US Catholics Respond to Coronavirus With Prayer and Outreach to the Vulnerable

In hard-hit New Rochelle and elsewhere, the faithful are seeking to help out spiritually and materially.

Members of the National Guard hand out bags of food to residents near a 1-mile radius set up to halt the coronavirus (COVID-19) on March 12 in New Rochelle, New York.
Members of the National Guard hand out bags of food to residents near a 1-mile radius set up to halt the coronavirus (COVID-19) on March 12 in New Rochelle, New York. (photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — During a time of social distancing and uncertainty, Catholics in areas affected by the coronavirus are taking the time to pray for the poor and vulnerable, while coping with restrictions on Masses and large public gatherings. The  number of confirmed cases in the U.S. reached nearly 2,000 Friday, and President Trump declared a national emergency.

In the New York City suburb of New Rochelle, a 1-mile containment zone has been established, after more than 120 confirmed coronavirus cases in Westchester County — one of the biggest clusters of the outbreak in the U.S. The containment zone means that schools and large public gathering areas are closed.

Therese O’Brien, a Catholic who lives just blocks from the Young Israel at New Rochelle synagogue, which is the outbreak’s epicenter, told the Register most of her neighbors are in quarantine, as they attended the synagogue where a man tested positive for the coronavirus last week and was subsequently linked to dozens of cases.

O’Brien is a parishioner at Immaculate Conception parish in nearby Tuckahoe. She said Mass last Sunday was “packed, so I don’t think people are staying away, at least at this time — unless, of course, they do have an underlying condition.”

In her neighborhood, she said that since the schools are closed due to the containment measures, she has seen “the elderly with little children in tow, because now, with them not being in school, the grandparents are taking care of them.”


Community Support

“Neighbors are really pitching in everywhere; they really are asking people if they need help,” O’Brien added, “a lot of great parishioners that are involved in that type of work — reaching out and making sure everyone’s okay.”

She said the local stores are sold out of a lot of necessities, and “the minute you step up to the counter, it’s already sprayed with the rubbing alcohol; they have rubbing-alcohol bottles. They are spraying all the counters when you come, for each customer.”

O’Brien helps her elderly parents attend Mass and said that she feels “conflicted” regarding Mass attendance, because “this is the time that you want, more than anything, to be there and to receive the Eucharist under these circumstances; and you have people telling you maybe you have to stay away.”

Holy Family parish, which is located within the New Rochelle containment zone, sent the Register information about its worship guidelines during the outbreak. The parish will continue to make Mass available, but it will be a “simple ritual” without a choir. As in other parishes and dioceses, the parish has emphasized that the faithful have a dispensation to stay home if they are elderly or vulnerable to the virus.

Another resident of New Rochelle, who is a parishioner at Holy Family, told the Register that the distance from the sacraments has been very difficult. The parishioner, who asked not to be identified, has been unable to attend Mass due to an underlying condition of severe asthma, saying, “Holy Family is my family, and it’s painful to be staying away.” However, the parishioner said, “We’re in contact with our home-school group online, our faithful community that’s keeping us together. We pray together; we keep our sanity together.”

“They’re doing community work,” the parishioner noted of the National Guard, which is in New Rochelle to assist during the outbreak. “Like every other epidemic, it’s going to hit the poor the hardest. … I’m hoping and praying that the poor will be well-served right now.”


Local Outreach to the Home-Bound

As several dioceses have now canceled public Masses in response to the pandemic, local parish-support networks have mobilized to assist those elderly or immunocompromised who are trapped at home with difficulty obtaining groceries.

Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., has canceled public Masses, as the Archdiocese of Washington decided to take that step Friday for all D.C. parishes. However, Holy Trinity has also encouraged parishioners who are not in a high-risk group to fill out the “Parishioner Support Volunteers” form to assist home-bound parishioners with things like grocery runs, conversation and pharmacy trips.

Similar networks have been springing up in faith communities and neighborhoods across the country. A popular D.C. steak restaurant, Medium Rare, is offering free home-delivered meals to those over 70 years of age who are under quarantine.

“Our people are there, and they want to work, and we’ve got the food, so for those that can’t get to us, let’s do something about it,” owner Mark Bucher told The Washingtonian. “Those folks that don’t have family near them or that might really be scared should get a comforting meal.”

Aileen McShea Tinney, division director of senior services for Catholic Charities of Baltimore, told EWTN News Nightly that the organization has been following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, advising the elderly her group serves to “stay home” and limit outside visitors, while also ensuring that they have the resources they need.

“We have to look around us and see who those people are that probably need a little help in order to be able to stay home,” she said Wednesday, adding that technology can be helpful so that the elderly do not feel socially isolated.

U.S. religious orders that minister to vulnerable populations such as the elderly and homeless also are stepping up efforts to protect their workers and those they serve.

Catholic News Agency reported that the Father McKenna Center in Washington, a day shelter for homeless men, is training staff to look for signs of coronavirus in the homeless men that go there. They are also mandating the use of hand sanitizer both for those serving there and those being served.

The Little Sisters of the Poor home in Washington, D.C., is also taking the guidance of The American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living in response to the virus, which includes restricting unnecessary visitors and encouraging hand-washing upon exit and entry.

In an email to their volunteers, the Little Sisters are encouraging people to check in virtually through phone calls with their elderly relatives and neighbors, despite the need for social distance.

“Offer to pick up groceries, medicines or other necessities; if you need to avoid direct contact, you can leave them on their doorstep,” they write. “Since many seniors are not accustomed to online shopping, ask if they need help ordering needed items and arranging for home delivery.”


International Response

Catholic aid agencies such as Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and Caritas are attempting to assist people internationally who are vulnerable to the virus, as the number of cases worldwide recently passed 130,000.

“We are doing everything possible to leverage our vast global footprint to prevent and mitigate the spread of the virus and its impact,” Sean Callahan, president and CEO of CRS, said in a press statement. Regional CRS representatives discussed specific measures underway in the countries they serve.

Caritas, CRS’ counterpart in Italy, has been serving the poor there amid the outbreak. A representative told the Register that their soup kitchen in Lodi has switched to offering food to take home rather than meals in their communal dining hall. Pope Francis recently donated 100,000 euros to “assist Italian Caritas in providing essential services in favor of the poor and most vulnerable members of society. Diocesan and parish Caritas centers in Italy run soup kitchens, homeless shelters, dormitories and more.”

Kevin Hartigan, CRS’ regional director in the Middle East and Europe noted that “the refugee, displaced and war-affected populations we serve throughout this region have endured years of hardship and [are] particularly vulnerable to any new threat such as this virus.”

He said CRS is “working with local authorities, partner agencies and local communities throughout the region to support prevention efforts aimed at improving hygiene, awareness and knowledge of the disease.”

Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.