Priests describe shepherding parishes during pandemic – The Catholic Spirit


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Father James Stiles holds a monstrance that he placed in the foyer of St. Mary in Le Center, where he serves as pastor, for drive-up eucharistic adoration. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT
One year ago this month, just days after Archbishop Bernard Hebda sent an email to pastors letting them know he was closing churches for public Masses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Father James Stiles, pastor of four parishes on the southwestern fringe of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, felt “a lot of confusion.”
He had spent the last three years since his arrival at those parishes, first as an associate and eventually as pastor, trying to build relationships with the rural parishioners, many of whom are aging farmers. With some of them unfamiliar with social media and platforms like Facebook and Zoom, he was worried about losing his pastoral connection with them.
He worked with his associate, Father Timothy Sandquist, to draft a letter and send it to parishioners outlining a pastoral care plan to keep them engaged while public Mass was suspended. The two priests spent hours in parish offices and the adjoining rectory in late March stuffing hundreds of envelopes containing the letter.
But it didn’t feel like enough, which was reflected in the title the two priests chose for the letter: “The Bare Essentials of Ministry.”
“It was a very trying time,” said Father Stiles, 33, who was ordained in 2015. “I remember feeling, personally as pastor, very helpless and useless, like how can I minister to my people if I can’t even see them, if I can’t even go to their homes, if I can’t have them come to church?”
Such was the burden carried by pastors throughout the archdiocese, who had to navigate the unprecedented reality of a pandemic that kept people away from in-person Masses for two months and affected parish life in other ways since it reached U.S. soil early last year. The Catholic Spirit interviewed three of those pastors to take a deeper look into what life has been like for the shepherds of local parish flocks.
‘The power of prayer’
The letter to parishioners was an important first step, but Father Stiles had deep concerns about the spiritual well-being of those he cared for at St. Mary in Le Center, St. Henry in nearby St. Henry, Immaculate Conception of Marysburg and Nativity in Cleveland, which have a combined total of about 750 families, and about 100 additional Latino Catholics who attend Mass but are not registered at the parishes. That led to a short walk alone in early April around the block of St. Mary, whose campus includes the rectory where he and Father Sandquist live, along with a third priest, Father Tom Niehaus, pastor of Most Holy Redeemer in nearby Montgomery.
“I was all distressed about this, and I was walking around … praying the rosary,” Father Stiles recalled. “And, I remember just sensing the Lord speaking to me, saying, ‘The greatest thing you can do for your people is to pray for them right now. … Don’t forget the power of prayer.’”
The message went to his heart, then later to his lips and, ultimately, to the altar when he celebrated Mass.
“I would pray before Mass in preparation, and then I would say, ‘Lord, I’m bringing with you in my heart to this Mass every one of my parishioners and every single one of their needs and their cares and whatever is going on in their life,’” he said. Then, during Mass at the eucharistic prayer, “on the paten where the bread is placed, I would say, ‘Lord, I am placing now all of the intentions here of every single one of my parishioners, and all their needs.’ So, the prayers of the people and their desires would be included in that and lifted up to God.”
As Father Stiles kept his parishioners bathed in prayer, he had to confront the reality of not seeing them in the pews.
“It’s a very bizarre and unnatural experience to celebrate Mass with a camera in front of your face and nobody in the church,” he said. “You’re used to looking out and seeing people pray with you and pray together — worshipping God together.”
Instead, he heard his words echo off empty church walls. But soon came one of his first adaptations to the pandemic — outdoor Masses held in the church parking lot. Over the next seven months, he and Father Sandquist celebrated outdoor Masses at three of the four churches, with St. Henry parishioners coming to St. Mary.
“The outdoor Mass became very popular, in large part, because it was great for people to see each other and because there was something adventurous and kind of fun about that,” Father Stiles said. “Some people had their tops down — they had a convertible. They’d just drive up with their convertible top down. … People enjoyed that.”
