In the thick of it: How priests have been leading their flocks during the pandemic

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

May 21, 2020

Father Wilson Lucka, TOR, poses inside Holy Trinity Parish in Azle. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)Father Wilson Lucka, TOR, poses inside Holy Trinity Parish in Azle. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)
Father Wilson Lucka, TOR, poses inside Holy Trinity Parish in Azle. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)


FORT WORTH — “Right from the beginning we had the support of our priest.”

That’s what Ginger Benes remembers about the early days of the coronavirus pandemic when public gatherings were banned, companies shuttered their doors, and many Azle residents suddenly found themselves without a job or paycheck.

“His immediate concern was that people would need things,” said the Holy Trinity parishioner recalling how Father Wilson Lucka, TOR, sent out a plea asking the faith community to bring whatever food items they could spare to the church. “That’s when our front kitchen became a food pantry on Monday and Thursday. Families would come and take what they needed.”

As they have in the wake of other tragedies, clergy responded to the latest health crisis with resolve, compassion, and empathy. During the Spanish flu of 1918, churches closed their doors hoping to ease the spread of the deadly virus that killed 675,000 Americans. In 2020, similar precautions to mitigate COVID-19 barred church attendance, but this time clergy had a new resource at their disposal—technology. Cooperating with the directives of state and local officials, the Diocese of Fort Worth suspended public worship but encouraged priests to celebrate the Mass via livestream so parishioners could participate in Mass via their computers, smartphones, radios, and televisions.

Pastors also used social media platforms to keep in touch with parishioners and share news about needs in the community.

When personal protective equipment for healthcare workers began to dwindle in North Texas, Fr. Lucka approached the Holy Trinity Men’s Club and parish seamstresses about making masks and face shields. Talented sewers created hundreds of masks in different patterns and came up with creative ideas when the supply of elastic was gone. Materials purchased by the Men’s Club produced more than 400 face shields distributed to a children’s hospital and the Weatherford Police Department.

“I was so proud of how parishioners pulled together,” Fr. Wilson said. “It’s been beautiful seeing people reach out to support one another.”

 

Technology connects scattered flock

Father Jonathan Demma used his engineering and programming background to connect with as many parishioners at Sacred Heart in Wichita Falls as possible. Ordained two years ago, the young priest is the parish’s parochial administrator and also works with Notre Dame elementary and high schools, as well as Catholic Charities Northwest Campus. Serving the different communities is always a stretch.

“This has been a new challenge — trying to reach a scattered flock, keep them together, and ministering to them pastorally when I don’t have immediate access,” Fr. Demma admitted.

Prior to the pandemic, Sacred Heart Church had three cameras set up to televise Mass in the back chapel for an overflow crowd. A content delivery network he purchased tied the cameras together so Mass could be livestreamed and broadcast on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.

Father Jonathan Demma shows off his livestream control room. With the help of parish volunteers, the Mass can be livestreamed and broadcast on social media. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)Father Jonathan Demma shows off his livestream control room. With the help of parish volunteers, the Mass can be livestreamed and broadcast on social media. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)
Father Jonathan Demma shows off his livestream control room. With the help of parish volunteers, the Mass can be livestreamed and broadcast on social media. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)


“People are notified when the Mass is starting on social media,” explained the former technology director for a long-distance company. “Because we’re using computer-based streaming, there’s no trouble with buffering, and during Communion, the picture-in-picture feature displays the sanctuary with the words to the prayer for spiritual communion.”

Viewers also see information on how they can use their phone to text a donation to the parish during the offertory.

“We’re getting great livestream numbers,” enthused Fr. Demma, who relies on volunteers to help with the broadcasts. “Families from all over the country — Florida, New Mexico, and Colorado — are watching. Some are former parishioners. Others are family members of parishioners.”

With social distancing guidelines enabling the resumption of public celebrations of the Mass, the tech-savvy priest found a way high-risk parishioners uncomfortable with entering the church, can participate. A mobile black box audio transmitter allows people to sit in Sacred Heart’s parking lot and listen to the Mass on 90.1 FM — a low power radio station. Once they leave parish grounds, the station is no longer available.

“They can listen to the Mass and receive Communion from an extraordinary minister in the parking lot,” he added. “It’s a great alternative for people with limited data plans and those without a smart phone.”

The parish priest continues to look for innovative ways to bring the parish together.

“Some people are technologically inclined. Others are not,” Fr. Demma observed. “We’ve tried to make some way for everyone to participate according to their needs.”

 

Letters lift spirits

Lord Byron once said, “Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company.” In the same spirit, Father Tim Thompson shared his stay-at-home pandemic experiences with weekly letters sent via email to Immaculate Conception parishioners. Most of the missives focused on lighthearted topics like cutting his hair or “flattening the curve around his waistline.” But there were also practical matters to discuss, like employing social distancing guidelines to reopen the church.

