BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused overwhelming distress to communities across western Kentucky, including many families now suffering financially due to layoffs or reduced working hours.
The region’s most vulnerable populations, such as the homeless demographic and undocumented persons, have seen their challenges multiply, and according to Susan Montalvo-Gesser, director of the Diocese of Owensboro’s Catholic Charities, “We have a whole lot of people that are ‘new’ to asking for assistance.”
As with many businesses in Kentucky, the diocese’s central offices at the McRaith Catholic Center (MCC) in Owensboro have reduced to a minimal daily crew in the building with most employees now working from home. But staff members have made it a priority to assist parishes and other institutions reeling from this global health and economic crisis.
At the same time, MCC employees have sought to assess the spiritual needs of western Kentucky’s faithful, keenly aware of the suffering from the lack of the Mass, Eucharist and normal parish community life.
“Being relatively new to the diocese, I have been very impressed on how the diocesan staff works together and during the pandemic,” said Dr. Jeff Andrini, director of the Office of Evangelization and Discipleship, who assumed that role in January 2020. “The care and collaboration for one another and the diocese as a whole has been awesome to witness.”
Even as they work remotely, Catholic Charities staff have found themselves perhaps busier than ever.
“We are on the temporal front lines of those most vulnerable to the economic pain experienced during the COVID-19 outbreak,” wrote Montalvo-Gesser in an April 13 memo to her Catholic Charities workgroup team members. “Along with St. Vincent de Paul, the Knights of Columbus, parish social justice committees and affiliated non-profits, we are the field hospital of the Church caring for the immediate spiritual and temporal needs of those in the Diocese of Owensboro.”
She admitted that their Catholic Charities is “an extremely small organization,” but said they continue running immigration legal services and participating in a mental health congregational assistance program for the 32-county area within western Kentucky.
Montalvo-Gesser said Catholic Charities has been working with various aging services agencies to attend to seniors, and homeless organizations to coordinate services for those without shelter.
“Facing this crisis, we tried to quantify the numbers of the people who will be impacted in our area… most acutely, the undocumented population who will not be able to take advantage of the government benefits available to citizens and long-term legal permanent residents,” she wrote in her memo.
Montalvo-Gesser told the WKC that her team tries to be there for the “whole person” – “their crisis, their stress, their spirit” – when responding to those in need.
She said that generally speaking, the region’s close-knit immigrant communities like Latino, Burmese and Congolese are unused to asking for help with food, rent and utilities from charitable organizations – “and there is often a language barrier to getting help from these organizations, which can be daunting.”
Montalvo-Gesser praised the trusted members of these communities who reach out “to reassure that receiving help is acceptable and the language barriers can be overcome.”
It was on March 16, 2020 that Bishop William F. Medley announced the suspension of public Masses and gatherings in the Diocese of Owensboro, in order to stop the spread of COVID-19.
That week, Dr. Andrini was asked to refocus his role largely on “coronavirus ministry.”
He told the WKC the purpose was to coordinate any ministry efforts where the MCC staff could serve the parishes or other local service/ministry organizations.
After praying to the Holy Spirit for guidance – “we really did not know where to begin,” he said – Dr. Andrini and his team decided their first task was to assess the needs of all pastors and parishes.
Following their initial assessment, Dr. Andrini sent an email memo out to the staff of the MCC with “key themes” on March 31.
The primary theme was a “genuine feeling of loss across the diocese from both pastors and (parish staff) that the community is struggling without the opportunity to gather for the celebration of the Mass,” Dr. Andrini wrote in his email.
“Although many parishes have responded by (live-streaming) their Mass, and offering the rosary or other prayers online, there is a hunger to gather again,” he added.
Other themes his team found were good communication among many parishes and parishioners; financial concerns and anxiety about what the future might bring; general appreciation of diocesan response and support; and the wide variety of parish situations based on location.
“In a diocese with 78 parishes where some are in larger cities and others are very rural, differences can be expected,” wrote Dr. Andrini.
He complimented the diocese’s Catholic Charities on their work, including a collaboration opportunity that surfaced through GRADD (Green River Area Development District). He said 10 diocesan staff members have been making more than 350 calls to local seniors to learn if “they are well and have the resources they need during this time.”
Since his March memo, this “coronavirus ministry” initiative has blossomed. They distributed templates and suggestions for Sundays and the celebration of Holy Week/Easter; and printed, stuffed and mailed individual parish mailings from the MCC (following the offer to a free mailing to every parish if they needed information sent to parishioners’ homes).
Kim Haire, controller in the diocese’s Office of Administration, said her office has responded accordingly to the current situation.
As of April 14, Haire said her office had completed and submitted 68 SBA (Small Business Administration) loan applications, covering most parishes and locations in the diocese.
“These loans are to be used to cover payroll costs and a portion of utilities over an eight-week period and are 100% forgivable if used for this,” said Haire.
She said her office has also been tracking parishes’ weekly collections to assess the financial impact of the suspension of public Masses – and the pandemic overall – on the individual parishes.
Additionally, the Office of Administration has been “offering parishes help in prioritizing their payments and offering a cash flow template for them to project their own need for cash in the coming weeks/months,” said Haire.
Switching to crisis mode
Tom Lilly, diocesan chancellor, said the diocese “went into action” the day the bishop announced the suspension of public liturgies and gatherings.
He said the Office of Communications established pages on the diocesan website (owensborodiocese.org/covid-2019 and owensborodiocese.org/resources-for-prayer-at-home) dedicated to prayer resources, Liturgy of the Word guides, live-streamed Mass links, and video updates from Bishop Medley. Regular updates from the communications office and the diocese’s Office of Worship continue to be released via email and the diocese’s social media outlets.
He said the diocese has worked hard “to make every parish compliant with the governor’s executive order, declared under a state of emergency,” keeping in regular communication with the state government and regional area infection control personnel.
Additionally, some MCC employees have changed roles to full-time crisis response funding and research on grant opportunities.
Zoom meetings are regularly utilized as well, said Lilly: “The bishop conducted a Zoom meeting with parishes to update them on diocesan activities and the reimbursement process; diocesan staff and school principals continue to also meet and strategize using Zoom when possible.”
Dr. Andrini said everyone has witnessed a “longing for God in the Eucharist, which will make it all the more special when we return to Mass.”
“At the same time, the core of the Gospel is a living relationship with Jesus that translates into love for God and love of neighbor,” he said. “I think we have all seen wonderful examples of both during this difficult time.”
Originally printed in the May 2020 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
Copyright © 2020 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic