The following story was featured in the July/August edition of Northeast Ohio Catholic magazine. Read the entire digital edition HERE.
Ever since the novel coronavirus appeared, it has captured headlines as the pandemic spread across the world.
Its impact was felt in the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland as schools and businesses closed and the public celebration of Mass was suspended for more than two months. State and public health officials issued stayat- home orders and recommendations to frequently and thoroughly wash our hands and wear cloth face masks to help curb the spread of COVID-19. Social distancing became a new buzzword.
The virus has brought out the best in many, including medical professionals who care for patients on the front lines; teachers who scrambled to continue educating students remotely after schools were closed; Catholic Charities workers who ensured that society’s most vulnerable didn’t fall through the cracks; and the clergy who met the challenge of staying connected and providing comfort to the faithful as they struggled without being able to attend Mass, receive Communion or have public funerals or weddings.
Some of their stories are shared below.
On April 4, Mother Jeanette Estrada, novice mistress for the Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, began feeling ill. For the next 10 days, she struggled with spiking fevers, chills, nausea, loss of taste and smell, chest discomfort and other symptoms associated with the novel coronavirus.
Within days, two novices — Sister Monica Waters and Sister Ashley Santora — also came down with the virus. “We were isolated immediately,” Mother Jeanette said, in an effort to keep the other five sisters in the convent, which is on the grounds of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (West) Parish in Cleveland, from becoming sick. The sisters spent three weeks isolated in their rooms.
But COVID-19 spread to the rectory, with Mercedarian Father Arcangelo Manzi, 81, falling ill and dying from the virus on April 21. The other two priests living at the rectory did not get sick, but were quarantined. Later, Mother Jeanette learned that all eight sisters at the convent and four Mercedarian brothers at the rectory tested positive for COVID-19, but most had few or minor symptoms.
Mother Jeanette said the sisters spend four hours per day in prayer. Their daily routine also includes study, meals and cleaning. Some of the sisters work at the parish school, which was closed due to the health crisis, before the sisters got sick. During their illness, Mother Jeanette said the other sisters sanitized and cleaned the entire convent daily.
She credited friends of the order and families from the parish and school with assisting the sisters during their illness by bringing groceries and other needed supplies to the convent. “We got phone calls and prayers from so many people and priests,” Mother Jeanette said. “Everyone was praying for us and Father Arcangelo. We really felt the communion of saints,” she added.
The fact that the sisters are younger was in their favor, Mother Jeanette said.
After three weeks of isolation, she said the recovered sisters were able to rejoin the rest of their community. “We were finally able to be a full family again on May 17 — to eat together and pray together. We had been looking forward to it.” The sisters were so grateful to all who helped with prayers and in other ways, that they made a thank-you video that can be viewed on the Mercedarian sisters’ Facebook page.
“We are full of gratitude. God was merciful to us,” Mother Jeanette said.
“Education is more than bricks and mortar,” said Rich Smith, director of technology and innovation at Lake Catholic High School in Mentor.
When schools were forced to close in mid-March because of the health crisis, teachers and students had to turn on a dime and switch from in-person to distance learning. The quick turnaround also brought feelings of isolation for some in the education community.
Rich said Lake Catholic’s 600 students were in a good place because they all had Chromebooks and were able to continue their
education without too much trouble.
But one thing quickly became evident: the need for social and emotional support, especially for the staff.
“At 3 p.m. daily I hosted a ‘help desk’ to be sure everyone was OK, to help with any technology issues and to decompress and debrief,” Rich said. He said the sessions were well-received. “Some teachers had no technology issues, but participated just because they wanted to check in with their colleagues.”
Lake Catholic also livestreamed a prayer service every Thursday. Rich started the stream from his home and the host for that week picked up and took over the session. “We blended technology and prayer,” he said. The sessions were open to everyone — students, teachers, staff, parents and alumni.
Now that the school year is over, Rich — who recently completed his doctorate in education with an emphasis on 21st century learning — is part of a diocesan schools’ subcommittee on education design and technology. The objective is to prepare the schools — grades K-12 — for simultaneous learning in case there ever is another need to switch to distance learning.
“This is based on the need for continuous education to ensure learning doesn’t stop,” he said.
Rich said some students told him how much they appreciated his and Lake Catholic’s efforts during the school closure. “I feel really connected to these students. They’ve been through so much,” he said.
Rich also said the efforts underway to integrate new learning tools throughout the diocese are vital. “We have the potential to take Catholic education to the next level.”
Many people worked from home during the coronavirus pandemic, but Angelique Oatman reported daily to the Bishop William M. Cosgrove Center in downtown Cleveland to ensure the center’s guests were fed. Cosgrove Center is an emergency services ministry of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Cleveland. It provides food and other services for the homeless and those in need.
Angelique, who previously volunteered at the center, has been an employee for eight years and the full-time cook for two years. She plans the menu for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday, orders and inventories the food, cooks it and ensures that the meals look good when served. “Appearance is important,” she said.
But during the health crisis, Cosgrove Center stopped serving meals in its dining room, offering pre-packaged meals to its guests. Angelique said many ate outside, sitting socially distanced.