Father Tim Thompson gives Communion to a parishioner outside of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Denton May 17. (NTC/Kenneth Munyer)Father Tim Thompson gives Communion to a parishioner outside of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Denton May 17. (NTC/Kenneth Munyer)
Father Tim Thompson gives Communion to a parishioner outside of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Denton May 17. (NTC/Kenneth Munyer)


“There is a law of unintended consequences, which means stuff happens that you did not plan,” the pastor philosophized in one letter after the chimes of a newly acquired grandfather clock kept him up all night. “People live by highways and never hear the noise. It’s hard to get out of your routine, isn’t it?”

The priest’s humorous stories about life during lockdown helped him lift the spirits of readers dealing with the stress of isolation. His story about trimming his own hair generated the most feedback.

“I assumed parishioners are having the same problems as everybody else — being stuck at home, not able to come to church, an interruption to normal life,” Fr. Thompson explained. “I wanted to convey the message, ‘this too shall pass.’”

Pastor of the Denton parish for nine years, the hard-working priest encourages families to trust in God’s providence and care.

“If we didn’t have any hope or faith, you’d be very wary of how fragile the world is,” he suggested. “This highlights for me how important having faith is in an uncertain world.”
 

Safety, prayer will defeat virus

Knox County reported one lone case of COVID-19 during the first weeks of the epidemic, but that didn’t keep Father John Perikomalayil Antony, HGN, from offering some sage advice to members of St. Joseph Parish in Rhineland.

“Take care of each other,” the pastor urged. “Be hygienic and keep a safe distance to protect one another. And pray every day for people who have lost their lives, those affected, and workers helping us get through this situation.”

A rural farming community, Rhineland hasn’t felt the same social and economic pressures as large cities dealing with the pandemic.

Father John Perikomalayil Antony, HGN, gives a benediction during a recent livestreamed Adoration hour at St. Joseph Parish in Rhineland. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)Father John Perikomalayil Antony, HGN, gives a benediction during a recent livestreamed Adoration hour at St. Joseph Parish in Rhineland. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)
Father John Perikomalayil Antony, HGN, gives a benediction during a recent livestreamed Adoration hour at St. Joseph Parish in Rhineland. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)


“People continue to farm but residents who work in the oil fields have lost their jobs,” he explained. “I always say if you feel like you need assistance, give me a call.”

The parish’s food pantry, stocked by donations from church families, opens every Monday for those struggling financially. St. Joseph also participates in Ministerial Alliance, a network of churches that provides assistance to the needy.

While livestreaming Mass, as well as the daily recitation of the Rosary at 6 p.m., the Heralds of Good News missionary reminds his congregation to remain united in prayer.

“Our prayers will help us defeat the enemy virus that is trying to destroy us,” Fr. Perikomalayil said. “Our faith in Christ and remaining together as a family and a unit is how we’ll be successful.”

 

Ministry to the sick with care

Fear of the coronavirus didn’t keep Father Oscar Sanchez Olvera, CORC, and Father Alejandro Lopez Chavez, CORC, from ministering to the ill and elderly of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Fort Worth.

Using safety protocols, the Confraternidad Sacerdotal de Operarios del Reino de Cristo (Fellowship of Laborers of the Kingdom of Christ) priests visited the sick in their homes to hear confessions and anoint with holy oil.

“None of the people had symptoms or had contracted the virus,” assured Fr. Olvera, the pastor, noting the parishioners he saw had cancer or were elderly.

Taking all necessary precautions, the visitors wore gloves, put on a mask, and carried the holy oil on a cotton ball.

“We did everything essential to prevent us from getting sick in order to take care of them,” he added.

Father Oscar Sanchez Olvera, CORC (left), and Father Alejandro Lopez Chavez, CORC, have used creative means minister to their faithful at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Fort Worth. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)Father Oscar Sanchez Olvera, CORC (left), and Father Alejandro Lopez Chavez, CORC, have used creative means minister to their faithful at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Fort Worth. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)
Father Oscar Sanchez Olvera, CORC (left), and Father Alejandro Lopez Chavez, CORC, have used creative means minister to their faithful at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Fort Worth. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)


Since the start of the pandemic, the priests at Immaculate Heart of Mary have presided at six funerals held in mortuary chapels or the cemetery and limited to 10 mourners. None of the deaths were attributed to the virus.

“The first thing [the pandemic] has taught us is that we need to adapt and adjust to the circumstances,” the pastor explained. “The priesthood, Eucharist, and the sacraments remain the same, but we can change the way of accompanying people especially during these times.”

Fr. Chavez, the parish’s parochial vicar, said the sight of an empty church made him appreciate, even more, the presence of community.

“It has been very meaningful to see the response of the people who follow the broadcast of the Mass on the internet,” he added. “That speaks of the faith they have in the Church, and in God. They are doing everything they can to receive His grace.”

FORT WORTH — “Right from the beginning we had the support of our priest.” That’s what Ginger Benes remembers about the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

Published (until 12/5/2041)