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Archives Parishes and pastors learn from pandemic

January 6, 2021

By Mary Beth Bracy
Contributing Writer

“There’s that old expression ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’ We found ourselves inventing new things or picking up on things that we wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Father Mark R. Reilly, pastor of St. Peter’s in Massena.

Pastors and parishes have had to adapt to unprecedented circumstances during the pandemic. Clearly, COVID-19 has revolutionized parish life.

St. Mary’s Cathedral and Notre Dame in Ogdensburg
“For years, the Sunday Mass has been aired on one of the local radio stations, which we still do, but now with it livestreams too, going to many parts of the diocese,” said Father Joseph A. Morgan, Vicar General and pastor of St. Mary’s Cathedral and Notre Dame in Ogdensburg. “People have commented on it from all parts of the country and even from other countries.”

Bishop Terry R. LaValley has also created video messaging about COVID, and how we can connect with the Church, support each other and continue to grow in faith during this time.

“He’s got some great messages, not only during seasonal times, but a weekly kind of Fireside chat that’s been wonderful,” Father Morgan said. “That’s one thing that’s changed for us and we plan on continuing that afterwards.”

Deacon James Crowley and others are now helping with livestreaming.

“It’s a great assistance and a great evangelization tool,” Father Morgan said. “We don’t know who and where people are that find us and tune in, you just never know, the grace of God at work.”

Sister Bernadette Marie Collins, a Sister of St. Joseph, and catechists organized the “Family, Faith and Fun on the Run,” continued Father Morgan. “It’s really gone well. Sister arranges with other catechists for people to drive in and pick up religious and formation material at St. Marguerite d’Youville Academy. Last month, families helped with a food pantry.”

Families also received materials to make Advent wreaths.

Activites “are creative and fun and people don’t have to get out of their cars,” Father Morgan said. “A couple of families have talked about how they found that it is good for their whole family to be involved in the religious education with their children. So, that’s a good thing and it’s going to probably lead us to look at how we can be more effective even after COVID to help families continue to grow in faith.”

The catechists continue to check-in with families during the different weeks of formation.

“The confirmation group meets in person sometimes but, again, it’s social distanced, with all of the protocols in place,” noted Father Morgan.

Deacon Crowley and Mike Ramsdell, a teacher at Clarkson, coordinate that program.

Charitable works also continue.

“Our Lady’s outreach ministry, former St. Vincent de Paul, still have the clothing store going with limited numbers at a time and protocols in place,” Father Morgan said.

Volunteers distributed Christmas gifts for people who need food especially during the holidays.

“This year, with COVID, they are going to send a gift card to the families that apply for assistance,” Father Morgan said. “It will save the guys from filling boxes and taking them to homes. It will allow families to get whatever they would really prefer for their holiday dinner.”

Father Morgan added that some ministries have been limited by the pandemic.

“One of the difficult things is that we don’t really have access to our nursing homes, and we try to call some people that we know who are there,” he said. “Other than that, we are only allowed if someone is dying and the family requests it. So, that is a hardship for us. Deacon Tony Pastizzo is on the staff for pastoral care at St. Joseph’s (Nursing Home), so he’s been able to continue to go in to help those who are there. Msgr. Harry Snow is our resident there, and he continues to say Mass privately. So, we’ve got lots of prayers going.”

Additionally, Father Justin Thomas, HGN, Father Richard S. Sturtz, or Father Morgan visit the interested homebound.

Father Morgan noted that the pandemic also required changes to how the cathedral parish celebrated Christmas.
“Fortunately, we have two very large churches, and each hold about 900 people,” he said. “We’re adding two Masses to the schedule and just dividing them up.”

The parish sent a letter to community members informing them of the Mass protocols and inviting them to attend Christmas liturgies.

“The letter is kind of an evangelization tool because it’s going to practicing and non-practicing Catholics,” Father Morgan said.

The parish Evangelization committee continues to meet, and they are looking at a new program, “The Search,” from Formed.org. They’ve got the materials and are going through the program first themselves with plans to present it to others virtually in the future.

Father Morgan also noted that he feels the pandemic left parishioners grateful for the sacraments.

