And, though now blind, 78-year-old Silvano Votto, S.J., who once taught literature and ancient languages in Rome, could continue to share his great love of art in illustrated weekly lectures on European painting, assisted by the center’s recreation director, Julie Johnson, who would describe the images for Votto’s rapt audience.
As the coronavirus surged in California in November, however, it finally found its way inside the center, says Lucas Sharma, S.J., M.Div ’24, a 34-year-old Jesuit in-formation currently studying at SCU’s Jesuit School of Theology.
The youngest resident at the center, he was sent to Sacred Heart to keep him safe from COVID-19. Sharma received a kidney transplant six years earlier and requires medication that suppresses his immune system to stay alive.
The Monday before Thanksgiving, he was among the first group at the center to test positive for COVID-19.
“There are two theories of how we could have gotten the virus,” he says. Either an employee at Sacred Heart unknowingly transmitted it, or a Jesuit may have interacted with an asymptomatic person during a visit to a doctor’s office.
Whatever the case, says Fr. Privett, “we got whacked by the virus.”
Sharma and 10 others fell so ill they were sent to the hospital, where many, including him, were placed on oxygen. It would take Sharma a month to recover. The week after he was diagnosed, 20 more Jesuits tested positive, including Privett, the Superior, whose symptoms included the hallmarks of COVID—including fever, chills, cough—as well as hives.
A three-month-long lockdown followed. No one was allowed to leave their room; meals were left outside their doors. The community so cherished by residents was replaced by required isolation.
All communication happened by phone, email, or Zoom. Mass was broadcast on a closed-circuit television channel. Privett used a building-wide intercom to announce patient updates and deaths.
WAVES OF GRIEF
“‘This is John Privett calling with more bad news,’” Sharma recollects the Superior’s exhausted voice over the intercom. “And it was like that for days upon days, one after the next.”
In the five-week span between Dec. 6, 2020 and Jan. 4, 2021, eight Jesuits died from the virus. Another five died of unrelated causes in that time.
“There was this air of having so much to announce, who was coming or going from the hospital,” Sharma says.
Privett and others watched as fire engines and ambulances pulled up in front of the building’s main entrance, disgorging emergency crews dressed in protective gear, including masks and face shields, to safely transport yet another friend to a hospital.
“And I would say, ‘Please God, let him come home,’” Privett recalls.
But eight Jesuits, including Bush, Fice, and Votto, never returned; nor could anyone visit them in the hospitals to say their goodbyes, or administer last rites.
One by one they died, three at home at the center, five others in hospital beds, all of their ashes either sent to relatives or returned to Sacred Heart where they were stored in urns next to Privett’s office.
Together with the ashes of Jesuits who had died from other causes, the urns multiplied until Privett was allowed to transport them to the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery for final rest. Funerals were held months later, still only allowed over Zoom.
“Death is not a surprise to us here; it’s not shocking. But the virus was,” recalls the Superior. “Throughout the whole time, my thought process was, ‘HELP!’” he says. “I said, ‘OK, God. We gotta get through this, and help me and help all of us. How do I, together with my Jesuit brothers, face this illness in ways that recognize that some of us may die?’”
Sharma—who had become close to many of the Jesuits through the weekly dinner parties and a book club he hosted focused on anti-racism literature—was overcome by sadness and an acute sense of loneliness.
Yet he still does not believe that God causes bad things to happen to good people, and rejects the well-worn cliché that “everything happens for a reason.”
“I don’t believe that for a second, and maybe that’s the sociologist in me,” Sharma explains. “That being said, I believe God grieves with us. Lots of bad things happen, and yet still God enters the world … God still makes an effort, even in the worst of circumstances.”
For her part, Johnson, the center’s recreation director, did whatever she could to fortify the residents’ mental and physical health.