London

Sisters of St. Joseph battle outbreak in their north London residence

A group of women who are used to helping others are now forced to stay in their rooms and rely on others as a coronavirus outbreak continues in a residence for retired and ill nuns.

One resident and one health care worker at the Sisters of St. Joseph have died

The Sisters of St. Joseph is a retirement facility and long-term care home for retired nuns. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The Sisters of St. Joseph are used to being on the front lines, helping low-income and homeless Londoners at their downtown soup kitchen and fighting for climate and social justice. 

But now, the sisters are being forced to take a backseat as they battle an outbreak of the deadly coronavirus that has brought much of the world to a standstill. 

The sisters' residence on Windermere Road is in the midst of an outbreak that was declared in mid-April and has claimed the life of one sister and a personal support worker. As of Tuesday, eight staff members are still recovering from the virus, and two are back at work, while one remains home caring for her ailing husband. 

A dozen nuns have tested positive for the virus since the outbreak began, and six are on the road to recovery. Four have fully recovered, but one has died and one is receiving palliative care. 

"These are women who are older but they're active. They're used to working in our soup kitchen, volunteering in the community. Most have come to us after retiring from hospital work or work in education," said Sister Margo Ritchie, the congregational leader and unofficial spokesperson for the 65 women who live in the facility. 

Now, they are confined to their rooms, and get their meals on trays delivered to their doors. Once a day, one of the sisters goes to the chapel and broadcasts a prayer service into the rooms, using the closed-circuit television system that was built into the facility when it was remodelled in the early 2000s. 

They also call each other to check in on one another. Some sisters reach out to people in the community by phone, others are on Zoom calls, continuing their social justice work. 

Two families

"All of us are in isolation in our rooms, but we have staff who are going above and beyond. When I spoke to them, they told me that they will keep making every day the best that they can," Ritchie said. 

"One of our registered nurses told me, 'This is a very challenging environment to work in, but it is the best environment.' Another staff member said, 'We don't want to fail the sisters because they haven't failed us' and someone else said 'It is as though we are splitting time between two families: work and home.'" 

Sister Margo Ritchie is the congregational leader for the Sisters of St. Joseph. (Supplied by Sister Margo Ritchie)

The most difficult thing for the women is that, after a life dedicated to helping people, they cannot jump in and help during one of the worst crises of our time, Ritchie said. 

"It's kind of shifting our role and recognizing that other people are stepping in to help," she said. "We recognize that we have a lot here — we have food to eat, we have each other, we have community. That's very much in our consciousness." 

Sister Leonarda Kelly at microscope in the blood bank at St. Joseph’s Hospital in London, circa mid 1940s. (From: Sister - The history of the Sisters of St. Joseph in London)

The soup kitchen on Dundas Street continues to serve 400 meals a day, staffed by workers who don't come to the residence. 

There are projects locally that the sisters are still working on, with others in different parts of Canada and the world. 

"We are keeping the whole world in our minds," said Ritchie. "Our work continues because this pandemic is like a catalyst for new behaviour and we need to keep that broader picture in mind." 

About the Author

Kate Dubinski

Reporter/Editor

Kate Dubinski is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in London, Ont. You can email her at kate.dubinski@cbc.ca.