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Sisters of Providence struggles and wisdom amidst pandemic

It has been nearly 15 months since the pandemic began and life as we knew it changed dramatically. I doubt that few of us would say that these months have been easy. Yet, despite the loss of loved ones, the isolation and restrictions that have been implemented to keep them safe, I am amazed at the resiliency of our sisters throughout this terrible ordeal. So, I asked them to share their insights with me. Their responses could just about fill an entire issue of HOPE. This is but a snapshot of what they said.


Sister Betty Paul joins a protest in North Carolina, where she lives, advocating to have a confederate statue removed from the center of town.

For many sisters, extended time in prayer has been both a coping mechanism and a time of real growth for them during the pandemic. Sister James Michael Kesterson was one of many who has found that her “regular prayer life has increased daily. My heart is full of empathy for all who are suffering from COVID, the victims, their families and certainly our community.”

Sister Joni Luna put it this way: “I find that if I fill my cup a few times a day by entering into this God space, it helps get me through the chaos and unpredictable events of my day.” Sister Diane Mason noted that “So much quiet time and taking walks … makes me more aware of my surroundings, not always in a hurry. I have time to take a deeper trip within myself — only to emerge in being a better human being able to share with others — whenever that time comes.”

For others, it is their attitude that has helped them cope. Sister Noralee Keefe noted that “keeping a positive attitude and keeping in mind those who are really sick have helped me to focus on my blessings.” Sister Pat Mahoney “entered the lockdown in March, 2020 with a positive and hopeful outlook. This is an enforced vacation so make the most of it and enjoy the time you have… This is a gift of time to retreat, reflect, and integrate my life of 81 years.” As Sister Joanne Golding put it, “If you are an extrovert you have been in a nightmare, but we introverts have had a vacation!”

Walking and nature

Three sisters out for a walk at the Woods on a spring day.

Several sisters mentioned an “attitude of gratitude.” Sister Rita Clare Gerardot keeps “thanking God for my good eyesight as I love to read and have read many books during these weeks.” She and several others expressed deep gratitude for those who have provided care for the sisters during the pandemic. Additionally, Sister Marianne Ridgell expressed profound appreciation for the blessings that are ours: “…we have Community and are not going through this alone like so many others.”

Several sisters, both at the Woods and beyond, were grateful for their ability to enjoy walks in the Woods, in nearby parks, or in their neighborhoods. Sister Mary Morley noted “I’ve maintained balance by spending more time outside admiring God’s beautiful world!” Sister Editha Ben explained, “The backyard has become a sacred place. I have communed with nature that enchanted me. I am more convinced that the universe is God’s revelation of life, a multitude of creation, every living thing and being are interconnected. God in everything permeating with energy that vibrates.”

Numerous sisters spoke about reaching out to others as a way of ministering during the pandemic. Sister Laurette Bellamy and Providence Associate Adrienne Bates have reached out to various parish groups for “Virtual Lunches.” This is their way of “looking for ways to make small breaks in the social and spiritual barriers created by the virus.” Sister Kathleen Desautels often reaches out to friends to keep connected with them. She also stays connected with multiple social justice groups, assisting them in their education and advocacy efforts. Sister Dorothy Rasche has reached out particularly to those who live alone or to those who live far away.


Wheee! Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp lets her hair down during a perfect sledding snow at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods

Humor has helped to get others through these difficult months. Sister Gloria Memering recounted her ministry sanitizing the elevators in Providence. She noted that this ministry has “many ups and downs” that have helped her to realize the ups and downs of life: “…childhood play memories of ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ and then jumping up with joy! Remembering how often in the Gospels we meet Jesus bending down to touch and lift up someone in pain…lots of dyings and risings, downs and ups!”

Sister Jan Ostrowski noted that you know COVID-19 isolation is bad when you “look forward to medical appointments!” Her humor continued, “When cabin fever closes in I take a drive, play my favorite CD’s, and sing as loudly as I can (mostly off key)!”

Some have even found fun in COVID-10 testing. Recently, Clinical Care Coordinator Beth Collins came down the hallway, donned in her blue gown and other PPE to do rapid testing. One of the sisters broke into song with “Alice Blue Gown.” Then both she and Beth began dancing (socially distanced, of course)!

