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By Jerry Duggan

COVID-19 has changed life as we know it. With more than 11.6 million cases and more than 535,000 deaths globally, the virus has devastated and disrupted lives. This includes operations within the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province.

Still, even in times of unprecedented loss and hardship, the apostolates of the UCS Province – schools, churches, retreat and spirituality centers – continue to be of service, providing the spiritual nourishment people thirst for, even if done virtually.

Indeed, Jesuit apostolates have gone beyond providing spiritual support. They have been meeting academic, economic and physical needs throughout the coronavirus pandemic. They have put into practice the Jesuit ideal of cura personalis – care for the whole person. This has been manifested throughout the province, as each apostolate has continued to be of service in a distinct and inventive way.

Father John Brown, SJ, awaits the next penitent when hearing drive-thru confessions at Jesuit High School in New Orleans. (Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Advocate, used with permission.)

Jesuit Schools Model Service

St. Louis University High School in St. Louis, like all educational institutions in the province, was faced with the prospect of a graduating class unable to experience many of the “lasts” that the school’s seniors typically do – chief among them a graduation ceremony. Still, SLUH tried to compensate for lost experiences, lighting up athletic fields at 8:20 p.m. every Friday to honor their seniors and having a “drive thru” ceremony in which seniors placed the name of the college they will attend in their car’s back window. The school also provided students with “SLUH 2020” yard signs and flags for their porches.

The school’s leadership remains determined to try to hold graduation weekend, complete with a Baccalaureate Mass and dinner, graduation ceremony and lock-in. Celebrations have been rescheduled for a weekend in July.

SLU High also contributed to the battle against COVID-19. When shortages of supplies for health care workers became a problem in St. Louis, SLUH responded. Jeff Schaefer, director of SLUH’s Innovation Lab, used the 3-D printers in the lab to make headbands for face shields for health care workers. He produced more than 50 headbands, which were donated to hospitals and senior care centers.

St. Louis University High School produced face shield headbands for health care workers battling COVID-19.

He also used the school’s laser cutter to cut and engrave templates for a group that is making fabric face masks. “This was a great way for us to lead by example and show our students and the St. Louis community the embodiment of ‘Men for Others,’” Schaefer said. “It’s also just a great example of how you can serve within your own community.”

SLUH wasn’t the only province high school joining the manufacturing efforts. Jesuit High School in Tampa contributed reusable masks to a local hospital using the school’s 3-D printers. Engineering teacher Eric Price led the effort and worked on an aggressive timeline to prepare the masks. Price’s efforts were all about setting an example for his students. “I always teach students about being ‘Men for Others,’ but this was a chance for me to put that into practice myself,” he said. “This is about being a role model and a leader more than just being a teacher.”

Tampa Jesuit’s new Native American Club found a unique need to fill. The club collected essential supplies like protective masks, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, sanitary wipes and paper towels and sent them to Caddo Nation elders in Oklahoma.

Eric Price of Jesuit High School in Tampa works to create reusable masks for health care workers.
Eric Price of Jesuit High School in Tampa works to create reusable masks for health care workers.

The province’s colleges and universities also faced challenges as the pandemic spread, chief among them how to get their students safely off campus. Saint Louis University accomplished this by instituting social-distancing practices in the move-out process. This included having sign-up slots for moving out, with ample time allowed.

Province universities had another situation to address: some students cannot go home or have no safe place to call home other than their school. According to Dr. Debra Lohe, interim vice president for student development, the guiding principle of SLU’s approach to those students was compassion.

“We didn’t want students to feel interrogated or like they had to justify their need to stay on campus,” Lohe said. “Our goal was to keep campus open for whoever felt they had a real need to stay, whatever the reason for that was.”

In addition to providing those students with housing that allowed for social distancing, SLU gave additional assistance. Students received 24/7 access to the campus food pantry and computers and printers to complete courses online.

Province universities also cared for the students who returned home. Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., emphasized maintaining the sense of community that makes its campus special. With fewer than 3,000 undergraduates, a rich part of the Rockhurst experience entails students connecting emotionally and spiritually with fellow students and faculty. School officials didn’t want that community aspect to diminish after students had returned home.

RU began its effort by sending a survey to students to inquire about their needs. With community and mental health support emerging as the top two self-identified needs for students at home, Rockhurst worked to respond – a great example of cura personalis. To accomplish this, Rockhurst transitioned to telecounseling to provide students with mental health care from a distance. The school’s campus ministry department instituted “cura communities” – as in cura personalis. These small groups of about six students met weekly for 30-60 minutes to pray and feel the sense of togetherness that Rockhurst students are used to experiencing on campus.