She prepares a hot breakfast on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, cooking things like pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausage, grits and waffles. The other days, guests receive things like cereal, fruit and yogurt. Grilled chicken with cream sauce, buttered noodles and vegetable medley were on the lunch menu on one recent day. “We also pack snacks for the guests and provide beverages,” Angelique said. About 200 people receive breakfast and about 250 get lunch daily.
“We know our ‘regulars’ who have special diets,” she said, explaining some need a vegetarian meal, some cannot eat red sauce and others do not eat certain things like meat, fish or poultry.
A Cleveland native and the mother of seven, Angelique said she grew up cooking with her grandmother and transferred the skills she learned to her job. She also earned associate and bachelor’s degrees in business management, which help with managing the kitchen and the meal program at Cosgrove Center.
“We do special meals for holidays like Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, Christmas and Memorial Day,” she said. Summer holiday meals usually feature something like chicken and hot dogs. When the center is open, they also have games and decorations to provide a festive atmosphere for the guests. Her goal is to provide Cosgrove Center’s guests with nutritious, healthy, good-tasting food that is served with love and respect. “I love cooking, and I love working with Catholic Charities,” she added
“If Jesus asked us to walk 500 miles to establish his kingdom, we’d find a way,” said Father Michael Stalla, pastor of SS. Cosmas and Damian Parish in Twinsburg for the past five years.
He took those words to heart as he dove into the digital age during the coronavirus pandemic and worked to stay connected with his 1,500-family parish.
During his 17 years as a priest, Father Michael served as a parochial vicar at St. Mary Parish in Painesville and St. Raphael Parish in Bay Village, before spending six years — 2009-2015 — at the diocesan mission in El Salvador.
As the health crisis worsened, he knew he had to ensure the safety and spiritual well-being of his parish community, so he and the staff removed the holy water and hymnals from the church and developed a cleaning routine. Then came the announcement that the obligation to attend Sunday Mass was suspended and no public Masses would be celebrated until further notice because of the pandemic.
About the same time, the parish website crashed, so Father Michael was forced to make some important decisions quickly. After restoring the website, he enlisted the parish staff to help establish a robust online presence eight times daily with livestreamed Mass, prayers, devotions and teaching — mainly through Facebook Live. He also kept part of the church open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily for private prayer.
Teaching sessions included spirituality, Bible study and instruction on things like the meaning of Mass, as well as RCIA sessions.
“It really helped stabilize the community,” Father Michael said. Pre-pandemic weekend Mass attendance averaged 900-1,000, while the livestreamed liturgies drew about 3,200 people. “We also had viewers from about 17 different countries, including El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Mexico, India, Chile and the Netherlands.”
Many parishioners do not use the internet, so he an Deacon Edward Chernick split up the list of homebound parishioners and checked in on them every Friday.
One time, Father Michael saw a woman who seemed overwhelmed praying alone in the church during a regular Mass time, so he approached her. “She was very sad, thinking no one was there for Mass until I explained that many more people watched Mass online.”
He also streamed funeral Masses and graveside services.
When publicly celebrated Masses resumed Pentecost weekend, Father Michel said attendance was about onethird of the normal number — but it continues to grow. “It was very joyful,” he said, noting that three people were baptized and three more made their first Communion and were confirmed — celebrations that should have occurred at the Easter Vigil. Also, five people already signed up for the next RCIA session and others are considering it.
As things slowly return to a new normal, Father Michael said he will continue livestreaming Mass. He hopes the pandemic helped open a whole new world for many people, he said, adding, “You’re not alone in a world with a passion for Christ.”
Caring for COVID-19 patients amid the pandemic can be stressful for medical personnel.
Christy Frey, a nurse in the intensive care unit at UH St. John Medical Center in Westlake, said, thankfully, the hospital has not been overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. But the pandemic can be overwhelming for the staff.
“It’s heartbreaking to see the families and to know that they can’t be with their loved ones,” said Christy, who has been a registered nurse for 24 years, 23 of them at St. John’s. “I’m a stranger to the patients, but I do the best I can to comfort them. Sometimes I hold their hand, brush their hair and talk to them.” Nurses also use iPads to help patients stay in contact with their families or to communicate with a chaplain.
It’s disconcerting to have to don layers of personal protective equipment before entering the room of a COVID-19 patient, Christy said, and there is concern that she could bring the virus home to her family, which includes two daughters — one of whom is also a nurse — her husband and six grandchildren.
“I take a change of clothes and shoes with me to work every day. If I take care of a COVID patient that day, I will change before going home and put my work clothes in a bag and wash them as soon as I get home and go directly to the shower,” Christy said.
Another stressor is not being able to give hugs to family and friends due to social distancing. “I am fortunate that my immediate family have been together since this pandemic started, but many families have elderly loved ones and are unable to give them a hug. This I’m sure is affecting many with regards to the isolation,” she added.
Christy, a parishioner at St. Bernadette’s in Westlake, said she relies on her faith to help her through the stressful times. She also credits Sister Kendra Bottoms, SND, vice president, mission and ministry and pastoral care at UH St. John’s, with providing inspiration for hospital staff, patients and their families, including morning prayer and ensuring that daily Mass is available in the chapel and over the hospital’s internal TV network.
The hospital offers resources to ensure staff members’ emotional and well-being, Christy said.
“Being a nurse was my calling and it is my faith that gets me through each and every day of this pandemic.”