A worker at Catholic Charities’ Juan Diego Center in Omaha distributes food March 25 under the organization’s new operational directives during the coronavirus outbreak. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

News

Parishes and organizations in archdiocese find ways to serve

Coronavirus restrictions spark resolve, ingenuity

Church pews are all but empty. Visits to prisoners have been suspended indefinitely. Workers at Catholic organizations are forced to keep a distance from those they serve. Elderly volunteers have had to back away from their service.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended the way Catholics worship and serve. But parishes and organizations have been creative, continuing their outreach in new and unprecedented ways.

“We hope to be as available as we can to provide essential services,” said Marty Smith, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Omaha. His words echo the sentiments of many who serve people in need.

And that need has grown, as many suffer from financial hardship and isolation.

Catholic Charities saw demand for its food pantry supplies more than double as people were losing their jobs and families were having their children at home for three meals a day, said Theresa Swoboda, the organization’s vice president of program services.

SOCIAL DISTANCING

Both Catholic Charities and St. Vincent de Paul have changed the way people pick up food and other supplies from their pantries.

Instead of being able to shop for items, they now pick up pre-packaged grocery staples. At St. Vincent de Paul pantries, that means a drive-through approach, where one bag of nonperishables and another of fresh food is placed in the back seat of a vehicle, or a walk-up approach that keeps volunteers distanced from each other and those they serve.

Donations of food and money were up in March as conditions worsened, Smith said. But he said he expects the need for donations to keep growing, and “it could grow pretty dramatically.”

St. Vincent de Paul is allowing people to replenish supplies once a week instead of once a month. The organization’s distribution of pantry supplies went up 30% in one week, Smith said.

Donations of goods are still being accepted at St. Vincent de Paul stores, where workers have been sanitizing and wiping down surfaces, insisting on people maintaining safe distances and following other guidelines, Smith said.

St. Vincent de Paul’s parish-based conferences were not initially seeing a dramatic increase in need, Smith said, likely because government officials were discouraging evictions and utility cut-offs. Aid for rent and utilities is something the conferences typically help with, he said. They also help supply household items to individuals and families.

HELPING HANDS

Catholic Charities expects to see a surge at its domestic violence shelter in Douglas County after victims have been quarantined at home with their abusers.

To prepare, shelter workers are “cleaning like crazy” to keep the shelter safe, Swoboda said, and are screening clients as they come in for possible symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Catholic Charities has plans in place in case the shelter would need to close, including an option to house victims in motels, if necessary, while still providing food, advocacy and support, she said.

The organization’s behavioral health program, which was operating at schools, is now treating students through telehealth and reaching out to families to help set up that service, which would require internet service and a communication device, Swoboda said.

Emergency in-person counseling could be set up in a large room to allow space between a student and counselor.

Catholic Charities also is helping Hispanics through the coronavirus outbreak, continuing its legal services, transitioning microbusiness classes to virtual classes, helping small business owners obtain federal disaster loans, and making sure life-saving information is available in Spanish, Swoboda said.

Weeks ago, Catholic Charities stopped activities at its seniors program in north Omaha. The organization is trying to keep in contact with the seniors with regular phone calls to discover their needs. Pantry supplies are being delivered to the homebound.

KEEPING CONGREGATIONS CONNECTED

Parishes everywhere have tried to maintain contact with parishioners since losing the ability to congregate for Mass, prayer and social gatherings.

Fathers Lydell Lape and Matthew Gutowski at St. Mary Parish in Bellevue have been livestreaming Masses on Facebook and videotaping messages to parishioners online, including Father Lape’s “fireside chats.”

“I miss you, but we’re going to get through this,” he said in a videotaped message. “We’ll be back together eventually, but we just have to adjust our lives right now.”

The pastor said electronic modes of communication have become vital. “This is the way we are going to have to stay connected for a while,” he told his parishioners. “This is launching me fully into the 21st century.”

He urged them to pray the rosary after dinner for Mary’s “motherly protection,” to maintain a Holy Hour, from home if necessary, “to be mindful of each other” by reaching out especially to the most vulnerable, and “to be brave.”

Father Walter Nolte said weekday and Sunday Masses, including some in Spanish, are being livestreamed on Facebook and broadcast live on a local radio station for his parishioners at St. Patrick Parish in Fremont, St. Lawrence in Scribner and St. Rose of Lima in Hooper. Recorded versions are available later on YouTube.

The Stations of the Cross and the praying of the rosary also have been livestreamed.

About 1,500 parish members also are being kept up to date through a Flocknotes online messaging site, Father Nolte said in a phone interview. He said he’s encouraging families to welcome the opportunity to be at home together more. And he’s telling everyone to pray, hope and don’t worry.

“But we all realize that the don’t worry part is hard,” he said.

SPIRITUAL, MATERIAL GIFTS

Father Nolte’s parishes are using old-fashioned ways to reach out, too. Volunteers dropped off gift bags for about 120 members at nursing homes and about 30 homebound parishioners, he said. The bags included holy cards, spiritual books and holy water with holy salt sprinkled in.

Volunteers also have provided three days’ worth of groceries to those in need. The food distribution began a year ago when historic floods hammered Fremont and has been “amped up” during the coronavirus outbreak, the pastor said.

Home blessings also have been offered, and many people gladly accepted. Five small teams, each led by a priest or deacon, have spread out across Fremont to bless homes from the outside. Each team has been blessing about 15 homes a day, a total of 415 homes, Father Nolte said.

Blessed palms were to be made available for Palm Sunday, along with blessed three-day candles, missalettes and prayers for a Divine Mercy novena to begin on Good Friday. Parishioners will be asked to light the candles from 7 p.m. Holy Thursday to 7 p.m. Easter Sunday.

“We’re just trying to offer whatever we can, because people are hungry for the Eucharist,” Father Nolte said. “We are all learning how much we as the Body of Christ are the church.”

The efforts have helped keep people connected to their parishes, he said, and there’s been “a groundswell of gratitude.”

Like the ancient Jews, Catholics are spiritually being led into the desert, a time of spiritual dryness, Father Nolte said. They shouldn’t return to former ways of worldliness and busyness, but instead continue on to where God is leading them. The current hardships will produce great fruit for the Catholic Church, “for us all spiritually if we allow Jesus to be part of our desires during this time of spiritual and worldly tribulation.”