Local Religious life

Shutdown opens up new cyber horizons

Welcome to the Sophia Center “Centering Prayer” retreat, hosted on Zoom the last week of October. The retreat was broken into multiple sessions — some offline, some online — over three days. Following the offline morning session, which had been used for prayer and reflection, participants gathered in the afternoon for questions and discussions. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SOPHIA CENTER

by Susan Fotovich McCabe
Special to The Leaven

ATCHISON — They say when one door closes, another one opens. When COVID-19 forced the doors to the home and hospitality of the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica here to close in mid-March, no one expected the doors to open to a global audience.

That unexpected pandemic outcome is exactly what happened, however, when the Sisters began taking their charism of hospitality and ministries online. According to Sister Judith Sutera, OSB, the Mount’s communications liaison, the Sisters have engaged online with people as far away as Hawaii, Canada, Australia and England — people who never would have had an opportunity to come to their door before the pandemic.

“Just as early monastic men and women used the copying of manuscripts — and, later, printed books — to reach beyond their walls,” Sister Judith said, “Benedictines are still using new technologies to offer hospitality and welcome others to seek God with us.

“While this tragic period of isolation has prevented us from the kind of interactions we used to have, it has also brought us opportunities to reach out in new and broader ways to a world so in need of comfort and hope.”

In the days since the Sisters acted on the early advice of health officials and, in effect, quarantined, they have grown personally and as a spiritual community, Sister Judith added.

Donna Coleman, director of guest services at the Sophia Center in Atchison, sets up a ZOOM retreat. After the center hosted its last in-person retreat in March, they quickly switched to online retreats. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SOPHIA CENTER

Rapid shutter

When the March shutdown came, the Sisters quarantined themselves — not only from outside visitors, but also socially distanced from each other inside, particularly at the Mount’s Dooley Center long-term care facility. Organized group prayer inside the Mount came to a grinding halt, as did community outreach through its ministries, the Keeler Women’s Center and the Sophia Spirituality Center.

It was hard on everyone, Sister Judith said, but particularly difficult for the Mount’s older members. As such, all the Sisters were eager to learn new technology to connect with one another, their faith and the community at large.

Knowing, too, that they could not minster to the needs of individuals served by Keeler and the Sophia Center, the Sisters were left with no choice but to embrace new types of technology. It would later be referred to as “cyber hospitality” among the Sisters.

Retreating to screen time

A team of tech-savvy Sisters and staff didn’t waste time deploying the use of Zoom virtual meeting and Facebook livestream technology. Both are effective in bringing people together on-screen from their respective homes and offices instead of together, in person, in the same room. The Mount put those technologies to the test with the Sophia Center. Known for its retreats, such events were the first to transition from in-person to online, according to Sister Carol Ann Petersen, OSB.

The Sophia Center hosted its last and largest retreat for Catholic women on March 8. It included Mass with the Sisters and a brunch. The center was scheduled to host another retreat March 13-15. But even by the first of March, Sister Carol Ann said the Sisters had a sense that everything was coming to a close.

“We had lots of groups we had to cancel. Your heart just sank because you knew they were looking forward to coming and we were looking forward to seeing them,” Sister Carol Ann said. “Many of these groups were people we welcomed every year.”

But by the end of April, the Sophia Center was equipped to move forward online with Souljourners, an ecumenical training program for spiritual directors with sessions one weekend a month. Each year, new enrollees begin the three-year program, which includes a retreat at the Mount.

Sister Mary Elizabeth Schweiger, OSB, sets up a prayer center to be used for a virtual Souljourners practicum. Souljourners is an ecumenical formation program for spiritual directors that now meets online for its monthly training weekends. The prayer center is what everyone sees on their screens for the duration of their scheduled prayer time. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BENEDICTINE SISTERS OF ATCHISON

Sister Mary Elizabeth Schweiger, OSB, oversees Souljourners. She said the program’s staff, made up of the Sisters and laypeople, has worked hard to recreate other aspects of the program online.

For example, during breaks in sessions, participants would typically move to a quiet space within the Mount for prayer and reflection. Now, online participants can log into a digital room with a burning candle and silence.

Additionally, the Souljourner’s staff has prepared a guideline for participants to successfully engage in Souljourners online. They offer tips for using Zoom, maintaining confidentiality and orientation sessions, as well as technical tips for enhancing a participant’s use of lighting, video backdrops and camera angles.

Despite the distractions of home or the office, there have been some silver linings, Sister Mary Elizabeth said.

