Catholic organizations persevere, adapt despite pandemic
December 16, 2020
Knights of Columbus councils can’t raise the funds they’d like to help the important causes they support.
Members of St. Paul Street Evangelization have had limited opportunities to take the Catholic faith to the streets.
Christians Encounter Christ groups no longer hold their weekend encounters, and Rachel’s Vineyard hasn’t been able to offer its weekend retreats for people suffering after an abortion.
For Catholic organizations across the archdiocese, 2020 has been a year of downsized and canceled events, remote meetings, fewer volunteers and financial losses.
Perhaps worst of all, because of the pandemic, it’s been more difficult for the groups to reach the people they serve.
But members of those organizations haven’t given up and are creating new ways to reach out and help.
KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS
Knights of Columbus Council 11879 at St. Matthew the Evangelist Parish in Bellevue took a big hit during Lent when four of its six planned fish frys had to be canceled. Revenue was down about 75% from previous years, Grand Knight Dave Boone said.
The pandemic “hit us right in the pocketbook,” he said.
“But we’ll recover,” he added.
The Knights improvised and managed to save a couple fish frys, offering takeout meals with a simpler menu.
Several pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners also had to be canceled, but the Knights offered some scaled-down meals, with limited inside seating and drive-up options.
“‘We’ve had to adapt,” Boone said. “We’ve had to change the way we do business.”
Although fundraising has been limited, people have been more generous in what they give, he said. “Bellevue is a generous community, and I think our parish is no exception to that.”
The St. Matthew Knights council, which has about 240 members and a strong core of about 50, added other fundraisers to counter the losses: selling hot dogs at a “trunk or treat” Halloween event at St. Matthew and selling hot dog meals at a Nov. 7 parish craft show.
The Knights donate the money they raise to various charities, often pro-life causes such as Mater Filius and Gabriel’s Corner. They’ve also used the money to boost the parish maintenance fund to pay for extra cleaning and sanitizing, to support teachers with their extra duties and needed supplies, and to provide scholarships to students at St. Matthew and to those going on to a Catholic high school.
In previous years, the Knights have had enough funds to help other charities requesting their help. But this year, they’ve had to reject many of those requests, Boone said.
Knights councils across the state have faced similar challenges, said Mark Borytsky, state deputy for the Knights of Columbus, but the priority has been safety.
“This pandemic has changed everyone’s lifestyle,” he said. “We’re more interested in keeping everyone safe.”
The Knights have been following directives from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts. Councils have held meetings via Zoom or phone calls, and if they do meet in person they follow distancing requirements, according to Borytsky.
“It’s a dreadful pandemic,” he said, “but we’ll get back rolling again.”
CHRISTIANS ENCOUNTER CHRIST
A Christians Encounter Christ (CEC) group based in Norfolk has canceled its weekend encounters since March.
“We’re called to evangelize, but we’re not able to do the weekends,” said Pat Shevlin, president of the Norfolk organization, which offers weekend gatherings that help Catholics and other people of faith grow in their personal relationships with Christ.
Before the pandemic, the CEC weekends were held at the Immaculata Monastery and Spirituality Center of the Missionary Benedictine Sisters of Norfolk. But the sisters, like many religious congregations, have had to limit their exposure to outsiders and possible coronavirus risks.
“We can’t in any way put the sisters at risk,” said Shevlin, of St. Anthony Parish in Columbus.
Demand for the weekends had been high in recent years, so the lay organization went from six a year to eight.
“The feedback was all positive,” he said. “People experience the Holy Spirit in a way they haven’t before.”
Participants form bonds with each other on the weekend and typically keep in touch long after the weekend.
The cancellations were “just hard to do,” Shevlin said. Many who already went through a CEC weekend managed to find ways to keep in contact, through online Zoom meetings or in small meetings where they were able to keep safe distances.
‘DO WHAT THEY HAVE TO DO’
Kim Nordhues, of St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish in Randolph, used text messages and phone calls to communicate with members of her CEC group. After about two months into the pandemic, they began meeting once a week.
“We sit distantly and do what we have to do to help each other out,” Nordhues said.
Typically the meetings have involved five people or less.
“It’s a great network to have, to help keep the fire alive,” she said.
The group “has helped me a lot, to be a better person and a better mom and grandmother,” Nordhues said.
Shevlin said the COVID pandemic has helped CEC leaders “see the big picture, how blessed we are to be part of this. Now we have to rely on Jesus and we’ll get back to the weekends, with longer waiting lists.”
CEC has given him, he said, “a greater awareness of what discipleship really is, and that we as Christians all need to be disciples.”
For more than 50 years, the Norfolk CEC has been helping hundreds of people in northeast Nebraska grow closer to Jesus, Shevlin said.
“It’s an awesome experience, it really is,” he said. “The camaraderie among the movement is amazing.”
Rachel’s Vineyard Nebraska, an apostolate that helps people heal spiritually and psychologically after an abortion, is no longer able to offer weekend retreats.
In other places, the organization has tried to minister virtually, “but we don’t feel called to do that,” said Heather Hruby, a therapist and counselor who volunteers as a team member for the Nebraska pro-life group.
People – especially those suffering from trauma – have a need for an embrace, to love and be loved, said Hruby, a mental health and substance abuse therapist. More importantly, “they have a deeper need to be embraced by God,” and they can experience that embrace through prayer, she said.
Instead of weekend retreats, the group is having counselors meet people one-on-one to help them, she said.
Those counselors already have a full slate because of the pandemic, as people try to deal with issues such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide.
“It’s the worst I’ve seen,” Hruby said. “It’s an epidemic.”
ST. PAUL STREET EVANGELIZATION
The 30 or so volunteers with St. Paul Street Evangelization (SPSE) in Omaha normally go to the Old Market or other parts of the Omaha area to bring the truth of Christ to those they encounter. It can be as simple as offering a holy card, praying for people or inviting them to a parish.
But after restrictions began, even during warmer weather, people weren’t walking about like they used to and they were hesitant to take any materials, said David Zebolsky, leader of the SPSE Team Omaha.
“We have effectively been shut down,” he said. The pandemic “put a lid on a lot of our efforts.”
The organization is trying more online efforts and has used signs on street corners to witness the faith. The signs’ messages are simple: “Jesus loves you” or “Jesus Christ – True Love – True Identity.”
“Just a charitable witness is all we want,” Zebolsky said, “and most of the response from passers-by has been positive.”
The year has been discouraging, as most of the group’s efforts have been suspended, he said. But evangelization never really stops. It’s a way of life, a full-time apostolate, according to Zebolsky, in which people can reach out to those they encounter daily.
“The future for our effort is to not be deterred in any environment from offering a witness,” he said. “There’s always a way to witness for truth.”