NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — No man is an island, but the COVID-19 pandemic had confined Father Joseph Henry to one.
At 88 years old, his routines of hearing Mass and confessions at neighboring parishes had come to a sudden stop. He had ministered to prisoners, and now COVID-19 has confined him to his home of 40 years on the island of Jamestown — a patch of heaven on earth now painfully isolated from the very people his priesthood desired to serve.
Then, the old priest got the call: Would he like a meal prepared and sent to him from the Knights of Columbus at St. Thomas More and St. Veronica Chapel on Narragansett? Father Marcel Tallion, St. Thomas More and St. Veronica’s pastor, explained over the phone that the Knights are serving their elderly neighbors confined at home and are happy to provide him something two days a week.
“I said it would be absolutely wonderful,” Father Henry said. “I thought this was particularly wonderful in our own area.”
If COVID-19 created islands of social distance between people, the Knights of Columbus Pius XII Council has been building bridges between parishioners and between their parish and the communities around Narragansett.
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Rhode Island, the Knights worked closely with their pastor, Father Taillon, to keep their parish connected, stay supported and move forward together.
The Pius XII Council 5295 is being highlighted by the Knights’ Supreme Council in a forthcoming video as one of the exceptional local councils that heeded the call of the Knight’s ongoing “Leave No Neighbor Behind” program.
The “Meal Train” program was one of the first actions the Knights took, starting in mid-March. And Father Henry was not just deeply grateful for the meal, but especially the gesture, as he lives outside the parish boundaries. For each visit, the families from Narragansett make a 20- to 25-minute driving trip from the mainland, crossing the great steel bridge guarded by Plum Beach Light, and then turning north once on the island to find his house. Father Henry looks for the car as it pulls round and then steps outside the back door to enjoy conversation with the visiting family at a distance.
One knight and his daughters printed out a couple of messages to accompany the meal.
“I saved those two little things,” he said, “because it was so nice of them to do that.”
No One Left Behind
Joseph Bamford, grand knight of the Pius XII Council, told the Register that, in addition to the meal train, the Knights’ more than 100 members have worked closely and collaboratively with Father Taillon in a variety of ways.
“We’ve got a huge contribution from a lot of the guys who are stepping up in so many ways to help Father, the parish, and the community as a whole,” Bamford said.
“We’re stepping up and leading by example,” he said. Bamford and his wife have made masks for clergy, health-care workers and parishioners in the area.
The Knights also have the “Stop & Shop Gift Card Program,” where they gather gift cards from parishioners to give to Father Taillon so he can hand them out to families in need of food.
“We’ve got a ton of folks that have lost jobs,” Bamford said. One of their local families has literally been split up by the crisis, with the father working locally and the mother working in Providence. But the kids could no longer attend school, and the family had relied on the free lunch at school.
“Where we take food for granted, they had none,” Bamford said. So the Knights put together several hundred dollars’ worth of groceries, and one of their volunteers dropped them off with the mother.
“The joy on her face was immeasurable,” Bamford said.
With giving being down, the parish has also cut costs, such as lawncare. So the Knights launched “Operation Lawn Care” to have multiple teams care for the outside facilities at both St. Thomas More and St. Veronica.
Richard Bourbonaisse, a former grand knight for the council, told the Register that the lawn-care teams have really brought their brother Knights closer together, and proved therapeutic, in a way. After spending months apart from each other, save for their Zoom meetings, “It was nice to just mow the grass.”
“I mow at both, so I can just see these guys,” he said. They come together at each site with trailers toting their own weed whackers, leaf blowers and lawn mowers, to care for the parish grounds. Mowing the lawns takes about one to two hours, Bourbonaisse said, “depending on how chatty the guys are.”
“We’re doing it in a safe way. It’s weird, but fun,” he said, “and it takes a bit of the edge off.”
Another initiative they carried out was the Mother’s Day “Pansy Drive.” Bourbonaisse said the Knights handled the delivery of 80 pots of pansies, and it struck him that each potted plant had a note of love and appreciation for somebody’s wife, mother or grandmother — and some of them were from people who could not do that in person. And the Knights were making sure they got those messages.
“I’ll do that any day of the week,” he said.
“This is my parish family, and it’s important.”
Bamford said the synergy between the Knights and Father Taillon has just galvanized their members, and the number of participants have grown dramatically.
Now, they are busy strategizing with their pastor about how to reopen the church for Mass.
They have mowing coverage already for the next month and a half. But Bourbonaisse said the council has strong digital communications with each other and with their priest. They have had live video meetings to discuss ideas, and they have online sign-ups with digital reminders.
“We’re able to gather the troops quickly, without having to meet necessarily,” he said.
The Knights and their pastor, Father Taillon, have a strong collaborative relationship. Father Taillon discusses with them the parish needs, and the Knights plan and execute projects without any micromanaging. And the relationship makes the Knights happy to step up.
“We’ve been communicating really well with our parish priest,” Bourbonaisse said.
“When he has something on his mind that he wants to get done, we’re there to help.”
The shutdown of church life from COVID-19 has shown Father Taillon what “pandemic grace” looks like and how central following Jesus Christ is in the life of their council’s members, who live a “sacramentally-based family life.”
The pastor said the Knights have stepped up time and again in the parish, because “they have understood what their discipleship is.”
Before COVID-19 hit, the Knights had raised $70,000 of supplies for Jacob’s Ladder, a community of people with special needs in Jamaica with which the parish has an active relationship. And from the outset, they have shown the Church’s mandate from Jesus Christ cannot be stopped by the pandemic.
“We’re not sitting around and just waiting to open,” he said.
Marguerite Garrahy, a parishioner of St. Thomas, said she is very proud their Knights are being recognized for the witness they’ve provided both before and during the present crisis.
“The Knights have always been involved in our community in so many ways,” she said, noting in particular their involvement in organizing pro-life activities.
“With COVID-19, they were right there to help out,” she said.
“That’s what they do: They help others,” she said. “When there’s a need, they’re right there for them.”
Regarding the plan to reopen the church for public Mass, individual knights will be serving as “true ushers” to keep parishioners safe, and, as Father Taillon said, “I know they’ll step up.”
The priest said he has a great deal of work to do: They have had an increased number of funerals, weddings have been moved, and couples with kids are “pretty stressed out.” Many families are struggling with loneliness, and “everybody’s anxious economically.”
But he added, “There’s a lot of grace in this.” He has also heard more confessions through the pandemic than in his entire life as a priest. People are drawing closer to Jesus Christ, and the Knights are showing “missionary zeal” in their outreach and care for the parish and wider community. And their witness has helped strengthen the bonds of their parish family.
“They do everything with God, and for God, and it’s not humanitarianism,” the priest said.
“It’s Catholicism. And that’s the mark of our council.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.