All the trappings of a classic Wisconsin sports event were there: cheering spectators holding up signs, and even a pre-game cookout featuring brats and hot dogs. The competitors closely watched the score, showing camaraderie and sportsmanship.
The venue was the St. Francis Convent, home to the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. Surprised? Don’t be. Activities such as the Wii bowling tournament earlier this summer are an important part of the sisters’ lives and health.
“I’ve had just about all of our sisters come (to Wii bowling) at some point,” said Kimberly Karshna, activities assistant for Community Care, which provides medical and activities staff at the convent. “It’s one of their favorite things. They don’t even realize it’s getting them up and around.”
Karshna and Heather Boldt, a recreation specialist for Community Care, organized the tournament. More than 40 Franciscan sisters were joined by four religious from the School Sisters of Notre Dame for lunch and an afternoon of friendly competition. Community Care also provides services for the Notre Dame sisters at their home in Elm Grove.
The Notre Dame sisters comprised their own team, while the Franciscans were divided into two teams – “Holy Bowlers” and “Links” for the first game, “Ravens” and “Canaries” for the second. Following each game, the participants received red, white or blue ribbons depending on their scores.
Wii allows players to conveniently enjoy the fun of bowling, golf, tennis and other sports. A hand-held controller communicates with the game system to create lifelike, animated images on a television screen. When the player swings her arm, so does the animated player. Scores are added automatically.
The day’s first strike was recorded by 96-year-old Franciscan Sr. Demetria Ziegler, who credited her feat to a change in form.
“Last night, we had practice and I wasn’t getting anywhere, and I was getting provoked,” she said. “My finger always slips, so I switched to using another finger (on the controller release button) and I got three strikes. I think this finger got jealous of this other one.”
Several studies have linked “exergames,” such as Wii sports, to improved mood and mental-health quality of life among older adults. Such activities also can serve as physical therapy because the player has to move his or her arms (and sometimes legs) to simulate the motion of playing a sport. Fine-motor skills and hand-eye coordination also are involved.
“It keeps you moving,” said School Sister of Notre Dame Joan Gmeinder, 70, who just missed picking up a spare on one of her turns.
Wii bowling has been on the weekly schedule at St. Francis Convent for about a year. More than a dozen sisters play regularly, and many others enjoy watching.
“Thursdays at 2 o’clock is something they look forward to,” said Ashley Mangiulli, a restorative aide and certified nursing assistant. “There is team spirit, and it gets some of them out of their rooms who wouldn’t normally get out much.”
Other exercise activities at the convent focus on improving upper-body strength, weight-shifting and range of motion.
“Usually we warm up with balloon volleyball,” explained Mangiulli. “Anything goes. You can catch it, hit it, kick it – whatever gets you moving.”
The Notre Dame sisters also enjoy Wii sports as well as other exercise at their home in Elm Grove, according to Anita Fleming, activities assistant.
“It’s exciting for them, because they talk about how they didn’t have all that technology when they were teachers,” she added.
Some of the sisters at the tournament use walkers or oxygen therapy, but that didn’t limit their participation. Some of those who use wheelchairs are among the better players, according to Karshna.
Franciscan Sr. Margaret Ann Recker, 84, may have been a little off her game due to a broken leg suffered last March, but she was excited to play.
“I think it brings us more alive,” she said. “I think it keeps our minds going better.”
The sisters who live at St. Francis Convent and at the Notre Dame Motherhouse served for decades in higher education, health care and other professions. Some continue to work in a volunteer capacity. They remain avid readers and play trivia games such as “Jeopardy!”, keeping their minds sharp.
When it comes to sports, though, they grew up many years before girls were encouraged to be athletic.
An exception to that was 86-year-old Franciscan Sr. Leona Steilen, who recalled being in a bowling league as a young woman in Milwaukee.
“This is much more fun,” she said.
Sr. Joan, describing herself as a Green Bay Packers fan, said she hoped her bowling team would crush the opposition.
Of course, it was all in good fun.
“For a lot of us, it gives you some ambition and something to think about – that you might be able to do something,” said Sr. Demetria. “If you’re down, you feel you can pick yourself up.”