ROCHESTER, Minn. — The sisters refer to it as "going off the hill," and, in ordinary times, it meant simply leaving the Assisi Heights convent for a trip to downtown Rochester.

Nothing has been so simple this year. Few sisters leave the hill these days. Since the pandemic's start in March, the Sisters of St. Francis who live in the hilltop convent in northwest Rochester have been confined there. And people outside it have been barred from visiting.

It's been going on for 10 months now.

On the occasion a sister leaves the 425,000-square-foot complex for, say, a doctor's appointment, it is a consequential undertaking. It triggers an automatic two-week quarantine to prevent the risk of transmission in the event that the sister was exposed while off the hill.

Sister Rosemary Zemler isn't certain how many quarantines she has been through; too many to count. Zemler was quarantined after going off the hill for ankle surgery. She was put on quarantine four separate times after that for post-surgery check-ups. She was quarantined after getting her eyes checked and later again when she went to see the dentist.

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Yet, as challenging as the year has been, Zemler, 81, doesn't complain. It's easy for her to imagine how much more difficult and isolating it must be for someone who doesn't live in a community like hers. It makes all the difference.

"I think the sisters who live outside Assisi Heights have it a lot harder than we do, because we have the social activity of one another," Zemler said.

A photo of Sister Rosemary Zemler, one of the sisters who have been confined to their convent for the last 10 months (submitted photo).
A photo of Sister Rosemary Zemler, one of the sisters who have been confined to their convent for the last 10 months (submitted photo).

Zemler takes regular strolls along the corridor outside her room for exercise and to socialize. Educational programs on TV, including one on Pope Francis, are offered regularly. There is a movie night. Mass is offered every day on TV, relayed from Saint Marys Hospital or the chapel at Assisi Heights.

"It has been difficult in some ways, but I look at people who don't have one another," Zemler said.

The sisters live on different corridors in their house. Each corridor houses nine to 10 sisters. During the pandemic, the sisters have been restricted to those corridors. In the beginning, they weren't even allowed to go to chapel. Denied access to the larger community, a tight-knit bond was formed among the smaller groups of sisters on each corridor.

"Our nine sisters would pray together every day," said Sister Martha Mathew, a retired nurse. "That didn't happen before because we had different groups that we would pray with in the house. So, it brought us together. We got to know each other quite well."

The sisters have been largely unscathed by the pandemic. Since its start, two sisters have gotten COVID-19 and two others have tested positive, but were asymptomatic. No sister has died from the disease. When one of the staff, such as a nurse, tests positive, the sisters are put in quarantine.

One of two signs at the entrance to Assisi Heights Sisters of Saint Francis reminds potential visitors that the grounds are closed to the public Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
One of two signs at the entrance to Assisi Heights Sisters of Saint Francis reminds potential visitors that the grounds are closed to the public Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

In 2004, there were an estimated 300 sisters living in Rochester. Today, it is half that number with 90 or so sisters living on the hill and the rest living outside it. Many are retired teachers, nurses and social workers, ranging in age from their 70s to age 99.

Their history is tightly woven with that of Rochester. When Sister Mary Alfred Moses and others came to Rochester in 1877, they came as teachers, but their roles evolved to meet the needs of the city.

After a tornado tore through Rochester in 1883, killing dozens of people, it was Mother Mary Alfred who urged Dr. William Mayo, the father of William and Charles, to band together to form Saint Marys Hospital, which is now part of Mayo Clinic.

Sister Patricia Schlosser, a social worker who works with women in prison, said the communal nature of the sisters' lifestyle "accelerated" their consciousness of the global community and how the pandemic was affecting it.

"When you are part of a community, you're very conscious of the common good," Schlosser said. "We really want to be conscious of that in our personal lives. Always wearing a mask. Staying socially distant. Sometimes, it is very tiresome when you're inside and you're not seeing anybody. But it was this whole idea of the common good."'

The sisters have not been idle in their confinement. Though physically isolated, Schlosser said that sense of connection and responsibility to the larger community "brought a lot of action here at Assisi Heights."

They made financial contributions to organizations and nonprofits that care for people. They wrote letters and made telephone calls to encourage people to vote in the last presidential election. Though she declines to say who she voted for, Mathew said her prayers were aimed at bringing serenity to the country, no matter who won. They also wrote a letter to the editor to the Rochester Post Bulletin in support of a Black restaurant owner who couldn't get a loan due to his race.

"We got a response from the restaurant owner inviting us to his restaurant," Schlosser said. "I mean, there was a lot of action going on."

All of the sisters spoke of their love of nature. Zemler said her extended confinement has meant that she "missed all of the seasons." Yet, she still finds ways to enjoy it.

Her second-floor window looks out on an area of the grounds and prairie grass where deer, squirrels and turkey make regular visits. The other day, Zemler started giggling when she saw two squirrels up in a tree that the turkeys apparently considered their own. The turkey, incensed at the occupation, ran madly around the tree.

"They're so much fun to watch," Zemler laughed. "I really enjoy nature."