They were educators, music teachers and community activists who served tirelessly for those living in poverty.
In less than two weeks, eight Roman Catholic sisters died of illnesses related to Covid-19 at a Wisconsin retirement home this month, a gut-wrenching loss that highlighted the risks of infection in communal residences, even as administrators said they took precautions against infection.
The deaths took place at Notre Dame of Elm Grove, about eight miles west of Milwaukee, in Waukesha County. Like most of the United States, Wisconsin is struggling to contain the spread of the coronavirus, and it has recorded at least 482,443 cases and 4,566 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a New York Times database. There have been 34,176 cases in Waukesha, it shows.
The home was converted into a residence for elderly and sick sisters on a site historically used as an orphanage for children in the area in 1859. The first of the eight women died on Dec. 9, and the others in the days that followed, through Tuesday, Trudy Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the School Sisters of Notre Dame Central Pacific Province, which established the home, said on Friday.
Sisters Rose M. Feess, 91, and Mary Elva Wiesner, 94, a religious educator and liturgist, died on Dec. 9, according to the home’s site. Sister Dorothy MacIntyre, 88, died two days later, and Sister Mary Alexius Portz, 96, died two days after that, on Sunday. Sisters Joan Emily Kaul, 95, Lillia Langreck, 92, and Michael Marie Laux, 90, died on Monday. Sister Cynthia Borman, 90, died on Tuesday.
“It was quite a shock in a short amount of time,” Ms. Hamilton said. Their full biographies were not immediately available, she said, as administrators were trying to deal with the grim loss of so many dying in such a short period of time. “We are playing catch up,” Ms. Hamilton said.
Experts say that aging populations are particularly vulnerable to the virus, which thrives in transmission anywhere people are in close contact. The sisters lived communally, just as residents living in nursing homes, which have especially been hard hit by the pandemic.
The deaths at the residence reflected losses at similar facilities. At the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in Livonia, Mich., 12 Felician sisters died in April and May, followed by a 13th sister in June, of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
In Wisconsin, at least five sisters at Our Lady of the Angels Convent, in a suburb of Milwaukee, died, starting in April. All five nuns were discovered to have the virus only after their deaths.
In Waukesha County, the Medical Examiner’s Office does not require mandatory reporting of Covid-19 deaths, said Linda Wickstrom, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services. “It is the prerogative of a business or congregate setting to either confirm or deny” an outbreak or health status of individuals, she said in an email.
Sister Debra Marie Sciano, the provincial leader for School Sisters of Notre Dame Central Pacific Province, said in an interview that the eight sisters at the Elm Grove campus had retired there after decades of service, in fields that included teaching, music education, crafts and poetry.
(A ninth sister, Sister Marcene Schlosser, 82, died at a separate S.S.N.D. campus in Mankato, Minn., on Dec. 14.)
Sister Debra said that the Elm Grove residence had followed federal guidelines to try to keep the sisters safe, with masks and social distancing protocols such as spacing a few at a time at dining tables, and curtailing the number of visitors.
Then on Thanksgiving Day, she was informed that one of the sisters had tested positive for the coronavirus. She was separated from the rest, and when others started to become sick, the group was cared for in one wing. “Right after that, we began testing twice a week,” Sister Debra said.
The 88 others who still live at the facility are required to stay in their rooms, where they eat and watch Mass on closed circuit televisions.
“It has been rough, it has been very rough,” she said. “It is kind of like a gut-punch moment. The first was hard enough, and when it kept happening, there was a sense of deep loss.”
Detailed biographies for some of the women, including quotes from them that were recorded on occasions celebrating 25 years of service, reflected lifetimes of work in education and in taking care of others.
Sister Mary Portz was a music teacher who said her “greatest joy was teaching children piano lessons.”
Sister Rose Feess loved teaching and working on the Indian Reservation in South Dakota with the Sioux Indians. “Likewise, I have always been happy to work with the poor and underprivileged like the people of the streets who knock on my door, or Louie, the homeless man, who became our charge until God called him,” she said, according to her profile on the site.
Sister Debra said Sister Dorothy was a teacher, as well as a dental assistant, and loved to do arts and crafts. Sister Michael taught in Guam, Alaska and Kenya. Sister Lillia was a poet, a special needs teacher and a “strong advocate for peace and justice,” Sister Debra said.
“It really hurts,” she said. “But even as hard as it is for us, we try to celebrate their lives as well.”