Travel bans and leaky walls: Retiring amid an unexpected crisis

Allegra Thatcher, Assistant Editor.

If you’re like most people, you have post-retirement plans to travel, volunteer and finally accomplish some of the things for which you’ve never had time. Divine Providence Sister Fidelis Tracy was no different, only the timing and times changed some of those plans: she retired in 2020 amid a pandemic.

After 60 years of professed life as a sister and equally as long teaching, Sister Fidelis decided in May that it was time to say farewell to Thomas More University and her professional life. She currently lives in Covington with some fellow sisters from the Congregation of Divine Providence. One is still working, and the other two are also retired.

Sister Fidelis explained that for priests and religious who retire, “I think there’s an expectation that they continue to be involved in some kind of ministry, in some kind of service. Most everybody does that kind of thing.”

However, it’s been difficult to get involved in anything new because of the pandemic. “It’s a weird time to begin retirement in terms of involvement,” she laughed. Sister Fidelis had plans to travel and visit long-time friends from out of state, and also hoped to volunteer for some new social services.

“I’ve been involved in academia all my life, and I’ve never been involved in social service kinds of things, maybe helping out in some offices or … trying to prevent human trafficking, that would be an interest of mine,” she said. “There are a lot of social services here in Covington, like the Parish Kitchen, where I could probably get some kind of involvement, but I know we can’t go anywhere so I haven’t started yet.”

After her initial plans were thwarted due to travel restrictions, and many volunteering opportunities have remained shut down, she’s found ways to stay occupied. She started off with a project on her basement.

“Our basement is leaky, it has moisture coming in, so I decided I was going to put some sealant on the walls in one section. But I didn’t realize how big of a project that was — I took a long time re-sealing the basement. It needed to be done and I couldn’t do anything else, so I did that.”

Her day-to-day routines have changed since May, and she’s pleased with having leisurely mornings. “Not having to rush off to school (is new),” she said. “I’ve really been able to spend more time with prayer and reflection in the mornings and that’s been really good. I’ve read a few novels, which I really love to read, and I haven’t had much time to do much but professional reading.”

Sister Fidelis started out her professed life as a high school math and science teacher, then transitioned into teaching theology and serving as a campus minister at Thomas More University.

The unstructured nature of her time, she said, has been both excellent and a challenge in terms of pushing herself to make a list and do those things. “I think the lack of pressure has been really good for me. … One of the things about retirement is you’re used to having to do stuff. As a teacher, every day you know you have to do preparation, you have to correct papers, it’s all scheduled. But once you get unscheduled time, it’s kind of hard to make yourself do the things you need to do. Because you don’t have to! So it’s taken me a while to kind of adjust.”

She’s taken up writing, a long-time goal of hers, to work on some essays she wants to make into a collection. She also has collected materials in hopes of leading workshops in parishes on theology and Scripture, though all such events are currently cancelled. Weekend retreats and reflection days are on the bucket list as well, and she has hopes for such things post-pandemic.

One activity she has been able to pursue with active results is working on reflections and recordings for virtual meetings with her community. She and a fellow sister are working on a virtual “Come and See” retreat, so she enjoys being involved in the planning.

“A lot of it involves virtual meetings, and I’m not real keen on those, but at least it gives the opportunity to continue some of the ministries,” she said.

Sister Fidelis greatly misses the Thomas More community, where she taught for 16 years, and has come to appreciate it all the more, now that she’s not on campus. She imagined going to plays, gallery openings, poetry readings and athletic events to stay in touch with faculty and students. Unfortunately, none of that is happening in 2020.

“Now that I’m not teaching, I really am more aware of how much I craved the relationship with both faculty and students, the presence of the people, the interactions, the social aspect … they were very rewarding. I think an appreciation for what ministry involves in terms of relationship is something I’ve been aware of,” she said.

She’s savoring the community at home, however, like most people this year. “It’s wonderful to be in community. To share the things that are going on … It’s a big house so there’s a lot of upkeep … and trying to help each other with different things, cooking for each other.”

Overall, Sister Fidelis knows her experience “is rather untypical of what retirement means,” but is grateful for the changes this year has brought, while looking forward to a time when she can pursue more of her goals for service to the local community.

The Retirement for Religious Fund Collection supports retired priests and religious like Sister Fidelis Tracy, who have served the Church with their whole lives. The collection will take place Dec. 12-13 during Mass at parishes in the Diocese of Covington.