He also started offering outdoor confessions, which began in the spring and continued into the fall. As the weather turned colder, he moved from the parking lot into the church entryway.
In late spring, Gov. Tim Walz and the archbishop allowed churches to reopen with limited capacity and strict protocols including wearing masks, social distancing, sanitizing hands and cleaning church pews after Mass. People hesitated at first to start coming into the church, so Father Stiles continued offering outdoor Masses plus livestreaming for those who could navigate the technology. He also broadcast Masses on a local radio channel that reached people in their cars and a short distance from the church for those who lived close by.
One of the most powerful initiatives during the pandemic came from a parish employee, who suggested offering drive-up eucharistic adoration. Father Stiles liked the idea, and went to work setting up a monstrance and candles at St. Mary that could be viewed from the parking lot. It was offered daily Monday through Friday for two hours in the evening.
“We’ve got real big windows out here in our foyer,” Father Stiles said. “Cars would just drive up into the parking lot, and (people) would sit in their cars for an hour at a time, two hours at a time, and they would just worship the Lord in adoration. It was really neat because it had kind of an evangelistic effect. People in the city (of Le Center) would start asking, ‘What are they doing over there? Why are they all gathered in their cars looking at the golden, shiny thing, the monstrance?’”
At the end, Father Stiles carried the monstrance from the foyer and into the parking lot to bless the people in their cars. This practice started April 6 and lasted through the end of October. Father Stiles said that, with indoor restrictions lifted due to the start of vaccinations and a decrease in COVID-19 cases across the state, he won’t be offering parking lot adoration this year.
Throughout the last year of the pandemic, Father Stiles has also had to think about his own health. As a person living with diabetes, he pondered the possibility of serious symptoms from COVID-19 if he ever became infected. Plus, there was the potential that he and his priest roommates would need to be quarantined for 14 days if any of them contracted the virus. Fortunately, he said, none of them has tested positive. And now, he is vaccinated, which provides further relief.
Still, the virus hit home when one of his parishioners contracted it and died in October — a Latino man with a wife and four sons. The tragedy became one of the greatest trials for Father Stiles during the past year. The man, in his early 50s, was in the hospital for two months, first at a local hospital and then at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where he died.
“It was really sad and very hard,” Father Stiles said. “I tried very hard to anoint him … but they wouldn’t let me in. I did get a chance to at least speak to him. He wasn’t conscious at that point. He was on the ventilator. But I did call and I spoke to him over the phone.”
Father Stiles was able to let the man know that another priest, a chaplain at the hospital, was able to anoint him. He went on to tell the man “not to worry about his family, that we would help take care of them.”
Slowly, the grief of a year struggling through a pandemic is turning to hope, as many, including Father Stiles, look forward to having a full church again. There’s even talk of a celebration sometime in the coming months.
“People are really longing to be together again,” he said. “And, I am as well. … The longer I’m a priest, the more I realize how important that is — the fraternity, the community.”
Father Phil Rask, pastor of St. Odilia in Shoreview, stands in the media booth at the back of the church. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT
Lights, camera, consecration
Father Phil Rask, pastor of St. Odilia in Shoreview, is just over a year away from his 50th jubilee. With a long history of ministry, it would be easy to conclude he has seen it all. He might have thought so, too, in early 2020.
Enter the COVID-19 pandemic. Its shock wave hit him the weekend of Easter in mid-April, with churches still closed to in-person Masses due to restrictions put in place by Walz and supported by Archbishop Hebda, who notified pastors of a temporary suspension of public Masses beginning March 18.
“Easter Sunday around here normally is a zoo,” said Father Rask, 74. “We have 7: 30 Mass, we have two Masses at 9 (in the church and gym), two Masses at 11, one a Spanish Mass.”
But, last year, “rather than the 3,000 people we would normally have,” Father Rask celebrated Mass on Easter Sunday to a nearly empty church, save for a few liturgical volunteers helping out.
