The Shape of Ministry during a Global Pandemic
By S. Marge Kloos
Ministry of Prayer and the Healing World
In the Motherhouse chapel, a simple statue of Mary and a prayer card, illuminated by a perpetually burning candle, has stood undisturbed as a focal point for weeks.
O Mary, you always shine on our path as a sign of salvation and of hope.
We entrust ourselves to you, Health of the Sick,
who at the cross took part in Jesus’ pain, keeping your faith firm.
You, Mother of the Divine Physician, know what we need,
and we are sure you will provide so that, as in Cana of Galilee,
we may return to joy after this time of trial.
Help us, Mother of Divine Love, to conform to the will of the Father
and to do as we are inspired by Jesus, who has taken upon himself our sufferings
and carried our sorrows to lead us, through the cross,
to the joy of the resurrection. Amen.
As a presence of comfort and encouragement, Mary models for us how our ministry turns to the situation of our world in this time of crisis. We take our inspiration from Mary’s posture at the foot of the cross, keeping vigil with the world’s heartaches.
Since March 18, 2020, Sisters Marty Dermody (director of the Sisters of Charity Spirituality Center) and Mary Therese Thorman (Congregational music director) have coordinated virtual prayer twice daily. Our prayer invites an opening for God to interact with our hurting world.
Ministry of Presence: Being with the World in New Ways
In August, Pope Francis offered these words of encouragement about ministry in today’s world:
Renewed contact with the Gospel of faith, of hope and of love invites us to assume a creative and renewed spirit. In this way, we will be able to transform the roots of our physical, spiritual and social infirmities and the destructive practices that separate us from each other, threatening the human family and our planet. (Pope Francis, August 2020)
The shape of ministry looks different since the pandemic began. As has been true for generations of Sisters of Charity, when crisis demands that a way open where there appears to be no way, ingenuity and intentionality are not in short supply. After all, over a lifetime of service one’s heart and spirit fill to the brim with possibility. During the pandemic, Sisters have drawn on that possibility to continue providing direct service and outreach, albeit following recommended practices for keeping everyone safe.
In Bedford, Ohio, S. Dorothy Ann Blatnica serves as the property manager for a new 70 unit “supported housing” complex for working poor, located on the grounds of the Motherhouse of the former Vincentian Sisters of Charity. With a deadline to fill all the apartments by December 2020, there has been precious little time to spare.
The project has slowed because construction materials have been hard to get during the pandemic. But the realities of poverty and homelessness do not stop during a pandemic, “so we have been onsite, in masks, continuing to work through these months.” As Sister goes on to explain, “So many of those seeking safe, affordable housing are struggling to apply for housing while working full time. We have to be here for them.”
In the hardest hit area of Texas, S. Anne Darlene Wojtowicz had just begun what she imagined would be a more relaxed pre-retirement phase of her life. But this summer, she began receiving phone calls for help from families across the Rio Grande Valley community. Like other rural communities across the country, the virus arrived late and left in its wake devastating consequences.
One news article shared by S. Anne Darlene states that “deaths were coming so fast for families that there was no time to plan burials.” Sister and her good friend Associate Viola Elizondo began responding to requests for food, burial expenses, and providing a comforting presence to grieving families forever impacted by COVID.
In Pueblo, Colorado, S. Nancy Crafton serves at the Los Pobres Center. Ordinarily the center provides aid to more than 5,000 families of migrant workers in the Diocese of Pueblo, across five of Colorado’s poorest counties.
“The terrible reality of this pandemic,” says Sister, “has shown the disparities for working poor. Even though these families pay taxes, most did not receive stimulus dollars. To accommodate the state requirements during shutdown, the center itself could do little to respond to needs as we usually had, five days a week. Eventually we were able to re-open as a drive-through center and not able to offer many of the services and supports ordinarily available. This has been a rough time—with COVID and with deepening poverty hitting the same families hard. This struggle will be with us for years.”
During the past two years, S. Sandy Howe has worked with a team of volunteers to coordinate outreach to two immigrant families living at Mount St. Joseph. Sister, coordinator of the Newcomers Immigration Program at Mount St. Joseph, Ohio, comments, “Patience is something that is needed more than ever during this pandemic. Our family’s asylum case is taking longer due to offices being closed. Work permits are slow in coming and in-person English as a Second Language classes have come to a stop. A pandemic is hard to explain to a 5-year-old who wants a hug or a 9-year-old who asks constantly ‘when will the coronavirus be gone?’”
Life-long nature lover, S. Joyce Richter continues to minister during the pandemic with Western Wildlife Corridor in Cincinnati. While many of her commitments are virtual, she has frequently been able to join others outside on the 140-acre Bender Preserve (80 acres belongs to the Sisters of Charity) to remove invasive species. This allows native flowers and plants to populate the area and brings beauty and health to the preserve. Sister says: “I enjoy walking the trails and discovering new flowers, fungi, butterflies and insects. While there I love to greet visitors who have discovered this beautiful nature preserve with clearly marked trails.”
She has also used this time to complete an Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist Program (OCVN) through The Ohio State University. To become certified Sister took 40 hours of classwork and spent 40 hours doing volunteer work. Part of Sister’s volunteer hours were spent creating and giving a Zoom presentation on the Natural Wonders of the Bender Preserve.
One of the challenges during a pandemic is finding ways to safely support those mourning the loss of loved ones. In the Detroit, Michigan area, S. Karen Hawver has been called upon to officiate at burial services. When a former Sister of Charity died, her husband asked Sister to be with the family. The necessity to close nursing care facilities to outside visitors has prevented loved ones from being present at the time of death. The gradual process of healing for a grieving family during an especially difficult time of loss is made more bearable when the compassionate and caring presence of a minister is involved. “It was a privilege to be asked to walk with this family, sharing memories of a loving, forgiving woman of great kindness whose own ministry to others needed to be remembered and honored with dignity,” comments Sister.
S. Annie Klapheke serves as a nutritionist at the Good Samaritan Free Health Center on the Westside of Cincinnati. “This time has been really different but we have been able to interact with patients, even though there have been restrictions,” she said. For so many of the Health Center’s patients the services they receive are essential to quality of life. Sadly, a common denominator for many of the patients is that of food insecurity. During the pandemic, the Health Center has partnered with a local food bank to provide boxes of food for families. Sister reflects on the times she and a colleague have had the opportunity to deliver boxes of food to families, many of which are single-mother households. “I’ve gotten a different perspective on their lives and circumstances by going to the homes.”
Ministry is always a partnership with God. This partnership has taken on many different forms during this past year. The partnership has been one of meeting God in the most unusual of global situations. Like Mary, Sisters are birthing healing Love where we each are and in the circumstances given us. And we all are praying for something new to be born that will bring justice and a deepening attentiveness to the sacredness of our global family.