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Schools, parishes, families, and the needy all coping with coronavirus

By Deacon Kyle Eller
The Northern Cross

Catholics are praying for those afflicted with COVID-19, their loved ones and caregivers, those who have died from it, civil leaders trying to control it, and all those afraid of it.

But its effects are rippling out in a variety of other ways, too, among families and schools and parishes and the vulnerable in our communities.


Cynthia Zook, director of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Duluth, said the past weeks have “been challenging days” with a lot of hard work at each of the diocese’s schools.

As Gov. Tim Walz closed schools across the state and moved to remote learning, Catholic schools have made the same transitions. Zook said one of the challenges is that communities and schools — and the families of students — may have very different levels of access to the technology and infrastructure needed for remote learning, an issue she’d like to see the Legislature address in the future.

“They’re figuring it out in each individual site,” she said.

That has meant creativity and an acceptance that glitches may pop up at times. The schools in our diocese are sharing ideas among themselves and gleaning wisdom from what other schools around the country are doing, but Zook said the speed with which everything happened left little time for collaborating.

“We just had to jump in with both feet and trust in the Lord,” she said.

She said the teachers are working hard with a “spirit of can-do,” and getting patience and support from their communities, where parents are learning from the experience too.

Zook see a potential silver lining in that the whole thing may end up expanding opportunities to use this kind of technology in new ways in the future, a kind of “pilot project for what could be.” So there is hope and excitement too.

Still, Zook said the situation is hard on families and on students. Some families are experiencing disrupted schedules, challenges arranging childcare, and financial difficulties, even just from kids eating more meals at home.

For students, Zook said they are missing in-person connection with their friends and the experiences outside the classroom, like music lessons, sports, or drama, that may give them a real sense of joy and progress.

“I feel very compassionate toward them,” she said.

At the same time, she said some school families are bonding through these experiences too, in old fashioned ways like board games and picnics on the living room floor.

“Many of them are also, during this holy season of Lent, taking advantage of the churches and going to say their prayers in the church as a family, spending time in the Lord’s house,” she said.

The Hacker family is spiritually coping by remaining grateful and sharing what they’re grateful for with neighbors. (Submitted Photo)

Families are coping too. Clergy are reaching out in various ways and encouraging people to find ways to pray together, especially on Sundays.

Some, like the Hacker family from St. Anthony’s in Ely, are coming up with little practices of their own, trying to “do small things with great love.”

Michelle Hacker said the family shares one thing it’s thankful for on a sheet of paper each morning and hangs it in the window. “We then ask the Holy Spirit to inspire us to reach out to someone outside of our home,” she wrote in an email. Those have included notes to neighbors, making snowmen outside the windows of loved ones, sending letters to friends and family and even a mini reception in their home to honor a cousin whose marriage in Texas had to be canceled.

“We also capture each day on Facebook to encourage and uplift others,” she said.

Reaching those in need

For the agencies caring for the most needy in our communities, there are a variety of challenges depending on where you are in the diocese, said Patrice Critchley-Menor, director of social apostolate for the Duluth Diocese.

One such agency is simply closing down for two weeks as a result of state emergency orders.

“So I’m sure that’s going to seriously impact the people in that area,” she said.

She said that many agencies are being creative and adapting to the difficult circumstances, caring for people who are among the least likely to seek out medical help.

“The agencies I’m working with are really rising to the occasion,” she said.

But with people working from home and even some county offices closed down, money is running short for many agencies. And the anticipation is that the need will increase.

Critchley-Menor said that in addition to praying and staying informed through the diocesan Office of Social Apostolate and the Minnesota Catholic Conference, financial contributions to the diocese for these efforts would also be a way to help, especially given that needs are going to be different in different communities across the diocese and in the rapidly evolving situation.

“We want to have more money in that pot so we can respond and that our response can be flexible enough that it doesn’t exclude some weird case” in a particular city, she said.

She added that it’s also an opportunity for all Catholics to grow in how they see current events through the lens of Catholic social teaching.

“It’s a really interesting opportunity to practice our faith in a way we have not before,” she said.


Also facing challenges are parishes, where, with no congregation on Sunday, there is no passing of the collection plate, even as bills continue to come in.

“Our parishes are on a spectrum of how much emergency reserves they have,” said Franz Hoefferle, chief financial officer of the diocese. Some have enough to weather months, while others don’t.

That could mean potentially reducing staff hours or furloughing people, essentially temporarily laying them off, although Hoefferle said parishes are trying to maintain staffing to the best of their ability and continuing to try to employ people, even if they are temporarily “re-purposed” to different tasks than they normally do.

“I think the parishes are doing everything they can to work with what they have,” he said.

Many parishes that do not already have online giving options are working on that, Hoefferle said. Parishioners can also mail in their offering.

He encouraged parishioners to be aware of the needs of their parish, even as he acknowledged that parishioners are facing their own financial difficulties in the situation, sometimes including job loss.

“You just have to look at what you can do,” he said.

Joe Lichty, director of development for the diocese, says Catholics should think of it first and foremost in terms of their faith.

“All of us have a need and desire to give,” he said. “We give to the church as part of the sacred offering, as an act of worship, joining the whole of our lives, and yes all our gifts, with the ultimate gift offered on the altar — Jesus Christ!”

“Just because activities at churches are suspended doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still offer God our first fruits,” he added. “Making a financial sacrificial offering isn’t a fee for service but an act of worship.”