Shortly into the pandemic restrictions, Father Rask realized that his church would have to find a way to reach people’s homes.
“We realized we had to get into livestreaming as quickly as possible,” he said. A parishioner donated money to build a media center in back of the church. Volunteers who were trained by a consultant livestreamed Sunday Masses, using cameras set up throughout the church. During the two months when churches were closed to in-person worship, Father Rask had to learn a new skill — talking to an audience he couldn’t see. It was challenging.
“What do you have to do differently because you’re now on screen?” he said. “Do you speak to the camera? But, you can’t even see it because it’s way in the back in the booth. So, you’re looking in that direction. But, do you pretend there are other people in church — speak to everybody as if they were there?”
After adjusting to this new way of celebrating Mass, he realizes that livestreaming may be here to stay. Viewer numbers show that lots of people have been tuning in.
“We’re surprised at how many viewers we do have for our livestreamed Masses,” he said. “It’s in the hundreds. Sometimes, it’s a thousand or two thousand. And, people have responded from all over the country.”
One benefit of keeping the connection to parishioners is maintaining a steady flow of weekly contributions. The parish saw just a 5% dip in donations in the last year, which he said was easily offset by reductions in spending. The end result was not having to lay off anyone on staff. In fact, St. Odilia was able to hire three people who had been working at other parishes and were furloughed because of the pandemic.
The school, likewise, is flourishing, with an enrollment increase of 30 to 40 students this school year, he said.
“We have nearly 700 students” in pre-K through eighth grade, Father Rask said. “And so, we’re running out of room (in the current school building). We’re thinking of adding on for … the preschool.”
Despite the economic stability and a thriving school, the pandemic did land a blow — literally. Right before Thanksgiving in November, Father Rask tested positive for COVID-19. He immediately entered quarantine with the other priest at St. Odilia, Father Tim Tran, who was ordained in May and only knows carrying out priestly ministry during a pandemic.
Father Rask had been struggling with what he thought was a mild chest cold. A few days before Thanksgiving, he decided to get tested.
“I’ve had worse (illnesses); I’ve had worse bouts with the flu than that,” said Father Rask, who expected to complete his vaccination March 26 with his second shot. “I’m thankful. I don’t need it to be any more serious.”
One group of parishioners he is especially concerned about are the elderly. Pastoral staff and volunteers have written post cards to older members, and each elderly parishioner gets a phone call every other week to check in. Also, there is a hospice facility on parish grounds run by St. Therese of New Hope. Father Rask and his staff provide pastoral care, including distribution of Communion, last rites and other services upon request.
At the top of his concerns are the isolation and loneliness he knows they have, especially those who are dying and have limited contact with family. Those feelings work the other way, too, for family members who can’t spend time with their loved ones.
Aside from that, Father Rask overall is “pleasantly surprised” by how both he and the parish are faring. He called the ability to keep everyone on the staff payroll “terrific.”
“I’m glad to be able to do it because they don’t make a whole lot of money working for the church,” he said. “A lot of people depend on that paycheck almost from week to week.”
He also has been seeing an increase in gratitude for simple things like coming to church for Mass, and for in-person learning at school. Along with schools across the state, St. Odilia School quickly switched to distance learning last March. Then, it returned to in-person this school year.
“Before the pandemic, they (students) whined about school: ‘I don’t want to go to school. How many years am I going to have to go to school?’” Father Rask said. “Now, they realize they like being in school.”
With hope the pandemic is nearing an end, Father Rask was asked what he will most look forward to when life returns to normal:
“Not wearing a mask.”
Father Dave Hennen, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Hastings, prays in the chapel of the newly built parish rectory. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT
More time for prayer
At the beginning of 2020, Father Dave Hennen, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Hastings, was immersed in “doing the routines of parish life: daily Masses, baptisms, funerals, weddings and getting together for Bible studies and doughnuts after Mass.”
