Catholic Herald Staff
Before any cases of the new coronavirus had even been reported, leadership in the Diocese of Superior had mobilized action plans. While schools were the first hit with closure and distance learning, parishes are facing more pressing concerns as an unintended result of the state’s “Safer at Home” order.
Still, there are clear signs of new life budding around the diocese in the form of fervent resilience, comprehensive initiatives and evangelistic dynamism.
Bishop James P. Powers, after sending out common sense precautions the week prior, wrote a letter on March 13 issuing the first set of directives and guidelines after Gov. Tony Evers declared a public health emergency.
Fewer than two weeks later, just prior to the statewide lockdown through a stay-at-home order prohibiting non-essential travel, the bishop released his third letter. He asked the faithful to shower their parishes with support and closed the letter in gratitude for the lives of stewardship and faith of the Catholics he shepherds.
The first confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the geographic boundaries of the diocese had been reported within days of the school closures – one case in both Douglas and Bayfield Counties, two in St. Croix County. The following Friday, those numbers had risen to four cases in both Douglas and St. Croix Counties with no others reported in Bayfield and one additional case confirmed in Vilas County in the diocese’s eastern edge.
As of March 29, the last data available before this issue went to print, Wisconsin was reporting 1,112 cases and 13 deaths. Within the Diocese of Superior, there were six cases in Douglas County; four in St. Croix County; two in both Bayfield and Vilas counties; one in Oneida County; and one case, a fatality, in Iron County.
Diocesan schools’ response
Diocesan Superintendent of Schools and Director of Catholic Formation and Hispanic Ministry Peggy Schoenfuss and assistant director Chris Hurtubise are in ongoing communications with school and parish catechetical leadership.
As the school closures came first, principals and teachers were the first to find themselves scrambling to adapt to distance learning models. Addressing their students’ physical and mental health, they are aware of the toll the situation is taking on parents and caregivers.
Rita Lee, principal at St. Mary’s School in Tomahawk, shared that their education committee had just finished reviewing and updating their extended closure plan; it was approved the day before schools shut their doors March 17.
“It was fresh in everyone’s mind, and we were somewhat prepared,” she stated.
Lee reported that “staff worked tirelessly” over the weekend – compiling student packets, necessary online resources lists and login information for parents and enough schoolwork for students during the first weeks of closure.
She noted that, like many other places in the diocese, “not all of our families have reliable internet access, or access to electronic devices for their children. For this reason, we tried to create a reasonable combination of pencil-and-paper work and online learning.”
With the overall goal that activities be high-quality assignments that fit into and complement their rigorous curriculum, Lee wanted to be sure to mention “the incredible dedication of our staff… I saw a level of teamwork that most places can only dream of!”
Schools have used all forms of communication – email, websites, phone calls, texting and social media – to reach students.
School Facebook pages have been sharing photos of students learning at home – from kitchen science experiments to everyday math applications and taking advantage of melting snow and warmer weather to get outside and exercise.
Students have been engaged through livestreamed book readings and audio recordings of prayers they are accustomed to praying at school.
St. Patrick, Hudson, Principal Dan Bell has maintained his “Joke Book Friday” lunchtime tradition with younger students through Facebook livestream. In the first video he posted, Bell said he wanted to share in the technology and distance-learning efforts alongside his teachers.
The challenges and stress the modified home-school partnership has added to parents’ plates – already fuller than normal with children home, day care centers closing and workplace restrictions – is something principals and teachers have been quick to acknowledge and accompany.
Laura Jo Jarchow, principal of New Richmond’s St. Mary School, did not mince words in her first video to parents on the school’s Facebook page.
“It’s going to be a new and exciting time for all of us,” she said. “There’s gonna be some frustration. There may even be some tears. But that’s okay,” she reassured.
St. Mary’s teachers have taken turns uploading videos with teaching tips for parents, even giving them permission to hide in a blanket fort now and then.
St. Bridget School in River Falls has shared links to at-home learning opportunities and resources online.
With the statewide lockdown in place at least until April 24, Schoenfuss and Diocese of Superior school principals have already started looking at longer-term educational needs for parents and students in case schools are closed longer or not reopened this academic year. At the national level, social distancing guidelines have been extended through April 30.
Exact data was not collected, but most school districts have continued their food services for students.
At St. Francis de Sales School in Spooner, Principal Sarah Zeien and Pastor Fr. Phil Juza are making sandwiches and assembling bag lunches that can be picked up – respecting social distancing guidelines – three days a week.
The greater hunger adult Catholics around the diocese have expressed is their desire for Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist.
Quoting St. Patrick’s Breastplate Prayer in a March 17 letter, Bishop Powers announced the suspension of public Mass celebrations until further notice.
“This action is something I take very seriously,” he stated, iterating that the Mass is the “indispensable source and summit of the Christian life.”
