'How Many of Us Will be Left?’ Catholic Nuns Face Loss, Pain

24 April 2021

The daily lives of female religious workers in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, changed quickly in 2020. Increasingly, emails arrived with reports of new coronavirus infections among nuns of their Roman Catholic order Felician Sisters around the country. Emergency medical vehicles arrived at the Greensburg center, or convent, where they lived. Long-time friends died. Prayers seemed to go unanswered.

"How many of us," thought Sister Mary Jeanine Morozowich, "will be left?"

The nuns do much unpaid work in the community. In Greensburg, they teach, nurse and care for children in their quiet convent.

Sister Rose Nellivila checks the blood pressure of Lorraine Catney, a resident of Villa Angela at St. Anne Home nursing facility in Greensburg, Pa., Thursday, March 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)
Sister Rose Nellivila checks the blood pressure of Lorraine Catney, a resident of Villa Angela at St. Anne Home nursing facility in Greensburg, Pa., Thursday, March 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

The Felician order in America has lost 21 nuns to COVID-19.

Vaccines provide hope for an end to those dark days. But the sadness created by the loss of so many fellow sisters is difficult.

"There's got to be a reason," Morozowich says of her survival. "What is God asking me to do?"

Before lives turned inward and face covers hid smiles, before the COVID-19 death count began, there were things you could count on at the Greensburg convent.

Like Sister Mary Evelyn Labik, who had been taught by the Felicians as a child. "Now I desire to be one of them," she wrote as she entered the convent in 1960.

She was a kindergarten teacher and a nurse's assistant. She also worked as a caregiver to disabled children and as a helper to older children in high school. Students called her Mama-E, for Evelyn. Many wrote to her long after they left school.

She lived in the small convent in a very small room for 26 years.

When Felician sisters at a convent in Livonia, Michigan, began going to the hospital last March, Labik became worried. On April 2, Sister Mary Luiza Wawrzyniak of Livonia died of COVID-19. It was Good Friday, a high holy day for Catholics in honor of the death of Jesus.

"My heart just leaped," said Sister Nancy Marie Jamroz, 79, who had known Wawrzyniak since entering the convent and was one of her closest friends.

On Easter Sunday, it was Sister Celine Marie Lesinski, a teacher, and Sister Estelle Printz. Then, Sister Thomas Marie Wadowski, and Sister Mary Patricia Pyszynski, who worked as a teacher for 60 years. Others were desperately sick.

The sisters were forced to stay in their small rooms all the time

Five sisters died the first week, five more the second week.

Each death was filled with sadness. Some sisters lost someone they had known since they were very young women, or with whom they had shared a home for tens of years.

The deaths were painful to hear about, but they came to a community that believes death is a time of comfort and salvation. But each death broke a promise: No one dies alone.

As the end neared again and again, they could not hold their sister and say the Hail Mary, which has the words "Now and at the hour of our death."

And then, finally, after 13 died in Livonia, it appeared the worst was over.

Some convents remained locked down, but the Greensburg, Pennsylvania, convent found happiness in gathering for meals and morning and evening prayers. Then, they had a party.

Labik wore flowers to celebrate her 60th anniversary at the convent. There was a dinner in her honor. It was the last time they would gather together.

The second wave of coronavirus hit. It killed sisters in Buffalo, New York; Enfield, Connecticut and in Greensberg.

"It was happening so fast," said Sister Mary Elizabeth Mackowiak, 76. She watched from her window in Buffalo when an emergency vehicle appeared. "It really was an awful, helpless feeling," she added.

Jamroz saw the "dark days" of the spring returning, and prepared to face the death of her dear friends.

"Some of them, you grow closer to than even your own blood siblings," she said.

No women took final vows with the Felicians in 2020. There are now 455 sisters in North America.

During the pandemic, fifteen sisters died of other causes in addition to the 21 who died of COVID-19, including Sister Mary Evelyn Labik, who was so loved.

She was buried simply in the Franciscan tradition, wearing the ring she received when she took her vows.

"Deus meus et omnia," was written on the ring. "My God and my all."

She was the only sister to die in Greensburg.

I'm Susan Shand.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

convent - n. a place where female Catholics live to devote their lives to God

kindergarten - n. the first year of school for a child

leap - v. to jump up

salvation - n. the state of being saved from sin or evil in the Christian faith

siblings - n. brothers and sisters of a person

vows - n. the reciting of holy orders to join a religious order

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