“All of a sudden, that comes to a stop, and you just have to wonder: Where is this all going?” said Father Hennen, 55, of the pandemic shutdown of churches that March. “What are we supposed to do? Because so much of our life is about these parts of being a Catholic.”
One important decision, which came out of a meeting Father Hennen had with his staff early during the pandemic, was to continue offering perpetual eucharistic adoration in the main church, and continue offering the sacrament of reconciliation six days a week, Monday through Saturday.
There also was some deep soul searching by Father Hennen about his identity as a priest. He talked to his spiritual director and others he relied on for support as he explored his feelings and sought a meaningful response.
“So much of our priesthood is about things that we do: celebrate Mass, hear confessions and (administer) all the sacraments, and being with people,” he said. “All of a sudden, it’s gone. You’re not doing most of those things anymore. And for me, I just had to realize my identity is not in just basically the things I do as a priest.”
Thus, the pandemic for Father Hennen opened the door to exploring things that can be easy to overlook in the midst of the busy life that priests often lead.
“Obviously, there was a lot more time for prayer,” he said. “It was just a great time for me to pray and re-evaluate who I am as a priest and as a son of God.”
Throughout the last year, he has spent many hours praying in a chapel inside the parish’s new rectory. In September, Father Hennen moved there with the other priest serving the parish, Father Matthew Shireman. Father Hennen prays the rosary often, with the conviction that the Blessed Mother “loves priests, and I know she wants me to be a holy priest.”
The increased and focused prayer has been important in trying to determine how the parish should move forward. More than what technology should be used to connect with parishioners, Father Hennen has been trying to address deeper questions, like what should parish life look like, now and in the future?
“It’s been resting on my heart for months now that we need to be bold. We need to be more radical in how we live our faith,” he said. “We can’t just keep the status quo. That has been a big part of my prayer — God has been asking me to lead the people in a more profound way in terms of their faith.”
Part of that reflection has been triggered by the decrease in Mass attendance during the past year. Even as churches have opened up again to in-person Masses, Father Hennen has noticed that a portion of his parishioners have not returned, and he has started wondering if they ever will.
“We’re hoping they do,” he said. “But, we don’t know for sure. So, it’s me questioning: How have we been helping people have an encounter with Christ? Do we need to do more in helping them to have that personal relationship? Because if Jesus is their all, if Jesus is their everything, they will want to come back. So, we want to be ready just in case they are questioning whether to come back.”
At the heart of his concern is trying to help people do more than just “go through the motions.” To that end, he and his staff are evaluating everything they do in trying to form people in their faith. Each program is being looked at in terms of one simple question: “Does it fall under our mission of making Jesus Christ known and loved?” he said. “Are we making disciples? And, if we’re not making disciples, why would we keep on doing what we’re doing?”
For the past three or four months, Father Hennen and parish leaders have been working on a parish mission statement to guide parish life going forward. One thing that will be part of parish life is small groups, which started three years ago. The idea is to have every parishioner be part of a small group so they can find a personal connection with others and deepen their faith. To facilitate that goal, Father Hennen plans to hire someone who will serve as director of evangelization.
Another change is turning preparation for first Communion and first reconciliation over to the parents, which the parish did in the fall. Parents now responsible for all of the sacramental formation for their children, guided by materials the parish provides.
“We are empowering the parents to be the first teachers of their children in the faith,” Father Hennen said. “Parents will form their children, and when their child is ready, then they will receive the sacrament” as opposed to all children receiving those sacraments together on the same day.
“It’s been a challenge,” he said. “Some parents have embraced it and love it. Some parents are hesitant because it’s new, it’s different. We’ve never done it that way before.”
One helpful thing for the parish and school is being secure economically. Finances have been good overall thanks to consistent giving, plus federal government support for employees, Father Hennen said, and there have been no layoffs at either the parish or its preschool-to-grade-eight school.
With the gradual lifting of restrictions, Father Hennen said he is seeing people respond to the opportunity to come back to church. And, he is hearing them express their feelings about worshipping in public again.
