Typically, new postulants would enter the community in the order’s St. Louis convent in August or September, but there hasn’t been a final decision made yet as to whether the women will enter at the normal time, or at a slightly later time, she told CNA.
“We have not had any conversations with my superior or council for formation regarding that, we don’t have enough information regarding August or September,” she said.
The sisters’ infirmary is housed in a separate convent in Boston, Marsh added, but there is a 92 year-old sister living in the postulancy house who would particularly be at risk for coronavirus. Marsh said she has been keeping in touch with the women who are planning to enter this year, and she said that even if their entrance date were to get bumped back by a few months, it wouldn’t cause major logistical problems for most of the women.
However, “if things get pushed back more than six months we would have some concerns,” she said.
Other than the entrance for postulants being up in the air at the moment, the community has “basically been taking our vocation apostolate online,” Marsh said.
Many of the order’s convents have monthly in-person discernment gatherings, Marsh said, and those have all been moved online in the form of video chats, recorded talks, or live question-and-answer sessions with the sisters.
The sisters also usually host an in-person Holy Week retreat at their convent in Boston. This year, as the retreat approached, the sisters decided to move the event online, particularly out of concern for the sisters in the infirmary at the Boston convent.
Normally, Marsh said, there would be about 6-15 women on any given year at the Holy Week retreat.
This year, she said, “we had 7 or 8 confirmed, when we realized we couldn’t have people travel. We decided to at least do something online for those who had signed up, and we started planning an online alternative.”
Word spread, and soon there were five times as many young women registered for the retreat.
“I woke up to 40 emails inquiring about it,” Marsh said. In total, the retreat had 43 registered participants from the U.S. and Canada, as well as Trinidad and Tobago, and one from Australia who had to completely “flip her schedule” in order to participate in the real-time events.
There were also about 150 additional people viewing the discernment videos and downloads that the sisters posted online who were not registered participants, Marsh said.
“I don’t know why it took a pandemic for us to come up with a discernment retreat online,” Marsh said, adding that the sisters are looking into planning another one for this summer.
“I think just from what I’ve been seeing, it’s weird, but it’s been a very fruitful time,” as people have been forced to stay at home because of the virus, Marsh said. “People have a lot of time, and it’s just making people think about life. I think God is giving special graces for vocations and vocational discernment, and we’re basically trying to do what we can in providing women with resources.”
Marsh said while she doesn’t see virtual retreats ever replacing in-person discernment opportunities, she thinks the community will plan on offering a few online discernment events in the coming years, as they can provide a good first step for young women looking into the community who may not be able to afford an expensive plane ticket to a faraway convent.
“It will provide a nice first step, and then from that interaction we can make a mutual discernment of what’s a good next step,” she said.
Sr. Anne Catherine, OP, is a sister with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tennessee. She told CNA that the order typically welcomes the new postulant class in August, and so far those plans have not changed.
“From indications we’re seeing at this time, we do think we can go forward with an August entrance date,” she said, and the current postulant class is still proceeding in their application process.
But if the public health situation regarding coronavirus were to change for the worse, the entrance date could be changed, she noted.
Already, some of the young women in this year’s entrance class have experienced other natural forces throwing off some of their plans, when a tornado blew through Nashville on March 2, just days before a discernment retreat at the convent, knocking out power for most of the weekend.
“It was all very funny, normally they eat in this one dining area, but it was so dark we couldn’t take them down there,” Sr. Anne Catherine said, “so we made a makeshift refectory with candles.” The rest of the weekend went well and the women had a good attitude about everything, even without power, she added.
The week of March 16 is when many non-essential businesses started to shut down and people started to shelter at home in the state of Tennessee due to coronavirus. Since then, Sr. Anne Catherine said, the sisters haven’t been able to have retreats or visitors.
Looking ahead to August, Sr. Anne Catherine said that because the sisters’ convent is so big, it is possible that they would have the young women entering do a kind of quarantine-retreat hybrid in their first two weeks, to ensure that they are not bringing the virus into the community as they’re entering. They would normally have the new members do a retreat upon their entrance anyway, but this one would be a little longer and in a separate part of the house.
“We’d want to protect the young women who are coming to us, to make sure that they feel safe and their families feel safe, and also protect our community,” Sr. Anne Catherine said.
“A vocation is an invitation to put out into the deep and trust the Lord,” Sr. Anne Catherine added. “In the pandemic, the emphasis on God’s plan and trusting his will...it’s even more palpable in this time.”