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As disease spreads, Catholics respond with God’s grace

The coronavirus pandemic has continued to spread, causing the first deaths in Nebraska and forcing people to remain isolated to prevent more illness.

Yet Catholics in the archdiocese are doing what they can to help those in need, reaching out to those who are vulnerable and sometimes alone.

A few individuals shared their stories – everyday responses of faith, hope and love – as the outbreak continues.

LONG-DISTANCE BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION

Joe and Suzana Mixan planned to have their daughter, Mia, home for her 19th birthday.

Instead Mia was 5,000 miles away in Rome, taking shelter with her boyfriend’s family. They took her in as the COVID-19 pandemic began ravaging Italy, claiming the lives of thousands in that country.

The Mixans, members of St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion, sought the advice of a physician and others. The parents were told that Mia was likely safer in seclusion with her host family in Rome, rather than possibly being exposed to the virus at an international airport and on a long flight back to the United States.

So the Mixan family, which includes brothers Luka and Louis, gave her a videotaped celebration in which they sang “Happy Birthday” and ate birthday cake. Her parents let her order her gift online.

Mia, a 2019 graduate of Marian High School in Omaha, has managed to stay a step ahead of the virus in her international travels. But she’s been in a couple of hot spots – including China, where she’d been studying and hopes to return in the fall.

She and some friends were on break in January for the Chinese New Year, traveling to Taiwan, when they learned that their school – Duke Kunshan University, a U.S.-China partnership between Duke and Wuhan universities – was closing for several weeks because of the outbreak in China.

They decided to spend that time in Rome, the home of a couple of the students, Joe Mixan said.

The outbreak in Italy has been particularly disturbing, he said. “You see on the news how many people are dying in Italy, and it causes you concern.”

But Mia has been well taken care of and well fed, he said, with her host family treating her as their own daughter. She stays busy studying online, with added access to other Chinese universities’ coursework.

In Papillion, her family has been praying and spending together the sudden, unexpected time away from school. Luka is a junior at Creighton University in Omaha, and Louis is a junior at Mount Michael Benedictine High School in Elkhorn.

“I think it’s deepened our prayer life,” their father said, and re-emphasized the importance of praying the rosary daily.

Suzana Mixan said God didn’t cause the pandemic, so people shouldn’t be angry or despair. “But I do think we are being purified,” she said.

‘OPEN HEARTS’

Julie Lipari has been working from home, at least partly, as she takes calls to Holy Cross Parish in Omaha that have been forwarded to her cell phone.

Also through her phone, she’s been reaching out to parish members ages 70 and above, mostly to remind them that their pastor, Father Carl Salanitro, cares about them and remembers them, and every parishioner, daily at Mass.

Lipari, an administrative assistant at Holy Cross, and other staff members and volunteers have a list of 1,100 people they’ve been maintaining contact with. They’ve also been going through the parish directory to get more names.

Their goal is a call or letter at least once a week for the seniors, many who live alone. They also hope to send out a parish-themed crossword puzzle or a bulletin, Lipari said.

The endeavor is called the Open Hearts program, based on a sign on the church doors, saying that although the doors are locked, their hearts aren’t.

The callers have been asking parishioners if they need groceries or special prayers. They tell the seniors that Father Salanitro keeps a folder under a crucifix on the altar of his private chapel, where he offers Mass each day. Inside the folder are the names of every parishioner he remembers at Mass. The Masses can be watched on Facebook.

Though the staff members and volunteers have a long list of people to contact, they don’t rush through their calls. Sometimes they share a laugh with the person on the other end of the line. And at least once, the recipient cried when she learned of Father Salanitro’s prayers and concerns, Lipari said.

The administrative assistant said she has benefited as well. “It’s been a wonderful blessing for me to talk to them, to be able to hear these people.”

The seniors don’t complain about their circumstances, she said. “They’re so gracious and so concerned about Father (Salanitro). They appreciate that he cares.”

SIXTH-GRADER’S LIGHT BURNS EVEN BRIGHTER

Several months ago, Emma Kreikemeier had an idea that could help others.

Now, with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, that idea is paying off in ways that would have been unforeseen.

The sixth-grader at St. James/Seton School in Omaha wanted to create a “giving closet” with food, hygiene and clothing items to help students in need at Hartman Elementary School, which serves a large refugee population.

The archdiocese’s Catholic Schools Office awarded the idea top honors in its “Shine a Light in the Community” challenge last fall and gave Kreikemeier up to $1,000 to implement the project.

Now, as many struggle through the pandemic, that project is paying off even more than expected, the principal at Hartman reported back to the student.

“I know when you took on the project to help stock our pantry at Hartman you had no idea a worldwide crisis, such as this pandemic, was on the horizon,” Shelly Burghardt wrote in an email to Kreikemeier.

“I just want you to know that your generosity in helping our families get some of the basic necessities they needed was a huge help to our community. And now, as I help many of our families through this difficult time, to be able to take them to our pantry and not have to send them to a remote location to some other pantry, just allows us to take one more worry off their plate.

“I just wanted to say thank you and let you know what an impact your project had, and continues to have on so many.”