“They just wanted to get back to some routine in their life,” he said. “They wanted to come back to Mass. That’s one of the things I think parishioners have experienced — how much they long for the Mass and the relationships they built. I didn’t think people would miss doughnuts (after Sunday Mass) as much as they do, but they actually do. They miss that … fellowship and being with each other.”
Like his parishioners, Father Hennen values connection with others. He stays grounded by meeting monthly with other members of his 2005 ordination class. With 15 members, it was the largest class in recent history. So, there are plenty of other priests with whom to share stories.
“We’ve been doing this since 2005,” he said. “We rotate the rectories that we go to. … So, every month, we’re connecting with each other just for a meal and drinks, just to share what’s been going on and support each other.”
In talking with his classmates, Father Hennen said they all have “similar experiences” in dealing with the pandemic. For Father Hennen and his parishioners, the past year has been “kind of a death,” he said. “But… I think it can be even better once we come out of this — stronger, more faithful, more vibrant in who we are as Catholics.”

MARCH 2020
March 6 — An ocean cruise customer tests positive for the novel coronavirus, marking the first case in Minnesota.
March 12 — St. Thomas Academy and neighboring Visitation School in Mendota Heights close their campuses after a student at St. Thomas and a parent of the student contract the virus; the diagnosis marks the first teen COVID-19 case in the state.
March 12 — Archbishop Bernard Hebda suspends the obligation to attend Sunday Mass in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. He announces March 18 as a day of fasting,      abstinence and prayer “invoking God’s help in these challenging days.”
March 13 — Gov. Tim Walz declares a peacetime state of emergency. He asks Minnesota residents to stay home as much as possible and asks people to “socially distance” from others to curb the virus’ spread.
March 14 — The last of 20 Pre-Synod Prayer and Listening Events is canceled at St. Alphonsus in Brooklyn out of concern about the coronavirus. Later, Archbishop Hebda and other archdiocesan leaders extend the timeline of preparation from two years to three years for an Archdiocesan Synod on the archdiocese’s pastoral needs — setting it for June 2022.
March 15 — Walz announces an eight-day closure of the state’s public schools, effective March 18. Catholic schools in the archdiocese follow suit. Closures later are extended, and schools do not re-open campuses until the fall.
March 18 — Archbishop Hebda suspends all in-person Masses; they resume under COVID-19 precautions two months later, May 18. Parishes offer parking lot and online Masses, outdoor eucharistic processions and confessions and online ministries.
April 12 — Archbishop Hebda presides at Easter Mass in an empty Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. The Mass is livestreamed, and online Masses become a norm across the archdiocese. Archbishop Hebda and Bishop Andrew Cozzens extend Easter blessings for several hours outside the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul on a snowy, wet and windy day; cars line up for blocks, bumper-to-bumper, as people drive up for the blessing.
April 17 — Bishop Cozzens helps organize and Archbishop Hebda sends a letter to priests seeking volunteers for a new Anointing Corps, a group of priests to anoint people in danger of death from COVID-19. More than a dozen men respond and the Anointing Corps anoints hundreds of people in the months that follow.
May 2 — Archbishop Hebda and Bishop Andrew Cozzens visit St. Therese of New Hope and four other senior care facilities in the Twin Cities, praying a decade of the rosary at each and blessing the facilities and their residents. Senior care centers across the country are particularly hard hit by COVID-19.
May 14 — Father James Hermann, who was living at St. Therese of New Hope, is the first priest of the archdiocese to die from COVID-19. He was 82.
May 15 — Archbishop Hebda announces that public Masses may resume May 18 but for the time being must limit attendance to 10 people. The archbishop said Minnesota’s Catholic bishops were working to determine when larger Masses may resume in light of the governor’s adjustments to the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
May 20 — After continued conversations with the governor, Minnesota bishops announce they do not accept Walz’s 10-person limit on public Masses and other religious gatherings, in light of a wider opening of retail stores, hair salons and other establishments. The bishops plan to allow parishes to have religious gatherings at one-third capacity in churches starting May 26, with safety precautions such as encouraging masks and social distancing. After more conversations, the bishops and Walz decide that opening churches to 25 percent capacity is reasonable.