According to Cindy Schmersal, vice president for mission and ministry, these efforts were worth it, even though they took effort to institute. “We wanted to make sure to continue our commitment to connecting with each other during this time – even if it was done virtually, because those personal connections are such a big part of the Rockhurst experience,” she said.

Province universities also served their larger communities during this time. Loyola University New Orleans rose to the occasion to help its hard-hit community. In addition to providing housing for students who could not return home, Loyola prepared three residence halls for health care workers should the need arise.

Loyola senior Baasel Syed used the school’s 3-D printers to make face shields for health care workers. Syed simply wanted to help those in need. “The message of being a Man for Others has really stuck with me,” Syed said. “I try to do things for the greater glory of God and always keep people at the center of what I’m doing. This was one way for me to do that and help my community at the same time.”

Parishes Respond to the Crisis

Jesuit parishes have responded creatively to the pandemic. Nearly all began to make Mass available online. St. Francis Xavier College Church in St. Louis determined that wasn’t enough. In an effort to replicate the richness of in-person liturgies, the parish added interactive portions to livestreamed Masses. This proved especially beneficial for the Triduum services. On Holy Thursday, parishioners were encouraged to wash their family members’ feet. On Good Friday, parishioners gave reflections on Jesus’ final words. On Holy Saturday, parishioners were encouraged to celebrate the Mass in darkness with candles lit, as one would experience at an in-person Easter Vigil.

Other parishes found inventive ways to continue to offer the sacraments. Immaculate Conception Parish in Albuquerque, N.M., heard confessions in the parish parking lot following social distancing guidelines. What’s more, parish priests blessed holy water from the Easter Vigil, bottled it and made it available for parishioner pickup, so that they could have a piece of their parish with them at home this Easter season.

Other parishes focused on reinventing their community outreach efforts during the pandemic. St. Ignatius Loyola Parish in Denver partners with a local senior center to prepare a quarterly sit-down meal for 70-80 low-income or homeless seniors. Since that was out of the question for now, they instead assembled and distributed a sack lunch to their clientele. Parishioners also donated to two local organizations as part of a food drive, in addition to donating toiletries and other essentials to a 24-hour shelter for women experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.

While this pandemic has made food distribution efforts more difficult for many community outreach efforts, Sacred Heart Parish in El Paso, Texas, has bolstered its operations. The parish received $8,500 in grants from several organizations, and now is able to include an additional prepared meal as part of its weekly food distribution efforts to its predominantly low-income community.

Sacred Heart Parish in El Paso, Texas provides food for hungry families.
Sacred Heart Parish in El Paso, Texas provides food for hungry families.

he social ministry office of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Kansas City, Mo., lined up volunteers and professionals to meet the physical, mental and spiritual needs of the parish community. Services range from telephone counseling to food distribution. Their food boxes even contain fresh vegetables grown in the parish’s on-site garden, cultivated by parish volunteers.

Sacred Heart Retreat House in Sedalia, Colo., remained open throughout the period of stay-at-home orders, not simply because they could, but because of their responsibility to keep safe retreatants who were already there at the time of the order. While the retreat house was forced to cancel larger group retreats, it continued to accept participants for its individually directed and private retreats.

Jesuits Serve in New Ways

Father Kevin Dyer, SJ, provides pastoral comfort to patients at University Hospital in New Orleans.
Father Kevin Dyer, SJ, provides pastoral comfort to patients at University Hospital in New Orleans.

Several members of the UCS Province found new ways to be of service during the pandemic. Father Kevin Dyer, a theology teacher at Jesuit High School in New Orleans, became a hospital chaplain during this time. He visits the hospital six or seven days a week and prays with both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients. He has been touched by the experience. “I prayed to God to open doors for me to serve, and I am so glad those doors opened,” he said. “This has been a most profound time in my life as a Jesuit and a priest.”

Father Tom Cwik, SJ, led a virtual memorial service for a woman he knew from his time as pastor of St. Ignatius Loyola Parish in Denver. The service included participants from across the United States and even from other countries. The deceased had always wanted Fr. Cwik to preside at her funeral, but she probably couldn’t have imagined it happening in this format.

Jesuit novices have had to shift course along with the rest of the world. Recalled from their apostolic assignments, the novices received medical training and were sent to assist at the province’s two health care facilities. In the event a crisis arose, the novices would be ready to help care for retired Jesuits in residence. Thankfully, that situation did not become a reality. However, they did help out at the pavilions, and their presence provided some distraction and mitigated some of the isolation associated with the lockdown of the pavilions.

The province’s apostolates have stood ready to help with this pandemic in whatever way they can: to educate, to manufacture medical supplies, to serve the local community and each other. No matter how long the pandemic goes on, Jesuits and collaborators will continue to care for the whole person.