by Moira Cullings
ATCHISON — “I don’t get spooked easily,” said Benedictine Sister Carol Ann Petersen of the Mount St. Scholastica community here.
Which is a very good thing — since she has been living alone on the otherwise empty third floor of St. Cecilia, the oldest building on the Benedictine monastery’s campus.
It’s a life she volunteered for last March, however, when the pandemic hit.
“I knew it needed to be done,” she said. “And temperamentally, I had the sense that I could do it.”
To limit their potential exposure to COVID-19 and to protect the health of their elderly, the Benedictine Sisters locked down — hard.
And Sister Carol Ann became their sole messenger to the outside world.
“Some of the Sisters I think would find it really, really hard to be isolated,” she said. “But I’m happy being an introvert.”
“Most of the day,” said Sister Carol Ann, “I am living the life of a hermit.”
But for a window of time each day, she runs anywhere from four to 22 errands for her fellow Sisters.
Sister Carol Ann is a lifeline especially for those at the Dooley Center, the Mount’s nursing facility, and her stops range from Walmart and the post office to Catholic Charities’ Family Support Center in Atchison.
Josh Taff, site manager of the support center, is grateful for the eggs Sister Carol Ann brings from the Mount every week, which he said is a luxury for the people his team serves.
“Many people can’t afford fresh food,” he said. “This is something they look forward to when they come here.”
Sister Carol Ann also delivers items like toilet paper and blankets during the winter months.
“Sister Carol Ann has been a great help in these times,” said Taff. “I know that if we are in need of anything, she will do all that she can to help us out.”
A helping hand for Mount employees
Sister Carol Ann isn’t the only one who’s stepped up to help her community this year.
Sister Patricia Gamgort, OSB, has coordinated two food pantries — one for Dooley Center employees and one for monastery employees.
Each week, she and a kitchen employee create a grocery order, which typically includes items like eggs, bread, cereal, milk, peanut butter, soup and toilet paper.
Sister Patricia meets with the delivery driver, divvies up the items and ensures that both pantries are well-stocked, sparing employees the many trips to the grocery store the supplies would normally require.
Sister Patricia estimates that 20 families are served by the monastery pantry and 35 to 40 are served by the Dooley one.
“They’re extremely appreciative,” she said. “They say, ‘I don’t know what we would do without this. It’s been such a help for us.’”
Sister Patricia has ample experience working to combat food insecurity. Her former community was with the Benedictine Sisters on the eastern shore of Maryland, where she started a food pantry, a thrift shop and a house for women and children.
She also at one time served on the board of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware.
“I’ve always had a desire to work with the needy and the poor,” she said.
Sister Patricia served as the director of the Dooley Center for a few years before COVID hit, so the opportunity to continue helping the Mount in some way has been special.
“I enjoy it very much,” she said. “When I know that we are fulfilling a real need, it makes me very happy to see that.”
Feeding the isolated
Life at the Mount this year wouldn’t run smoothly without “Meals on Wheels,” a team of five Sisters who take meals by cart to those who are isolated even from their own community.
“Each isolated Sister is given a menu, and we take them whatever they ask for to eat, as well as their mail and . . . any groceries [they order] from our kitchen,” said Sister Carolyn Rohde, OSB, who is part of the team.
Sister Carol Ann is perennially numbered among those “isolated,” but other Sisters might be at various times, too, for exposure to COVID, work in the Dooley Center, visits with relatives or extended stays at the hospital.
“We have been particularly blessed with only three Sisters who tested positive for COVID, and [they] had minimal symptoms,” said Sister Carolyn.
When those Sisters were moved to an area of the monastery separate from the rest of the community, Sister Carolyn, a registered nurse, became their caregiver — then spent time quarantined herself.
“I understand what it must be like to be alone during this time when you can’t physically associate with anyone,” she said. “It was very lonely for me.
“However, community members kept in good touch with me by phone . . . [and I] felt very good about serving our Sisters during this time.”
Sister Carolyn has a heart for service. She retired from her nursing ministry at a safety net clinic just two months before the COVID lockdown.
“I really loved my work with the ‘working poor,’ homeless and patients who recently were released from the penitentiaries,” she said.
Sister Carolyn misses that type of ministry but continues to pray for those she served. She also crochets hats, scarves and mittens for those in need.
“I find that this pandemic has been a learning lesson of how each of us as human beings are dependent on one another — in this case, to stay healthy,” she said.
‘We’re serving Christ in one another’
The past year has been a strenuous journey, but Sister Carol Ann said it’s also come with many blessings.
“This time of COVID has made us more reflective on what are our needs and what are our wants,” she said.
She’s also enjoyed a few perks of isolation — like having her own car and her own bathroom.
And even during the toughest times, Sister Carol Ann recognized that she’s ultimately part of a bigger picture — especially when she looks back at the history of her order.
“Early on [during COVID], we had read from a daily diary that the monastery had,” she said. “We looked back on what the Sisters were doing during the last big flu back in 1918.”
In those years, the Sisters ran a boarding school and were responsible for the nursing of all the students who were ill.
“I think there is a history of us taking care of one another,” she said. “Many, many family members are taking care of one another [in this current pandemic], and neighbors are taking care of neighbors, too.
“There are good things that have come out of this.”
The Sisters received their second dose of the Pfizer COVID vaccine at the end of January. They are hopeful for the future but remain thankful for the outcome of their efforts throughout the year.
“I’m really proud of our community for choosing to take care of one another,” said Sister Carol Ann.
Sister Patricia agreed.
“We’re more fortunate than many people who are really isolated,” she said.
“We come together, pray together and eat together,” she added. “We’re spaced out, but still, we do see one another.”
Sister Patricia said all of the sacrifices are worth it when it comes to taking care of each other — because that’s what life in community is all about.
“We’re serving Christ in one another,” she said. “That keeps us going.”