic,” she adds.
The congregational leadership team, together and individually, claim virtual technologies keep them connected to various groups that do visioning and planning.
Sister Rita Menart, a member of the core team for the 2020 Gathering of Presentation People sponsored by the Conference of Presentation Sisters of North America, has joined in many Zoom meetings to help plan the September gathering of sisters, associates and employees in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “After months of planning for an in-person gathering, the focus shifted to preparation of a virtual gathering,” she shares.
“Many meetings of groups within the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) were accomplished virtually before the pandemic. For the first time the national meeting in August was held virtually for nearly 1,000 attendees,” states Sister Rita. “Virtual gatherings are not equal to in-person communication, but it is good. For some groups Zoom is a plus, because it would not be possible to meet as many times in person,” she adds.
“Zoom meetings do have certain advantages, remarks Sister Marilyn Breen. “It seems that on Zoom we can quickly gather for a specific issue and respond more quickly than if we need to meet in person. The meetings can be more focused.”
“Without Zoom, the Conference of Presentation Sisters annual meeting in June would not have happened as members from across North America could not travel to Dubuque,” states Sister Marilyn. “I think we were still able to do the work in an efficient way although the personal connections were the greatest missing piece.”
Sister Carmen Hernandez concurs, “What’s missing for me is the interaction one has between sessions with individuals and small groups. Catching up with old friends and meeting new ones are some of the benefits I look forward to when attending conferences in person.” Another challenge for Sister Carmen is the dedicated time it takes to focus using Zoom. “If you have several virtual meetings in a day your eyes begin to feel the stress of looking at a screen all day.”
Sisters Elena Hoye and Marilyn co-facilitate the process for leaders of four promise groups that guide the community direction and actions at this time. “I think eyes were opened to a new way of gathering in small groups via Zoom generating an energy for our June gatherings. Video conferencing has the ability to include people from all over the U.S. and beyond in conversations,” states Sister Marilyn.
“The ability to hold committee meetings or discussions with people around the world opens up endless possibilities of who can participate and how they can do so with little to no expense,” comments Sister Elena. “Not having social interaction in online communication is a challenge. It is much more difficult to build trust and team cohesion as the interpersonal chemistry and synergy of face-to-face meetings can be lost in a virtual meeting. In addition, it can be somewhat frustrating when not all participants have adequate equipment or internet access and the learning curve for participants can be quite steep.”
When part of the administrative staff was working away from the office, Sister Joy Peterson facilitated weekly meetings designed to foster communication and updates among the team. As a board member of the International Presentation Association (IPA), Sister Joy has participated in the process to develop an advocacy focus for IPA work at the United Nations. “We worked on Zoom to create a unity of spirit among the IPA justice contacts, meeting with facilitators to clarify the process for the nearly 30 justice contacts from around the world. Our terrific facilitators created virtual meetings that allow for broad participation and input.”
Sister Joy adds, “While many Zoom meetings can be exhausting over time, I am more than grateful for the technology which has allowed for keeping connections alive in ways that something like phone conference calls could never do.”
Are virtual meetings the future for the Dubuque Sisters of the Presentation and the many groups and networks with whom they interface? As Sister Elena remarks, “This new mode of communication can bring wisdom from people of diverse backgrounds and voices of those not normally at the table.”
And, perhaps a spiritual connection is virtually at hand offering newer, even deeper, connections and relationships.