September 1, 2021

Spirited Gospel Spreaders: Women religious offer heroic witness of ministry amidst a pandemic

Sister Ellen Kehoe, Sister Loretta Spotilla and Sister Marge Manning dialogue at Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center about their ministries and experiences in evangelization. Photo: Dcn Skip Olson

By Margaret Gabriel

As reports of infection, hospitalization and death mounted daily in the spring of 2020, prompting virus mitigation efforts and social distancing, people who serve in ministry knew that they needed to continue spreading the Gospel without spreading the virus. The definition of evangelization does not specify “except during a pandemic.”

In the Catholic Diocese of Lexington, decision-making around not whether to evangelize, but how, included religious sisters, who received a boost from the organization Catholic Extension, which exists to support mission dioceses. An effort called Sisters on the Frontline provided some 16 women religious in the Lexington Diocese alone with funding during the pandemic. Three of these sisters spoke with Cross Roads about their efforts and what they learned from the experience of pandemic evangelization.

Lost encounter

Sister Loretta Spotilla
Sister Loretta Spotilla

Sister of Charity of St. Augustine Loretta Spotilla, founder of the Interfaith Wellness Center in Estill County and a registered nurse, received aid to help 200 families with cleaning and sanitizing supplies and food assistance through a food pantry. She said she became more and more concerned about the public health aspects of the pandemic as time went on.

“The more serious it got, the more I became professionally concerned that people were passing it off as nothing,” Sister Spotilla said. “If they were old enough, people remembered polio and swine flu.”
But she found that young people with no such memories were less concerned about the spread of the virus throughout the community and keenly missed seeing friends. But she was pleasantly surprised at the level of compliance when masks in public places were mandated in July.

“Even tough mountain guys,” she noted. The Estill County way of looking out for each other was evident.
“People were very alone,” said Sister of the Holy Cross Marge Manning, director of religious education at St. William Church in London, who received funding to provide emergency assistance for families who lost income due to the pandemic.

Digital bridges

Sister Marge Manning
Sister Marge Manning

Sister Manning describes St. William as a place of peace and a place of welcoming and has always realized the importance of one-on-one communication in ministry. During the pandemic, Sister Manning used the internet to its greatest advantage, encouraging parishioners to gather virtually for the Rosary, Bible study and RCIA.

One thing Sister Manning values about St. William, a parish of about 175 families, is she knows everyone by name, a familiarity that was particularly meaningful during the many months they were not allowed to gather in person. Meeting virtually was better than not meeting at all, but they were anemic replacements for in-person meetings, she said.

“When we met in person, we would talk before and after the actual meeting or class. Those were times when people could connect and talk about other things going on in their lives. That connection didn’t happen when we met virtually.”
During the early months of the pandemic, Sister of Providence Ellen Kehoe reached out to the people of Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman center with a telephone ministry.

Most of the University of Kentucky students in the parish went home in March 2020. Sister Kehoe, pastor Father Steve Roberts and other Holy Spirit staffers, worked as best they could to keep the parish together through FlockNotes — a text messaging and email tool that enables ministry teams to communicate with congregations — and phone calls.

“We called to ask how they were, gave them information about how to connect with the updates and about online Masses,” Sister Kehoe said. As the parish religious education coordinator, Sister Kehoe encouraged her 40 catechists, many of them students, to continue instruction via teleconferencing and take-home packets.

After the summer, many students were attending classes in a hybrid fashion and the parish was cautiously coming together for outdoor Masses and, later, meal gatherings.

“Anything we could do to bring people together.”

Finding each other

Sister Ellen Kehoe
Sister Ellen Kehoe

As the sisters explored ways to evangelize in new and unexpected circumstances, they experienced a new degree of learning, as well.

“My own journey of ongoing evangelization and growth helps me to try to be open to others’ life experiences and meet them where they are,” said Sister Kehoe, who received Catholic Extension funding to assist several single moms with food, rent and utilities.

Meeting people where they are was part of the mission of Interfaith Wellness Ministry long before the COVID-19 pandemic. More than half of the people who participate in Sister Spotilla’s health education ministry had no access to a computer, so teleconferencing was only marginally effective. By using wide open spaces and one-to-one delivery, however, ministry continued. People were able to drive up to a public housing site to receive educational materials, and the ministry’s annual picnic was a drive-thru event.

“While people were waiting in their cars, nursing students did presentations and interviews,” Sister Spotilla said. “We shifted our methods to suit the circumstances.”

“People still had the opportunity to explore,” Sister Manning said. This was particularly true of people who continued to join the Church through the months of pandemic. “The last three people who joined RCIA in London entered because they were seeking something they found here. They found a peaceful place and people who are welcoming.”

“Our mission is to help Estill Countians to be healthy in body, mind and spirit,” Sister Spotilla said. “During the pandemic, there has been an even greater focus on mind and spirit.”

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