CALEDONIA — While the grounds of the Siena Retreat Center have been pretty quiet recently, except for carillon bells every so often, voices reciting prayer and song in unison filled the air Saturday.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Racine Dominicans living at Siena, 5637 Erie St., have been quarantined (since March) inside the building, only leaving for important appointments such as doctor visits. When a sister returns from an appointment, she is isolated for several days.
Visitors have also not been allowed in the building. This rule has applied to sisters living outside the Siena Center — 41 sisters live outside, out of the total 105 Racine Dominicans.
However, on Saturday, the rules were loosened a bit. The Racine Dominican Executive Committee wanted to give the sisters something to celebrate in these difficult times. The executive team is made up of: Sister Maryann McMahon, president; Sister Kathy Slesar, first vice president; and Sister Lisa Kane, second vice president.
Typically, jubilees celebrating sisters’ anniversaries of being with the order are held in June, but with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s was postponed. Some religious communities completely canceled such celebrations, and there already were many activities and projects the Racine Dominicans have had to cancel because of the pandemic.
But the Executive Committee couldn’t let a jubilee be added to the list of cancellations.
“We asked ourselves, how can we do this?” Slesar said. “If we postpone this, when are we going to do everything we haven’t done?”
So, the team decided to hold a modified event outside. The Racine Dominicans on Saturday morning celebrated 18 sisters’ anniversaries of being with the order. One sister celebrated 25 years, seven sisters celebrated 60 years, eight celebrated 70 years and two celebrated 75 years.
Most sisters are in their 70s, 80s and 90s and so far, none of the sisters have tested positive for the coronavirus. Siena staff want to keep it that way.
Jubilarians celebrating anniversaries were masked and seated in chairs under a tent. Other resident sisters, Siena staff and non-resident sisters sat outside the main entrance.
The short ceremony included a welcome address, song, readings, a renewal of vows and prayer. The sisters were given wrist corsages as opposed to the traditional corsages that are pinned on their shirts.
The reason for having a short service as opposed to a longer formal Mass, which would normally occur during a jubilee, was because it can be difficult to keep the elderly outside for a long period of time, Slesar said.
There was also a live stream video for outsider sisters to watch. Guests were not allowed at the ceremony.
“We’re not trying to be paranoid but we also want to be sensible,” Slesar said. “We’re just very grateful that we decided to do something and be creative instead of waiting till next year. How many of these sisters will be here? Let’s celebrate these sisters while they’re still here.”
After the service, a drive-by made up of non-resident sisters, friends and families drove by the jubilee with their car windows down — the same way of celebrating that the Siena sisters have been following for birthdays.
Typically, a special meal comes after a jubilee celebration. One still happened for resident sisters on Saturday; jubilarians were given a boxed salad from Panera to eat outside or take with them. All attending received an individually boxed cupcake to take with them.
Celebrating 60 years
Sister Karen Fredrickson, who is celebrating 60 years, said being with the Dominicans has been a wonderful experience and a life choice to serve others.
“It’s essentially considered a call,” Fredrickson said. “That’s what God is asking (us) to do or inviting (us) to do.”
Fredrickson has also been the coordinator of Siena Retreat Center for seven years for sisters living there. For many years, she was a guidance counselor at St. Catherine’s High School.
While Fredrickson acknowledged the jubilee was different this year because of social distancing and wearing masks, it was a chance to pause and say thanks to God, the community and the opportunity to live this life, she said. She was excited for the event and the surprises that came along with it.
Because Fredrickson doesn’t live in the building herself, she’s been trying to keep herself safe and be sure she doesn’t bring anything into the building when coming into work.
“Part of what we try to do is be a support to each other through these challenges. We get very close as a group of people,” she said.
Sister Clarice Sevegney also celebrated 60 years with the order. She never second guessed herself about joining the order in 1960.
“It’s wonderful (being a sister). I really had a call to be a sister at a young age. I was 4 or 5 years old,” Sevegney said, remembering being able to walk to church as a child, which was only blocks away.
“Looking over my life, it’s really been a good life. It was what I was called to, what was meant to be.”
Sevegney also volunteers at the LGBT Center of SE Wisconsin, 1456 Junction Ave. in Racine. She serves on the center’s Board of Directors, and said she’s one of the most involved sisters. She also provides outreach to isolated and lonely people.
While Sevegney enjoys living at the Siena Center, she said it’s been hard being cooped up during quarantine.
The sisters living at the Siena Center still see each other daily, at meals in the dining rooms, but are socially distanced. And with the no-visitor, essential-trips-only policy, “not being able to move about and see people I would love to see has been difficult,” she said. “It’s kind of like a premature onset of being isolated.”
“We’re going to have to live with this virus. We’re going to have to be very creative with ways we can be physically present to each other.”
Sevegney keeps busy by reading literature. And the jubilee celebration definitely helped her feel less isolated.
“I’m just so glad we’re celebrating our life. It’s a happy life. We’re celebrating who we are and what we are and we’re praising God with it,” she said.