“We strive to be concise and organized in our programming. Despite being online, people can give their total attention to the session,” she said. “People miss being on-site at the Mount and getting away from their own communities. But the Spirit works through technology as well.”

Other, virtual retreats soon followed, and that’s when the Sisters realized the impact they were making, reaching people of faith from “all over the world,” according to Sister Carol Ann. Since moving their hospitality online, the Sisters have even added a weekly support group on Zoom for adoptive and foster parents. A full list of retreats and workshops at the center is available on the website at: mountosb.org.

Serving the hard hit

Not surprisingly, technology has played a role in other areas within the Mount. Its Keeler Women’s Center in Kansas City, Kansas, which provides education, advocacy, and personal and spiritual development to women in the urban core, had to close due to COVID.

Unfortunately, said Sister Bridget Dickason, OSB, the center’s director, the closure affected those who needed the support the most. In light of job losses and other lost resources, many women were grateful for what the center could do.

The center quickly launched an online prayer and discussion group for its “mujeres” — or women’s — group for Latinas. Brenda Mortell, one of the center’s associate directors, created a Zoom connection for the group, facilitating discussions on issues such as coping with the pandemic, dealing with isolation, schooling at home and developing technology skills.

Sister Suzanne Fitzmaurice, OSB, also an associate director, was quick to update volunteers, clients and the community through Facebook about changes, cancellations and resources, while providing messages of hope and inspiration. As a result, the center has increased its number of Facebook followers.

From her room in Dooley Center, Sister Evelyn Gregory, OSB, has a conference with the prioress via tablet. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BENEDICTINE SISTERS OF ATCHISON

Operating off grants and small user donations, the center’s funding has decreased since the beginning of the pandemic. Yet, the center continues to do what it can to help women in need. It still responds to calls from women in search of utility and rent assistance. And while the number of requests hasn’t increased, according to Sister Bridget, the amounts have.

“Keeler was always a safe place to go. I worry about the homeless who would wander in for food and a safe social outlet,” Sister Bridget said. “I worry about how they are doing. I know the pandemic is taking a toll on us all.”

The center is following state and local health officials’ guidance on when it can reopen. However, given the physical vulnerability of the clients and volunteers who visit and work at the Keeler Women’s Center and rising cases of COVID this fall, a reopening may have to wait, Sister Bridget said.

“The biggest thing we miss is the hospitality — feeling connected to other people,” Sister Bridget said.

Cyber worship

As parishes in the archdiocese have gone online for Masses, so, too, have the Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica. Sister Susan Barber, OSB, coordinates the liturgical life for the Mount.

At first, Sister Eleanor Suther, OSB, recorded prayers with her phone for the Sisters in Dooley Center. When all the Sisters were restricted to their rooms, Sister Susan gathered a small group of Sisters to record themselves singing their prayers while Sister Suzanne recorded them. The recordings were distributed to the Sisters and were a huge blessing during isolation.

The Mount’s efforts soon expanded, as did the prayers. Audio recording evolved into video so that the Sisters in quarantine and in Dooley could see the community.

Currently, the Sisters post their audio prayer recordings on the Mount’s website and livestream the compline service from the Liturgy of the Hours on Facebook.

“Our Wednesday night compline has received a lot of positive affirmation. It’s been a wonderful way to reach out to our community,” Sister Susan said. “We see this as a new way of outreach. We have a regular attendee who worships with us from Brazil. We’re investing in better technology so it can be smoother and better.”

Silver linings

The Sisters agree: There’s nothing better than greeting guests in person at the Mount. And while the pandemic has fueled feelings of isolation for everyone at some point, there have been silver linings. According to Sister Judith, technology has served them well. This is especially true for an aging population within the Mount.

“We’re always concerned about the community getting smaller and how we’ll maintain our outreach,” Sister Judith said. “This experience has really shown us an even greater path to evangelization.”

She also has been impressed with the new skills the Sisters have developed.

“There are Sisters in their 90s who are quite adept with their devices because it could be very depressing when you can’t leave your room,” she said. “It’s been a lifesaver.”

About the author

Susan Fotovich McCabe

Susan Fotovich McCabe is a writer, editor and Kansas City native. As a writer, Susan has covered a wide array of topics, from health care to aviation and everything in between. Susan built a long freelance practice, where she contributed to local publications, such as The Kansas City Star, Kansas City Business, Lifestyle Magazine and Parenting Children with Special Needs. She worked for two Kansas City public relations agencies and a media publishing company. Susan and her husband, Bill, support all things Jayhawk and love spending time with their three children, son-in-law and granddaughter.

Leave a Comment