Sisters’ ministry continues during COVID: ‘You can’t just stop’
In her 50 years as a Sister of St. Joseph, Sister Sheila Briody said she hasn’t dealt with anything remotely comparable to the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is so far-reaching, the power and impact it’s had on all of our society,” she remarked.
Yet while much of society went into shutdown mode beginning in March 2020, Rochester’s St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center continued performing essential ministry to uninsured and under-insured folks, many who found themselves in even greater need as the pandemic unfolded.
“We never closed down services,” said Sister Briody, who serves as the center’s codirector of counseling and community works. She noted that staff members did as many appointments by telephone as possible until last summer, when clients started being allowed back in the building.
Sister Briody is among several jubilarian women religious who have stayed true to their mission by adjusting to the realities of COVID-19. For instance, Mercy Sister Mary Ann Binsack has replaced in-person duties with Zoom meetings as well as increased phone and email communication in her roles as administrator of Bishop Emeritus Matthew H. Clark’s office, for which she handles the bishop’s correspondence and official business; and as ministry director for the Sisters of Mercy Community of New York Pennsylvania West.
“I found different ways of doing things. I think you can’t just stop and say, ‘I can’t do anything for a year until (the pandemic is) over,’” said Sister Binsack, a 60th-year Sister of Mercy.
Meanwhile, Sister Nancy Whitley, a 70th-year Mercy sister, has filled her time effectively despite COVID blocking performance of her regular outreach commitments.
“I have spent a lot of time on the phone calling people, a lot of time writing notes and sending cards to people. It’s a whole new kind of ministry,” Sister Whitley said.
On the other hand, certain ministries demand a physical presence, as was the case with Sister Margaret Kunder, SSJ. She performed her chaplaincy duties at Rochester General Hospital remotely when the crisis first hit, but said she was allowed to return to in-person ministry a few weeks into the pandemic.
“You can’t work at home as a chaplain,” remarked Sister Kunder, who is celebrating 60 years as a Sister of St. Joseph.
At the hospital, Sister Kunder encountered a variety of challenges during the pandemic’s early months. She was not allowed to see coronavirus patients; meanwhile, outside visitors were not allowed for any hospital patients due to the risk of infection spread.
“The families would call and beg us to come in, but they couldn’t except for the patients who were dying. When you see these (media) stories about families devastated, it’s very true,” Sister Kunder said.
She added that the mounting death toll from the crisis resulted in diminishing staff morale at the hospital and workers resigning for fear of becoming infected. “People had terrible fears of getting COVID,” she said, adding that “I have so much admiration” for the nurses — including many who contracted COVID-19 — who stuck it out.
“They’re the first caregivers, and we had a shortage, so some of them had a lot of rooms to cover,” she said.
At St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center, Sister Briody and Robyn Carter — who serves as the center’s director of health-care access — reported a sharp increase in clients experiencing pandemic-related mental-health issues.
“You’ve got isolation and paranoia that can come from that. People were scared to go to the grocery store and get sick — ‘Is it safe for me to do anything, how do I walk my dog?’” Sister Briody said. Along with the neighborhood center’s primary focus on physical and mental-health services, she and Carter noted the staff has helped many people faced with job losses; the lack of phone and/or computer access; and need for food, clothing and shelter as well as hand sanitizer and masks.
Another strong need during the pandemic, according to Sisters Kunder and Binsack, was for human companionship.
“The (Rochester General Hospital) patients were very, very lonely,” Sister Kunder said.
Sister Binsack said she recently went four months without being able to visit Bishop Clark, who resides at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse in Pittsford, after seeing him on a nearly daily basis the previous 20 years. Although thankful for modern communication technology, “To me, they do not replace human contact,” Sister Binsack said, noting the particularly strong impact of isolation on nursing-facility residents.
And for Sister Whitley, COVID-related restrictions meant that one of her favorite ministries — organizing fundraising activities for the Sisters of Mercy — has been halted indefinitely.
“I haven’t done much in the line of raising money, because we haven’t had any events,” she said.
Despite all the challenges that have emerged as a result of the pandemic, Sister Whitley said she believes better days await in the not-too-distant future — especially if people adhere to public-health regulations and recommendations regarding COVID-19.
“Well, I think by nature, I’m a positive person. But I truly believe that,”she said, adding that she hopes her own positive attitude will lift the spirits of others: “There’s a tremendous amount of fear in people right now,” she said.
Sister Kunder, who retired from her hospital chaplaincy in February 2021, said she has sought to strike a similar message of optimism.
“I would always say, ‘Lookit, this isn’t going to last forever. At some point we’re going to see the light at the end of the tunnel,’” she said.
“I’m feeling hopeful, cautiously hopeful,” Sister Briody added, saying she’s been buoyed by “a commitment to the common good” throughout the COVID-19 crisis by all involved with St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center.
As public-health limitations are scaled back, Sister Binsack said she’s looking forward to seeing Bishop Clark more often; she also was planning a late-April trip to visit her order’s ministries in the Diocese of Erie for the first time in more than a year.
“I’m very optimistic. We’ll never go back to normal, and I don’t think I’d want to. We have to look at things in different perspectives now,” Sister Binsack said, explaining that she feels God wants us to continue addressing the long list of societal issues that have risen to the surface during the pandemic: “We have to pray, talk, read, listen and advocate.”
Meanwhile, Sister Whitley said it’s worth keeping in mind that the comparatively simpler lifestyles dictated by the threat of COVID-19 haven’t always been a bad thing.
“Let’s take the good from it, and let’s continue that,” she said. “Families have come together more, in whatever way they can. We can listen and be quiet, enjoying nature — not shop, shop, shop, running to the malls. That’s not a bad day to have.”