Local Religious life

Pandemic rules test even those used to living in community

Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison is home to the Benedictine Sisters.

by Katie Peterson
Special to The Leaven

LEAVENWORTH — As three local religious communities continue to navigate life and the current in-house restrictions because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they agree that their faith has only gotten stronger.

For nearly two months, the state of Kansas was under a “stay at home” order, which only allowed an individual to leave his or her home for essential activities. But for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica and the monks of St. Benedict’s Abbey — both in Atchison — the restrictions were even greater.

“We’re old,” Sister Katherine Mary Westhues, SCL, said bluntly. “And so that puts us more at risk.”

Restrictions have varied between the communities. For the Benedictine Sisters and the SCLs, not only have they been quarantined from the outside world, they’ve also been quarantined from each other. This has meant eating meals in their rooms, or, more recently for the SCLs, one per table in the dining room, suspended group prayers and either limited or no access to the Eucharist.

“It interfered with the whole prayer life we have,” said prioress Sister Esther Fangman, OSB.

This sign welcomes people to the Sisters of Charity Motherhouse in Leavenworth.

This led to internal struggles for some.

“We have more in the dining room than we do in the chapel because of social distance and everything,” said Sister Katherine Mary. “I don’t know why the chapel is more poisonous than the dining room.

“[The chapel] seems like the place we should go first!” she continued. “But that other things are more important than that — it bothers me.

“I feel like I’m talking to God on the telephone because I’m not with him, and I don’t particularly care for talking on the telephone.”

But she said this hasn’t stopped her from praying.

“I’ve had a lot of internal struggles. I think the devil was behind it, but I continue to pray, and I know [God] is helping me,” said Sister Katherine Mary.

Sister Anne Callahan, SCL, said she also has found it hard not being able to receive the Eucharist on a daily basis or interact with her fellow Sisters, but has tried to make the best of the situation.

“I just took it as God’s will. We have a vow of obedience after all,” said Sister Anne. “I, personally, have found it like a 40-day retreat. . . . It’s been wonderful for our prayer life.

“I think a lot of good came from it and got us focused on what’s really      important,” she said.

Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison is home to the Benedictine Sisters.

Both communities have still found ways to remain connected to each other — thanks to livestreamed Masses and communal prayers that they can access on their phones or iPads.

“You can turn that on, and it’s almost like you’re in the chapel,” said Sister Anne. “They moved the tabernacle, so it is in view of the camera.”

Sister Esther said the Benedictine Sisters have also been able to continue to serve others, even in quarantine, by making personal protective equipment for the health care workers who take care of the elderly Sisters living in the Dooley Center.

“The creativity is unbelievable,” said Sister Esther.

St. Benedict’s Abbey

The experience has been different for the Benedictine monks, who decided early that, since they would stay in-house, they wouldn’t quarantine from each other.

“The guidelines had all been saying that within family units, social distancing wasn’t really a requirement, so as we were putting together all of our guidelines, the decision was made that this is our family,” said Brother Placidus Lee.

Because of this decision, the monks have continued to pray together, celebrate the Eucharist and gather for meals. But this didn’t mean there weren’t moments of struggle.

“During Saint Patrick’s Day, I was celebrating Mass and that’s when we announced that there would be no public Masses,” said Father Jay Kythe. “It kind of hit me like a ton of bricks during Mass.

“By the end of Mass, I could barely eke out a blessing because I was really just upset about the idea that I was ordained to give the sacraments to people, and I couldn’t be there for them.”

“I had to wrestle with that all through Lent,” he admitted. “It was really my Holy Week when I was able to surrender it and let it go and just really trust God.”

No matter what the circumstance or individual struggle, each of the religious agreed that reliance on God and clinging to faith was key.

“What else is there to cling to but to God?” asked Sister Anne.

“There are things in life that happen, and it’s not a message from God of disappointment in us or wanting us to learn something, but it is a message of, ‘You have to go through this and, as you go through this, know I am with you,’ and it can strengthen you,” said Sister Esther.

“This is our opportunity,” she added, “to go deeper — and grow — in our faith.”

About the author

Katie Peterson

Katie Peterson

Katie Peterson attended Xavier Catholic School, Immaculata High School and the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth. She majored in English and minored in music. Katie joined The Leaven as a freelance writer and photographer in May 2017. Her favorite assignment, though she’s enjoyed them all, was interviewing her dad, David, in 2017, after he completed his 100th shadowbox rosary, which he has been making as gifts since 1983. Katie’s full-time position is as reporter for the Fort Leavenworth Lamp newspaper.

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