Parishes rise to challenge in pandemic

Carrie Mathias checks with son Noah, 13, on his faith formation lesson for St. John XXIII Parish.

COVID-19 delivered a blow to parishes and caused much suffering and hardship. But one year after the pandemic began, pastors say they have also witnessed many grace-filled moments, countless acts of charity, a recent rise in Mass attendance, and new ways of gathering families to learn and live the faith.

When 800-plus kindergarten through sixth graders in the religious education program at Saint John XXIII Parish switched to at-home learning, moms and dads had to jump in. For many, they began to formally teach the faith for the first time. A parish survey showed that 70 percent found it to be an enriching experience.

Meanwhile, the parents of seventh and eighth graders listened in as catechists taught their children online.

“In the domestic church, parents are the first teachers of the faith,” said Beth Jesserer, director of faith formation. “Some were re-learning what they had been taught years ago, but they caught on fast. God gives you the grace to get through it.”

Father Bob Miller, pastor of Saint John XXIII, recalled that having to cancel Masses a year ago “was one of the scariest times in my life.” However, the parish began to livestream services immediately, and after reopening church doors has been diligent in maintaining safety protocols.

“I’m hopeful for the future,” Father Miller said.

The Great Grouping of Parishes in Franklin Park, Ambridge, Conway and Baden has worked hard to stay connected to parishioners through Masses and outreach, according to Father Jay Donahue, their pastor. But he acknowledged one of the greatest difficulties of coping with the coronavirus.

“The most painful part of the pandemic has been people sick and dying alone,” he said. “It’s suffering we carry in our hearts.”

As joblessness jumped, the grouping quickly expanded its food pantry at Good Samaritan Parish, offering boxed pantry items, non-perishables and a weekly hot meal. The pantry also teamed with the American Dairy Association to hold two milk giveaways.

“There is victory in all the losses we’ve felt,” Father Donahue said.

Volunteers assist at a food and milk giveaway at Good Samaritan Parish in Ambridge last fall.

Holy Family Parish in Oakmont, Plum and Verona already had been livestreaming Mass as part of an evangelization initiative. The parish added more livestreams and simulcast services to its website, social media and on FM radio.

In communicating changes involving ministries, “We were very blessed,” said Father Kevin Poecking, pastor. “We had introduced Flocknote on Ash Wednesday last year, and thousands of parishioners were already enrolled.” The service sends text and email messages to help keep people informed.

Father Paul Zywan became pastor of Triumph of the Holy Cross Parish in Jefferson Hills, Pleasant Hills, West Mifflin and Clairton in the middle of the pandemic last July. Recently, he has seen an increase in weekly Mass attendance.

“People are thirsting to come home to the Church,” he said. “It makes our work of evangelization that much more important.”

The parish is looking to reach out to the homebound and is involved in intense planning for middle school and youth ministry.

Father Joe Freedy also came to his new assignment last July in Franklin Park, Bellevue and Emsworth, remembering, “The fear factor from the virus was pretty high,” with much confusion about how it was transmitted.

“Most parishioners have returned,” he added. “The way we’re handling things is quite safe.”