“When we first were able to have people on a very limited basis for Mass it was a very devotional time for people,” Father Morgan said. “They hadn’t had the Eucharist in two and a half months, so people really expressed their deep joy and how much they missed receiving the sacraments. We certainly appreciate that from our faithful.”

St. Peter’s Church in Massena
Father Reilly said the pandemic has led St. Peter’s Parish to deliver ministry and connect with their community in new ways.

“We’ve been making ample use of Facebook Live and the parish website,” he said. “A number of people in the parish really rely on staying in touch with us. They want to go to Mass, but they are very regularly plugging in on Facebook Live to come to daily Mass livestream.”

The parish also increased its use of Flocknote, a program that allows parish ministry leaders to directly text message or email parishioners.

“In the heart of the shutdown when everything was at snail’s pace, I made ample use of Flocknote sending out a little message daily to everyone on our mailing list, just for outreach,” Father Reilly said.

Parish council groups started meeting via Zoom, and youth are preparing for confirmation (and doing interviews) on the web-based meeting platform.

St. Peter’s Parish is also using more traditional forms of media.

“We resumed recording and getting one of our Sunday Masses on the local radio station WMSA 1340 in Massena,” Father Reilly said. “They were very gracious and have begun doing that again on Sunday evenings.”

The parish leadership team has also been gracious with outreach, commented Father Reilly, “calling a good number of people through the pandemic, there are a number of people who are homebound.

Volunteers have also helped with other ministries.

“On Palm Sunday, a great number of volunteers came to church and picked up palms and devotional books for the Easter season,” Father Reilly said. “They hung them on doors or mailboxes. We’ve been doing that as well with new missalettes and devotionals for Advent, making deliveries to people who might not otherwise come out.”

St. Peter’s Parish has been running Alpha, an evangelization program, in person for the past few years. Due to the pandemic, the parish conducted the program online this year. Alpha “is a program, or course, of inquiry for people who are just seeking to go a little deeper in the big questions of life,” Father Reilly said. “It has a lot to offer people who are anywhere in the spectrum in terms of faith.

“During the height of the pandemic we were going to have an Alpha cycle. Then, in the late spring, we transitioned to online. We had a pretty good showing and response. One of the things that we didn’t anticipate was the reach. Using Zoom-based Alpha, we had a good number of people from out of the state and even out of the country.”

St. Peter’s Parish recently held another in-person Alpha but on a much smaller scale, and “it was very different with big tables and people spread out. Last year we had 60 and this time we had about 20.”

In addition to developing new ways to deliver ministry, Father Reilly noted there have been additional challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I never heard the term ‘Phenomenon of decision fatigue’ before,” he said. “In leadership you can have decision paralysis, trying to take in everything before you come to a decision. Every aspect of what you normally do has to be rethought. There are a thousand and one different things with the life of the parish, with public Masses, with activities in the life of the parish that are constantly being scrutinized.”

As far as coping with COVID-19, Father Reilly advised that “prayer is a good place to start.”

“It can happen no matter where you are,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a great ache for many who are still holding back from coming back to Mass in person. I would recommend that people take advantage of the myriad of opportunities online, whether it’s a daily devotional from Formed, Dynamic Catholic, or Word on Fire. I can’t believe how many great resources are available at our finger tips right now to assist with prayer and reflection and growing in virtue. It’s almost like providence that it’s available now at this time.

Father Reilly also suggested taking advantage of opportunities to connect with both Jesus and one another.

“If it’s not possible because of concern for the pandemic to go to Mass on a weekend, I recommend that people consider going to Mass on a weekday,” he said. “Or, even just to go to the empty church and spend time before the Blessed Sacrament. Get out and walk and pray the Rosary while you walk. Check-in with the people that you know and love. Keep that contact even if we’re not physically able to.”

Father Reilly also noted that the pandemic is not yet over.

“We’re still learning and still have lot to learn,” he said. “Everyone’s nerves are a bit frayed, and everyone has a short fuse. It would be really good if we all recognized that and that, as Christians, we are grounded in prayer. That’s where we should be salt and light and leaven.”

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