May 30 — Seven men are ordained to the priesthood at the Cathedral of St. Paul in the midst of the pandemic, with Archbishop Hebda telling them that the need for good shepherds “is clearer now more than ever.”
July 24 — The archdiocese calls attention to Walz’s order that people wear a facial covering in public places that are indoors. People participating in indoor Masses, engaging in in-person ministry and visiting Church offices are encouraged to take the mandate into consideration.
Aug. 19 — Hill-Murray School in Maplewood opens its doors to in-person learning. It was the first of many Catholic schools to resume work in the classroom after the statewide suspension of in-person learning in March. Many public schools choose not to resume in-person learning at the beginning of the school year.
Nov. 5 — Annual Archdiocesan Schools Report finds a 4.4% increase in Catholic school enrollment compared with the year before. Among other factors, school leaders credit the attractiveness of safely returning to in-person learning offered by Catholic schools.
Nov. 20 — Archbishop Hebda encourages parishes to focus on ministries “truly essential to our mission” in the midst of an “alarming surge” in COVID-19 cases, and to consider postponing in-person parish meetings, groups or initiatives, or move them fully online until Christmas.
Nov. 23 — COVID-19 vaccines announced by Pfizer Inc. and Moderna raise questions about moral permissibility because an abortion-derived cell line was used for testing them. The chairmen of the U.S. bishops’ doctrine and pro-life committees address the issue in a memo to brother bishops, noting a remote connection to the cell lines but finding it is not immoral to be vaccinated with them.
Dec. 17 — With COVID-19 precautions, the Cathedral of St. Paul and the Catholic Heritage Foundation offer 12-minute light and sound outdoor show titled “Cathedral Illuminated: The Manger.” Three evenings of the continuous loop draw a total of more than 8,000 people in their vehicles to the Cathedral.
Dec. 25 — Grateful for the opportunity to greet all-comers in a safe way on Christmas Day, Archbishop Hebda and Bishop Cozzens greet people for 90 minutes as they drive up to the Cathedral of St. Paul, a repeat of their effort on Easter.
6 — Walz loosens COVID-19 restrictions for Mass and other religious gatherings, eliminating the maximum capacity of 250 people, but retaining a restriction that no more than 50 percent of a space’s maximum seating capacity be used.
22 — A March for Life: Youth and Family Conference sponsored by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is convened at two sites in St. Paul. Under COVID-19 precautions, the event draws more than 600 young people and families as annual gatherings turn to virtual events for the March for Life in Washington, D.C, and the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life march in St. Paul.
Feb. 17 — Precautions for Ash Wednesday during the pandemic include facial coverings and sprinkling ashes on the heads of the faithful, or using a Q-tip or cotton swab to the forehead, or applying a thumb mark of ashes on the forehead in the traditional fashion, but with careful hand sanitizing each time.
March 2 — Chairmen of the U.S. bishops’ doctrine and pro-life committees release a statement that a new Johnson & Johnson vaccine was developed, tested and produced with abortion-derived cell lines, raising additional moral concerns compared with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. While Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is morally acceptable if no other vaccine is available, the bishops said, people given a choice should choose the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine over Johnson & Johnson’s.
MARCH 12 — Gov. Tim Walz announces removal of occupancy limits for religious services effective March 15, with social distancing guidelines remaining. The change was among a series of “adjustments” Walz announced loosening state restrictions in place for nearly a year to mitigate spread of COVID-19. Prior to the March change, worship occupancy was limited to 50% space capacity, with social distancing. The restriction’s rollback also applies to weddings.

Tags: Closing churches for public Masses, COVID-19 pandemic, Father Dave Hennen, Father James Stiles, Father Phil Rask Category: Featured, Local News

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