Eight Sisters die from COVID-19 despite best efforts at safety at Wisconsin retirement home

Posted at 8:50 AM, Dec 18, 2020

MILWAUKEE — Eight Sisters at Notre Dame of Elm Grove, a retirement home near Milwaukee, died from COVID-19 in a week despite the home’s best efforts.

“The Sisters, were being extra careful in terms of getting their meals in rooms and they can’t congregate together,” Sister Debra Sciano, Provincial Leader of the School Sisters of Notre Dame Central Pacific Province said. “More testing, being tested twice a week for the virus.”

Sciano says they are heartbroken to lose these eight women. Combined, they had over half a millennium of service to the community.

All educators in their own right, their reach went far beyond the walls of the School Sisters of Notre Dame retirement home.

“Every one of our sisters is really important,” Sciano said. “Not only to us, but we feel they have touched thousands of lives we’ll never be aware of.”

Sister Mary Elva Weisner
Sister Mary Elva Weisner

Sister Mary Elva Weisner had a special love for teaching children the sacraments, Sciano said. She would sing with them and bring a bright and cheery attitude.

Sister Mary Alexius Portz
Photo of Sister Mary Alexis Portz

Sister Mary Alexius Portz was a musician. While all of these women were retired, Sciano says Portz worked into her 80s, giving music lessons.

Sister Rose Feess was a staunch advocate for young women. Sciano says she focused her efforts at the Notre Dame School in Milwaukee, where she focused on helping Hispanic girls succeed.

Sister Cynthia Borman, an educator as well, was also something of a handy-woman. She was the fixer-upper of the church. Sciano says if you needed something fixed, she was the one to turn to.

Sister Dorothy MacIntyre was more into arts and crafts. A giver, she’d gift her works to people and create other things to share with people.

Sister Joan Emily Kaul served as a secretary for many parishes in the area on top of teaching. It was her smile that cut through to people’s hearts; bringing joy to many.

Sister Michael Marie Laux has been all over the world, sharing her knowledge. From Guam to Alaska back to Cream City. Her work around the world is something Sciano marvels at.

Sister Lillia Langreck
Image of Sister Lillia Langreck

Sister Lillia Langreck’s work for much of the last 60 years is something you could see her doing to this very day. She was heavily involved in racial and social justice efforts alongside people like Father James Groppi during the Milwaukee marches for fair housing, integrated busing and more.

“You’d never guess their age if you met them,” Sciano said. “Most were up there in their 80s or 90s but honestly, they could run circles around me at times with energy and commitment.”

While their lives were devoted to the church, their impact couldn’t be contained to the house of worship.

“They’re wonderful women,” Sciano said. “They are mentors and wisdom figures for me and so many of us.”

Now, with about a week to go until Christmas, one of the biggest holidays in the Catholic Church, they’ll be celebrating with heavy hearts.

“Is there ever an easy time?” Sciano said. “No, no. But we’re trying to celebrate the lives of these women as we grieve their lives. They’ll be missed terribly.”

Even in loss, Sciano is quick to point out, while they will be celebrating the lives of these women, they are already looking to the others who are impacted. It’s what all eight of these women would have wanted.

“We realize, we’re not the only ones,” Sciano said. “So many are suffering. We appreciate the love, the care, the concern from the broader community but we encourage everyone to support those who have lost loved ones and who continue to have economic issues and so many other things. We’re with them as well. We continue to do that as we struggle. Of course, it is difficult but for us, in the church, we’re celebrating the season of advent right now. It’s a time of waiting. It’s really a poignant time as we experience these losses, it’s in preparation for celebration. It’s letting go during the time of advent that’s much more dramatic at this time.”

This story originally reported by Shaun Gallagher on