Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, religious congregations have faced similar challenges to those experiences by the majority of people living in societies impacted by lockdown, isolation, and deaths due to COVID. It has been a journey marked by grief, the desire for transformation, and prayer to discern how consecrated life might change as it emerges from this experience.
During a webinar organized for Francophone members of the CRC, on September 22nd, 2020, Sr. Ginette Laurendeau, the superior general of the Antoniennes de Marie in Chicoutimi (Quebec), gave a presentation. She recalled her reflections as a leader and her community’s experiences – the first religious congregation contaminated by COVID-19, starting on March 31st. Sister Ginette herself was infected but luckily did not suffer from serious symptoms or consequences. This is her testimony.
Our community numbers 50 sisters, 20 of whom live in our private infirmary. A COVID cluster was declared at the end of March and we were confined for 26 days, during which time six of our sisters died. Throughout those weeks, my motto became: accept, understand, act and adapt.
There were obviously feelings of loss and grief during the confinement. The isolation deprived us of our usual fraternity within the community. We could not see each other. The infected sisters felt excluded, while the healthy sisters feared catching the virus. However, the most difficult part was that they were deprived of being at the bedside of their dying sisters. Additionally, some of the sisters who beat COVID are living with after-effects.
In terms of our larger network, it was impossible to welcome families and friends. It was also a challenge to get in touch with the relatives of sick sisters. In this sense, isolation and lack of connection was hurtful to many relationships. As fall started, we finally began organizing the funeral services for our sisters who had passed in the spring. This long wait certainly extended our mourning.
Time, bearings and fears
As consecrated persons, we had to rethink our daily life of prayer and the sacraments in the absence of liturgy. In the Church in general, we felt isolated and somewhat disconnected, mostly receiving instructions from the public health authorities and information from the CRC.
Postponed or cancelled meetings, conferences and chapters marked our schedules. Everything was paused. At the same time, we felt a kind of loss of control that was sometimes impressive. With all the sisters confined, we were dependent on staff. In fact, we even lost some staff due to preventive withdrawals or to COVID infections. Some people were afraid to work with us because of the pandemic, and others felt fear or rejection from their own families. Even delivery people were scared! The Antoniennes de Marie were associated with COVID and fear.
Weaknesses and Strengths
This ordeal has made us even more aware of our fragility. Our staff was taken away from us, so our human resources team worked very hard. Fortunately, we are independent in our management and this is a strength. Our community resources were weakened, given myself and some of our leadership had COVID. The other obvious fragility, given our average age of 83, is that there is no succession for administration and leadership in the structure of our institute. However, among our strengths, I wish to emphasize the adaptability of the sisters, their collaboration with public health directives and the co-responsibility we enacted. In addition, the fragmentation of our community into groups, which existed before the pandemic, was a strength in that it prevented the virus from spreading any more than it already had.
On the spiritual level, the priest our chaplain presided daily liturgies of the Word, which were broadcast to the sisters in the infirmary and were of great support to them. In the end, this whole experience allowed us to return to what is most fundamental: the thirst to be together, to see each other, and to pray together. It has been a grace to experience a communion in our shared actions and experiences throughout the stages of confinement and deconfinement.
Looking to the future…
We have realized how much leadership exercises a form of motherhood, by reassuring, accompanying, being close. The role of the superiors of the small groups and the role of our council have been essential in helping the sisters through the physical, psychological and spiritual trials of the pandemic. Many of us had never experienced trials of this kind before.
The fragmentation of our community into small groups has been and will continue to be helpful. It is a small-scale fraternal life, anchored in prayer. It is a witness for the world, as Pope Francis reminds us.
Leadership must organize and adjust itself. It must help to minimize stress and humanize daily life as much as possible. We must not hesitate to ask for external help and to maintain these connections for the future. These collaborations are positive.
All of our sisters who have passed away were able to experience this last stage at home. Personally, what gave me impetus and led me in my actions, with the support of my council, was to take care of my sisters until the end, so that they could be at home, with their family, their community.
Sister Ginette Laurendeau, AM, General Superior, Antonian Sisters of Mary
This witness is taken from the Fall 2020 issue of the ad vitam webzine “Hope in Times of the Pandemic”.