Parishes move ministries online for duration of pandemic

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Brigid and Tom Dutton, youth ministers at St. Joseph Parish in Libertyville, conduct an online meeting for their teen group. (Photo provided)

After nearly two months of empty pews, parish ministers have learned new ways of staying connected with their communities beyond livestreaming Mass.

That means making phone calls, offering resources, recording video and audio messages and yes, hosting video meetings on platforms like Zoom or Google Meets.

That’s how Brigid Dutton and her husband, Tom, are keeping youth ministry groups together at St. Joseph Parish in Libertyville. The parish’s LifeTeen group for high schoolers is meeting online every week, and Edge, the group for junior high students, is having monthly meetings. Parishioners who plan to travel to Harlan County, Kentucky, for a mission trip in July are also gathering virtually for formation, even though they don’t know whether they’ll be able to travel this summer.

The most important thing, said Brigid Dutton, is making every person feel seen and valued. She was especially worried about the first Zoom call with the mission group, which had 70 teenagers and their adult leaders.

“I say hello to each one of them, with their name.” Dutton said. “You do have the ability to connect with each one of them.”

For the mission group, she broke the teens into groups with adult leaders in separate virtual conference rooms before coming back to the big group and assuring them that they would do some kind of mission work this summer, even if it has to be done close to home.

The LifeTeen group, on the other hand, has had about five teenagers every week, a slightly smaller group than usually came in person.

“Meeting face-to-face is really a social thing for teenagers,” Dutton said. “But the kids who are coming now really want to be there.”

That has led to more in-depth discussion than they might have had before, and, virtual or not, it’s become a social lifeline for some teens.

“I had one mother call me the next day and say, ‘Thank you so much for doing this. He really needed to see people in a setting that wasn’t academic,’” Dutton said.

Father John Trout, the pastor of St. Joseph, said Zoom has been instrumental in keeping the parish’s 35 small faith-sharing Community for the Kingdom groups together. The groups, similar to the base communities Trout worked with when he was a pastor in Africa, usually come together to share guided Scripture reading, reflection and social time, and now they are doing it online.

“God bless Zoom,” Trout said. “I’d never heard of Zoom before, and I’m doing nothing but Zooming now. It’s not perfect, but it’s really good.”

The groups have continued to reach out to try to create a civilization of love, Trout said, giving as an example one group that provided lunch to be delivered one day to the entire staff at a local nursing home.

Like other parishes, Old St. Mary’s Parish, 1500 S. Michigan Ave., has called all 1,821 parishioners as part of its CareNet program, according to Maryellen Harrington, Old St. Mary’s director of lifelong faith formation.

“We wanted to communicate that the parish is here to serve and accompany everyone through this period,” Harrington said “The critical needs questions included if they had groceries or prayer requests but the calls were more. We closed each call with a prayer, although some were not as comfortable with that and so we let them know we would pray for them.”

Callers also asked families if they had first responders, medical staff or other essential workers who could be added to a special prayer list, and then shared the parish’s many virtual opportunities, including streamed daily and Sunday Masses, virtual small faith sharing groups and a new unemployment support group.

The idea, Harrington said, was to provide a pastoral presence as well as give and receive information. In the end, 32 people made phone calls, she said, including calls to area residents who are not parishioners when requested.

“It was good to be a community beyond our parish member list, to let the community know that our parish is here to serve all our neighbors,” Harrington said. “For me, this is how I see that we best make Christ known, come alive in our world today.”

Much like other parishes, the Catholic Community of Northbrook is using all of the tools at its disposal to reach out to members.

Recorded videos went out to the families of second graders the week they would have made their First Communion to tell them how much they were missed. Similar messages were scheduled to be sent to eighth graders and the parish as a whole, according to the pastor, Father Christopher Gustafson. A Zoom call with parish teens was also planned for early May.

Amy Principi, the parish communications manager, said the e-newsletter has changed its format a bit and gotten a lot more engagement from parishioners.

“There are about 40 clickable links in the newsletter, giving recipients the ability to immediately go to the item that interests them,” Principi said. “Some are email addresses to contact parish staff. Some are links to our own website, Facebook page or e-giving site. The most popular links are to our bulletin, and a file with Mass responses, since folks don’t have a missalette handy at home.”

Also popular are a coronavirus tracker, giving statistics for Chicago suburbs, and Easter eggs, which are small funny or uplifting items.

At the same time, the parish’s Facebook page, where it streams Masses, has seen a huge increase in reach, with posts reaching an average of four times as many people. More people are also watching the Mass online than used to attend.

“Daily Mass would have maybe 40 or 50 attendees in the church,” Principi said. “Our daily Mass stream is now having a reach of 600 to 1,000, and Sunday is running about 1,400. People are finding solace and comfort in Mass, at whatever time of day or night works for them. We feel like we are truly making a difference for both our parishioners and those who might have stumbled upon us on the internet.”

Father James Wallace of St. Juliana Parish, 7201 N. Oketo Ave., has found yet another way to connect virtually with his parish and people beyond the parish boundaries: podcasting.

He does a daily podcast reflecting on Scripture, but the more popular one is podcast with Deacon Hank Lyon, who is sheltering in place in the rectory, called “Chi-Bros.”

That podcast is more of a casual conversation between Wallace and Lyon, who is expecting to be ordained this year.

“If we watch a movie, we’ll do a review of it,” Wallace said. “We did a podcast on kids’ questions, one on Easter candy. A parishioner brought us White Castle, so we did one on White Castle. ”

That podcast has elicited a lot of comments and questions from parishioners, Wallace said.

“They feel like we’re in their living rooms. It’s a side of the priesthood that we’ve never seen before,” he said. “It humanizes us. Maybe they just like the comedic side.”


  • parishes
  • coronavirus

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