After a lifetime of selflessness, much of it spent teaching, aiding the sick or providing child care to poor and at-risk children, 13 Felician sisters at the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary convent in Michigan died of COVID-19 in May and June.
For more than half a century the sisters, who worked and lived together at their Michigan convent and ranged in age from 69 to 99, were a boon to the communities they served through teaching, pastoral work and ministry.
Having given their all to the aid of others, their ability to protect themselves was complicated from the beginning, perhaps especially when their governor was repeatedly and publicly denied federal aid by the Trump administration.
In March Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer told the press her rift with the Trump administration had held up shipments of crucial protective wear and medical supplies as coronavirus cases surged.
“When the federal government told us that we needed to go it ourselves, we started procuring every item we could get our hands on,” Whitmer told the press in March. “What I've gotten back is that vendors with whom we had contracts are now being told not to send stuff here to Michigan. It's really concerning.”
In March gleefully Trump told the press he had asked Vice President Mike Pence not to call or give aid to any governors who had not been “appreciative” enough of his efforts on coronavirus, a group of critics that included Whitmer.
“Don't call the woman in Michigan,” Trump told the press conference he had warned Pence, who was appointed head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force at the time. “I want them to be appreciative,” Trump concluded.
“I've asked repeatedly and respectfully for help,” Whitmer shot back. “We need it. No more political attacks, just PPEs, ventilators, N95 masks, test kits.”
The protective gear was not forthcoming however. Then in May thousands of Trump supporting Michiganders came out to protest Whitmer’s blanket stay-at-home order, which was aimed at slowing down the coronavirus spread.
Protesters were supposed to stay in their vehicles but many defied the executive order that Trump had also opposed. “We believe the government has overreached,” a masked man told the press. “The virus is not as serious as they made it out to be.”
For the elderly and the sick this political defiance proved to be lethal. The coronavirus spreads with ease wherever people congregate and it represents a particular threat to seniors. Nursing homes and convents, where older people live communally, have been a particular target for infections.
Embedded within their local community, where they were frontline workers in the schools, libraries and medical centers, the sisters were a vulnerable target. In fact their series of sudden deaths may be the worst to befall a community of religious women in the United States since the 1918 influenza pandemic.
“The faith we share with sisters as they are dying, the prayers we share with sisters as they are dying: We missed all that. It kind of shattered our faith life a little bit,” Sister Joyce Marie Van de Vyver told the Global Sisters Report.
“I first heard two aides had contracted the virus,” Sister Mary Andrew Budinski, the superior of the convent, told the publication. “We don't know who they are, and we don't want to know. Then it hit sisters on the second floor, and it went through like wildfire. Just every day, they'd say, 'Another sister.' 'Another sister.' 'Another sister.' It was very frightening.”
Andrew contracted the virus herself but eventually recovered.
Statewide, as of Tuesday, there were 84,585 confirmed coronavirus cases in Michigan and 6,397 deaths.