The bishop added, “Historically, in times of crisis, the faithful naturally turn to the church for comfort and direction, and we need to do whatever we can to support our people.”
Many churches are still open during limited hours, requesting adherence to social distancing and sanitation measures, and priests are still offering confession behind the screen during scheduled hours.
In addition to livestreaming Masses, diocesan priests have continued to reach out to their congregations via video, phone calls and electronic messages. Daily angelus and rosary devotions, as well as Stations of the Cross, have been posted to parish Facebook pages and websites.
Fr. Adam Laski, who is studying Canon Law in Canada but is currently back in the diocese, offered Lectio Divina of the Sunday readings to complement the streamed Masses.
Dcn. Steve Linton, serving the Almena-Cumberland-Turtle Lake cluster, is praying the Liturgy of the Hours morning prayer at the cluster’s Facebook page by video.
The Mexican sisters based in Chetek have reached out to Hispanic communities in the diocese by phone and text messages. They have been holding video classes. Schoenfuss said discussions were taking place on starting prayer and devotional gatherings or catechetical classes for families.
Hudson pastor Fr. John Gerritts serves one of the diocese’s largest parishes and one closest to the harder-hit Twin Cities area. In his weekly bulletin message for March 29, he alluded to the difficulty in finding the right words during challenging times.
Maintaining that his church will continue to be open every day from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Fr. Gerritts said with the governor’s new mandates, “we are keeping the church unlocked not to encourage people to come for prayer … Rather the church for many of us is a refuge – I consider it to be like an emergency room at this time. Some need a place to seek shelter spiritually and emotionally. Our church is available for you for this purpose.”
Those seeking ways to connect with the homebound face numerous obstacles. Given elders’ increased vulnerability to coronavirus, even family members are unable to be physically present to their loved ones in nursing homes and other facilities. Still, parishes are reaching out.
Priests have asked that they continue to be contacted if there is a need for last rites or anointing of the sick. While they are being encouraged to be prudent with their own health, priests continue to express their accompaniment and are finding new ways to connect.
On weeknights, Fr. Gerritts has been connecting with his parishioners and school students through a “Prayer, Story and Cookies with Fr. John” livestreamed at the St. Patrick Parish School Facebook page.
Diocesan Director of Development Steve Tarnowski worked to ensure every parish remains financially healthy and has a means to continue receiving parishioners’ contributions. Catholics can make donations to their parish at catholicdos.org.
“In many ways, the COVID-19 crisis has opened all of our eyes to see our parishes and the diocese as one true family of faith, and it has inspired us to open our hearts to help others,” he commented.
St. Mary, Tomahawk DRE and Youth Minister Kay Berg started a YouTube page where she is connecting with youth, offering spiritual reflections and devotions. A similar effort was initiated by Kendra Mitchell, youth director for Immaculate Conception Parish in New Richmond, offering daily challenges – both spiritual and human. In one she challenged, “Bust out dance moves like no one is watching … be in the moment.”
St. Patrick youth ministers H Dorian and Antoinette Kaiser have been chatting with Hudson-area high school and middle school students Friday evenings through Instagram. They also delivered 275 care packages to youths.
Nativity of Our Lord Parish in Rhinelander’s director of religious education, Barbara Eretto, complimented their parish’s youth minister Laura Fenzl for going “above and beyond what we ask her to do as a youth minister, to be sure our families are being cared for both physically and spiritually.” After providing digital resources, Fenzl followed up with personal contact to each family and provided them with packets of resource books and activities.
Efforts to connect with youth, who are already digitally savvy, have been easier to come by. However, both youths and young adults are experiencing their own unique struggles.
Many in the diocese are familiar with Bryn Rademaker, who served with Totus Tuus and as a summer intern. Rademaker is engaged to be married in April.
Recognizing that her situation is somewhat singular, Rademaker said, “I have a strong sense that all young adults are experiencing similar emotions during this time of crisis.
“We all probably have waves of ups – good books, video calls and time outdoors – and downs – isolation and loneliness, finding ourselves bored and tempted to scroll social media and comparing to everyone else.”
“There is a huge lack of (personal) control lately, and I feel as if I can’t plan anything at all because things are changing every single day,” she said.
Rademaker and her fiancé have a strong sense of hope knowing they will eventually receive the sacrament of marriage, “but also despair and disappointment as our wedding plans crumble each day.”
What she is hearing about most from her peers is a struggle that has been echoed in social media posts and comments by adults of all ages – “fear of the unknown.”
The college graduate is finding strength in prayer and Scripture. She can “understand and relate with a lot of people in the Old Testament” like never before.
What she continues to remind herself of is applicable to all people of faith, each facing particular unknowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the diocese, and through family and friends in other parts of the country and world.
“I just keep reminding myself that the Lord is kind and merciful, that I can trust in him even when it seems hopeless and unknown,” she said.