By George P. Matysek Jr.
Only a few weeks into the coronavirus pandemic, the Josephite pastor of Corpus Christi-Epiphany parish had lost seven parishioners to COVID-19, including his head usher. Many others – a parish deacon and his wife among them – were infected by the virus but recovered.
As the coronavirus pandemic hit New Orleans with a ferocity not seen in some other parts of the country, Father Henry Davis, SSJ, faced a full slate of new challenges.
At St. Augustine High School, where Father Davis is chief religious officer, the priest has been busy working with other Josephites to console students who have lost grandparents to the virus. That’s on top of trying to keep up with online Masses, calls to his parishioners and providing assistance to those in need.
“All of those who died and those who have been infected have been our older folks,” said Father Davis, who expects the number of coronavirus-related deaths in his parish to continue rising. “One of my parishioners who has the virus told me she wouldn’t give this disease to her worst enemy, not even the devil. She’s literally in a wheelchair and using a walker to get around because the virus attacked her neurological system.”
Father Davis’ experiences in New Orleans are being played out in Josephite parishes and schools across the country as faith leaders work to support those they serve during the crisis.
Many parishes have been livestreaming Masses and providing remote learning as major celebrations such as welcoming new members into full communion or offering first Communions and Confirmations were postposed.
With many Josephite parishes located in areas of economic hardship, priests have worked hard to keep parish outreach programs active.
Father Raymond Bomberger, SSJ, pastor of St. Peter Claver, St. Pius V and St. Gregory the Great in Baltimore, noted that the weekly hot meal program at St. Gregory has seen an increase of more than 30 percent since the start of the pandemic. It now serves about 200 people.
The food pantries at all three sites are still open, he said, with the faith community receiving assistance through the Maryland Food Bank.
He noted that social distancing requirements are observed in the distribution of aid. A boxed lunch program connected with the Safe Streets program at the parish runs out of a local public school.
“At St. Gregory, we have the Emergency Food Assistance Program,” he said. “Once a month, we get six pallets of nonperishables and some perishables and we give it all away and people are still in line.”
Keeping up outreach is critical, Father Bomberger said.
“That’s one of the ways we keep in contact with the immediate community,” he said.
Father Davis in New Orleans noted that his parish has also become a hub for assistance.
Local food stores have made regular contributions of salads, desserts and other goods, which Father Davis and parishioners have donated to those in need. At the end of April, Father Davis received 170 gallons of donated milk, which he gave out at a local senior center and even to people in the streets.
“Across the street from the church, we had a number of families who had kids home from school, eating and drinking up everything,” he said. “So, I said, ‘You need some milk?’ We were glad to help them because milk is so expensive.”
The parish campus and hall at Our Lady Star of the Sea in Houston is serving as a staging point for weekly drive-through distribution and home delivery of food and other items such as facemasks and cleaning supplies, according to Andre’ Hence, a parish leader. The work is coordinated with the Harris County Precinct 2 Sherriff’s Department and a local community activist who is also a parishioner of Our Lady Star of the Sea, he said.
“We are truly blessed that our parish is able to bring some sense of normalcy to so many people both in the parish and in the larger community,” Mr. Hence said.
He noted that Father Stephen Sohe, SSJ, pastor, worked with members of the parish’s disaster response ministry to call every parishioner or family twice a month. The parish also began an online prayer group for daily recitation of the rosary and a spiritual reflection from Father Sohe.
Father Fred Kaddu, SSJ, whose May 23 ordination to the priesthood took place at St. Joseph Seminary in Washington with only a handful of people present because of a quarantine, had been conducting an online Bible study for parishioners of St. Peter Claver/St. Pius V/St. Gregory the Great while stationed at the Baltimore parish as a transitional deacon during the pandemic.
In talking with people on the streets, Father Kaddu said he senses real concern.
“People are worried about what’s going on,” Father Kaddu. “We have people calling in asking if we have food.”
In a special Easter message, Bishop John Ricard, SSJ, superior general of the Josephites, called attention to the “troubling and disturbing ways in which this pandemic disproportionally affects our African-American community.”
“Across the country,” he wrote, “the rates of infection and loss of life for our people are many times those of the general population. Many of us personally know someone who has been infected or who has succumbed to this virus. There are many reasons why this is happening and addressing these factors should be of paramount importance once we reach the other side of this terrible pandemic.”
Dr. Kenneth St. Charles, president of St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, said many of his students have been touched by the pandemic. The Josephite school makes accommodations for those who are grieving the loss of loved ones.
Students at the all-boys school have been continuing their studies via remote learning, he said.
“We like to say that the building is closed, but learning continues,” Dr. St. Charles said. “We are lucky that we are a 100-percent device school. All our students were issued iPads. We have had some challenges with some families that don’t have internet access, but we’ve set up a helpline to help them with those kinds of issues.”
The pandemic has been especially difficult on the 108 graduating seniors, Dr. St. Charles said. Traditional activities such as the prom have been postponed. The school is now studying ways of providing for those milestone events in the coming months.
A May “virtual graduation” was to go forward online, with an actual ceremony to be held later this year.
Dr. St. Charles expects his community to emerge from the pandemic stronger than before.
“We’ve been through Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill that impacted the Gulf Coast for many months and the downturn in the economy,” he said. “The people of New Orleans are very resilient, and we see this as another opportunity to figure out a workable solution.”
Father Oswald Pierre-Jules, SSJ, pastor of St. David in New Orleans is looking forward to reuniting with his people once it is safe to gather again. The lack of a physical presence of the faithful reminds all how cherished the community is, he said.
“We are not alone,” Father Pierre-Jules said. “Jesus is with us on the journey. We can’t control everything along that journey. What we can’t control, we put in the hands of Jesus. He will lead us on the way.”