Ministry amid COVID-19

Sister Lawrence Ann Liston volunteers at the Providence Food Pantry in West Terre Haute.

Through it all, numerous sisters have continued their ministries, often at least initially adapted. Those in medical facilities have faced firsthand the pain of COVID-19 and the blessings of working with those who suffer and their families. Initially, Sister Betty Hopf had to do pastoral ministry through phone conversations with patients. She soon realized “how much more effective my ministry would be if I could see and touch my patients. ‘Touch’ is more than physical contact, since we touch others with our eyes, our smiles, our body language, our perceived feelings of concern and a heart full of love. There is a connection in this kind of touch that physical distancing cannot hinder. I am blessed and grateful that I can be available to persons who are not only coping with cancer, but also other difficulties related to COVID.”

Sister Joseph Ellen Keitzer shares that belief. “My hope is that when this COVID is over we will return to being physically present to each other and not use technology to replace the personal physical presence and relationships with one other that are so very important to us and our ministries.”

Hospital ministry

Sister Josephine Bryan, a volunteer at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Apple Valley, California, prays alone in the hospital chapel for all those in the hospital in great need.

Sister Laura Parker, director of chaplaincy at a Chicago hospital, “continued to work during the pandemic to minister to: Our patients who were dying. Their families who were struggling to maintain their connection to their loved ones. The staff who were exhausted and now up against tremendous odds that they too, might succumb to the deadly virus. The managers. Directors who were trying to obtain the necessary PPE that would protect the nurses, the patient care technicians, the respiratory therapists and then my own chaplain staff and myself. I found my prayer life deepened by the intense responses of the people I ministered to and thank heavens, that grounded me.” 

Sister Josephine Bryan recounted Sister Mary Jo Piccione’s challenges as chaplain at a San Bernardino, California, hospital that has been stretched far beyond capacity: Consoling the family of a mom who came in with COVID-19 and delivered a healthy baby and then died herself. Comforting staff whose colleague has died from COVID. Carrying Eucharist to nurses who have worked twelve hours already and who have just been asked to stay on for another shift. Sister Josephine herself has ministered to staff by baking cookies and sending them to the various units of the hospital. she has also assembled pamphlets about coping and stress.

History and education

Sister Maureen Abbott commented that she and Sister Mary Ryan had been discussing plans to pilot a community history module. The lockdown motivated Sister Maureen to finish writing the narrative piece, “Changing Course: Sisters of Providence 1966-1972.” They were able to offer a four week Zoom class that apparently helped other Sisters of Providence and Providence Associates cope. (And, of course, Sister Maureen loved continuing to care for the flowers in Providence courtyard.)

Sister Anji Fan teaches high school math. Early in the pandemic, education became e-learning, but it has been face-to-face most of this year. She mused that “exceptional courage has been tested in these ordinary life circumstances, as each of us strives to carry on with our normal responsibilities. Yet together, far and near, we search for the place where there are the hope and promise of Providence which has never failed us.”

Blessings realized

Sister Barbara Reder poses with the puzzle she completed.

Many of us realize the value of life and the blessings the pandemic brought forth. Sister Ann Matilda Holloran noted that as she has re-read “Journals and Letters of Mother Theodore,” “I found the inconveniences that I have experienced give me little chance to complain.” Sister Connie Kramer admits that “[the pandemic] has helped me to deepen my experience of mystical hope in a Provident God who continues to be with each and every one of us every step of the way as we navigate these uncharted waters of an unknown and uncertain future.” Sister Jeanette Lucinio has found the “hermit year” to be very peaceful and joyful. As she looks to the future, “what awaits me is to see how I will have learned to preserve some of this quiet of this past year and avail myself in a balanced way to the beck and call of the needs of my sisters and others.”

Yes, these past 15 months have been unlike any other we have experienced. And while they have been difficult and even tragic on so many fronts, the Sisters of Providence have done their best to look through the pain and let the Light of Providence be their hope.

(Originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of HOPE magazine)

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Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp

Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp

Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp has been a Sister of Providence since 1975. She currently serves on the Congregation leadership team. Previously she ministered as a teacher and administrator at the secondary and university levels.

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