Eight elderly religious sisters die of coronavirus in Wisconsin

Eight elderly religious sisters died of COVID-19 complications in one week at a retirement home for the School Sisters of Notre Dame near Milwaukee.

"Even though they're older and most of the sisters that did go to God are in their late 80s, 90s ... we didn't expect them to go...so quickly,"  Sister Debra Marie Sciano, the provincial leader for School Sisters of Notre Dame Central Pacific Province, told the Associated Press.  "So it was just very difficult for us."

"We believe that each of these sisters, and all the sisters, really, they've made a difference in this world," Sciano said. "I just think it's important that people know that, and that they were committed up until the end of their lives."

Sisters Rose M. Feess and Mary Elva Wiesner both died Dec. 9. Sister Dorothy MacIntyre died Dec. 11. Sister Mary Alexius Portz died Dec. 13, and Sisters Cynthia Borman, Joan Emily Kaul, Lillia Langreck and Michael Marie Laux all died Dec. 14 at Notre Dame of Elm Grove.

Notre Dame of Elm Grove, home to about 100 sisters, had not had a case of COVID-19 in nine months. On Thanksgiving Day, the congregation learned that a sister had tested positive, despite the many precautions in place.

All the sisters worked as educators, while some were missionaries, musicians, or peace and justice workers. One sister was a published poet, while another was a retired teacher and principal who had worked summers in South Dakota on a Native American reservation, the Associated Press said.

"Every one of our sisters is really important," Sciano told TMJ4, the Milwaukee NBC television affiliate. "Not only to us, but we feel they have touched thousands of lives we'll never be aware of."

Wiesner loved to teach children the sacraments, and would cheerfully sing with them. Portz, a musician, continued to give music lessons into her 80s. Borman would do repair work around her church, while Langreck was active in racial and social justice work. She took part in Milwaukee marches for fair housing and integrated busing.

Communities of elderly religious, along with nursing homes, have suffered especially in the coronavirus epidemic.

In July, 13 sisters died at a convent near Detroit. The facility has not had additional cases since it lost some 20% of its residents. Deena Swank, communications director for the Felecian Sisters of North America, told the Associated Press that they are eager to have the sisters vaccinated when possible.

Seven sisters died at a Maryknoll center in New York.

At least six sisters died at Our Lady of the Angels convent in Greenfield, Wisconsin, which provides memory care for members of the School Sisters of St. Francis and the School Sisters of Notre Dame.  
Sciano said she is not aware that anyone at the Notre Dame of Elm Grove residence is on a priority list for vaccines, the Associated Press said. Administrators are seeking to order vaccines for the future.

The retirement home at Notre Dame Elm Grove dates back to 1859, when it was originally used as an orphanage for area children. Mother Caroline Friess, the foundress of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in America, is buried in its cemetery.

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