By Dan Russo
DUBUQUE — At the 11 a.m. Mass March 15 in Dubuque, feelings of hope and apprehension could be read on the faces of the faithful as several hundred worshipers filled the church of St. Joseph the Worker. Signs on the doors informed people that the first documented case of “community spread” of the coronavirus was detected in Iowa.
Those who were sick or vulnerable were urged to be cautious and go home if necessary. The congregation seemed to know instinctively that it may be one of the last times they’d be getting together for a while, even though an official announcement from Archbishop Michael Jackels suspending all public Masses beginning March 19 wouldn’t be released until the following day.
“We’re embodied spirits, and right now, our bodies need distance for a while,” said Father Thomas McDermott in his homily, when talking about the precautions against the virus.
By Monday, people in parishes across the archdiocese, like Catholics around the world, were coping with the situation brought about by the pandemic of not having the ability to receive the Eucharist or gather together at churches, Lenten fish fries and other events.
“I think for most of our parishioners there is a sense of disbelief,” said Father Henry Huber, pastor of parishes in Gilbertville and Raymond. “It doesn’t seem possible that something like this could happen and overtake so many areas of life. Most people never imagined a day when their parish would not be open for the celebration of the Mass. For now, our parishes are livestreaming Masses over Facebook. We are encouraging people to watch televised Masses and spend some time with the daily Mass readings each day. Fortunately, we had a couple of weeks of teaching Lectio Divina in the parish before the shut down.”
Livestreamed liturgies and devotions are being promoted archdiocesan-wide on various platforms. At Blessed Sacrament in Waterloo, the parish has seen a steady increase in viewership of its daily Mass on its website since news of the outbreak began gaining steam. The parish has had this capacity for a couple of years now. Father Tony Kruse is working with other priests in his city to also livestream liturgies in the Spanish and Burmese languages.
Not being able to offer Mass in person, however, has not been an easy thing to digest for the pastor. He said he “almost cried” thinking about not being able celebrate Mass in public, but he is optimistic.
“Throughout history there’s been ups and downs,” he said. “There have been plagues. People have made it through the most difficult situations. We will make it through this. No matter what happens, in the end, we will be OK.”
Blessed Sacrament is keeping its office open with a limited staff and is also stepping up communications using newer technologies like Flock Notes to keep people connected. In terms of ministries, it has the biggest in the area when it comes to visiting the sick and elderly in homes and hospitals. A group of 44 volunteers called “Spiritual Companions” go out weekly and have for decades. The pandemic has forced them to stop visiting sick in medical facilities and nursing homes, but they are adapting practices for home visits.
“We are no longer able to bring Communion to people in hospitals and nursing homes,” said Deb Lundberg, the pastoral minister who organizes the visits. “For home visits, I’ve left it up to (the volunteers). They need to do a weekly phone call if they don’t visit. They pray with them.” As of March 19, the majority of the seniors and disabled people who are served by this ministry had opted for phone calls instead of face-to-face visits.
Many other activities have been curtailed around the archdiocese and special precautions are being put in place at religious communities as well as lay organizations.
“We continue to regularly monitor the information surrounding the coronavirus (COVID-19) and take the necessary steps of precaution to protect our most vulnerable population and to limit the spread of the virus,” said Sister Carmen Hernandez, congregational leader for the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Dubuque. “This includes closing our motherhouse to all visitors until April 12. At this time, we will evaluate the situation and take further steps, if needed. Social distancing and hand washing are two other proactive measures being utilized. We continue to pray for all those affected by the COVID-19 virus.”
Photos: On March 15, doors at St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Dubuque have signs warning of the coronavirus and advising the public of the cancelation of a Lenten event. (Dan Russo/The Witness)