Priest prays regularly outside Iowa COVID-19 ‘hot spot’

Heritage Specialty Care has connection to nearby parish

By Michelle Tressel

Special to The Witness

CEDAR RAPIDS — Around 1:30 p.m. since mid-March, in the snow, rain or sun, a solitary figure stands on a street corner outside of Heritage Specialty Care in Cedar Rapids. After a short period of time, this lone person starts walking around the perimeter of the facility.  If you listen carefully, you will hear him praying the Rosary and reciting other prayers.  Who is this person and why is he persistent in daily prayer walks?

“We all have different things we need to do to fight this pandemic,” remarked ­Father Mark Murphy, pastor of St. Jude Parish and the individual who does the daily prayer walk outside of Heritage. He continues, “Doctors, nurses, and aides – some are now going into harm’s way in ways they may not have anticipated when they chose this work.They’re doing their part.  Parents are supposed to teach their children, but they are doing it now in a more deliberate way to fight this pandemic.  They’re doing their part.  Some people are making cloth masks.  Some social butterflies are now staying home.  They’re doing their parts.  But as a priest, if you’re not praying for your people…then what are you doing? “

Heritage Specialty Care, a long-term care facility, was the first COVID-19 hot spot in the Cedar Rapids metro area.  Over 100 residents and staff have contracted COVID-19 and more than 17 residents have died.  The facility is a neighbor of St. Jude Church, literally only two blocks from the parish grounds. The parish has had a relationship with Heritage for a number of years by bringing holy communion to Catholic residents weekly, celebrating Mass and Anointing of the Sick, leading the rosary monthly, celebrating birthdays of residents and visiting the residents socially.  Some of the residents and staff members at Heritage are parishioners.

Several parishioners also have family members there.

Sharon Campbell, a parishioner who takes the Eucharist to Heritage, commented, “We all care deeply about the residents at Heritage, and have a special relationship with those who are Catholic.”

The prayer walks started during Lent so Holy Week and the Lord’s passion were on Fr. Mark’s mind. Father Murphy’s mission on his prayer walks is primarily to pray for the residents: the forgiveness of their sins, their holiness, and their coming closer to the Lord. He communicated to the staff at Heritage that he would be on the sidewalk outside their property at certain times to pray.  The residents were invited to join him in prayer, from their rooms, if able to do so.

During this Easter Season, Father Murphy’s prayer intention has remained the same, but he is now aware of being a visible sign of prayer to others. Father Murphy commented, “At first I didn’t know if anyone inside was even praying with me or knew I was there.”

He continued, “One image etched in my mind was two employees, fully clothed in scrubs, gloves, face masks, waving to me from a window in a door.  One even made what I took to be a heart sign with his/her hands.”  Father Murphy has joined the son of a resident and walked up to the resident’s window to pray and say ‘hello’.  Two staff members stood alongside the resident and prayed with the resident, Father Murphy and the son. The interactions, deepened by social distancing, have made Fr. Mark more mindful of the impact COVID-19 has had on staff and family members and so he prays for them as well.

This pandemic is a powerful reminder of the helplessness caused by an illness. Pastoral care to those who are sick has been part of the ministry of Catholic parishes for decades.  Father Murphy believes, “the most powerful thing our Lord did was not cleanse the leper, not make the lame walk, not make the blind see, nor raise the dead.  I think the Lord’s most powerful act was His suffering and death on the cross followed by His Resurrection (the Paschal Mystery).”  He went on to say, “In this way, His suffering won for us God’s grace, a share in His victory over sin and death.  St. Paul tells us we can unite our sufferings to the suffering of Christ on the cross (Colossians 1:24).  The sick, who are suffering, can unite their suffering to Christ’s suffering for the salvation of the world.  Some may see those who are sick as being very limited in what they can do, and while physically that is true, spiritually they may be able to do much more than the healthy because of the cross they bear, their share in the Paschal Mystery.”

In this way, the residents of Heritage Specialty Care, whether they are battling COVID-19 or not, have much to teach the faithful while we are focused on building the Kingdom of God on earth.

Tressel is a pastoral associate at St. Jude Parish in Cedar Rapids.


Cover photo: Father Mark Murphy walks in front of Heritage Specialty Care in Cedar Rapids while praying the rosary recently. The facility is home to many elderly residents and more than 17 have died of COVID-19. (Contributed photo)