SCRANTON – The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation of many events but it wasn’t enough to stop what has become an annual back-to-school tradition in North Scranton.

For the last several years, Mary, Mother of God Parish has hosted a picnic for students and families from the Bangor Heights Housing Development in late August. Due to the coronavirus, this year’s event on Aug. 27 looked different but was still able to accomplish its mission.

“It’s very important to come, just to see the children here,” parishioner Mary Lou Lozinger said. “They appreciate it and whatever we can do to help them further their schooling, we’ll do it.”

Instead of hamburgers and hot dogs served off the grill, those who turned out received pre-wrapped sandwiches. They were also provided with free school supplies and clothing.

“They don’t get a lot of what other children do, so we try our best to help out,” parishioner Nina Condella said.

The back-to-school picnic serves as evangelization tool for the parish. Parents are able to enroll or learn more about religious education classes.

“Every year that we come, we always get a few children to join the CCD classes and receive Communion and Confirmation. Some even get baptized so it’s nice, it really is,” Condella added.

Geraldine Francisco, who lives in the Bangor Heights development, learned about the parish through the event several years ago after moving to Scranton. She attended the event with her son after seeing a promotional flyer.

“I wanted to baptize my son since he was a baby and because of other things going on at the time, it felt impossible, but now I feel stable here at the parish. I’m glad that I was able to baptize him and he’s doing his First Communion so I’m really happy about that,” Francisco said.

“I did not know Geraldine before but now we do, because of this particular project and there are a lot more Geri’s. We just have to surface them and connect with them,” Mary, Mother of God pastor, Father Cyril Edwards, said.

The event is funded by a social justice grant, provided to the parish by generous donations from the Diocesan Annual Appeal.

“This is an opportunity, through the Appeal, to show that there is plenty of hope,” Father Edwards explained.

“The interaction it provides with people is priceless,” Sister Therese Mary Dougherty, I.H.M., said. “Hope never dies. We want to nurture people’s hope through the church and through their neighborhood.”

While Father Edwards used a microphone and speaker to invite families to the picnic, volunteers from the Mary, Mother of God Marian Society waited for hungry guests under two large pop-up tents.

“It is a way to reach people. You have to…We have to go to them,” Father Edwards said.

Without attending the picnic, Geraldine Francisco said she may not have become involved with the parish.

“I feel like everything happens for a reason and if it wasn’t for that, then I wouldn’t be where I am today and I’m so happy that I’m in the parish family,” she said.