SCRANTON – For the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has created struggles and hardship for many people. Parishes throughout the Diocese of Scranton have responded compassionately to that need in an overwhelming way.
Parishes across the Diocese formed nearly 50 new ministries since the beginning of the pandemic, including youth ministry outreach to essential workers, volunteer programs that serve free meals to the community and outreach efforts to the homebound.
In December 2020, The Catholic Light sent a survey to all parishes, looking for the ways that they are responding to community needs during the coronavirus.
An overwhelming response from 93 parishes provided great clarity on the impact our parishes are having in our community – and how parishioners have provided selfless service to their brothers and sisters in need.
Here are just a few of the survey highlights:
- Thirty-percent of responding parishes operated their own food pantry in 2020. Together, these pantries helped more than 2,000 families/individuals each month during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- For parishes that did not operate their own food pantry, 94-percent collected food for another local agency or food bank. The food collected benefitted tens of thousands of additional local residents during the coronavirus.
- Despite the challenges of organizing volunteers on a large-scale basis, 23% of parishes hosted a free community meal during the pandemic. Another 20% provided meals directly to seniors or the homebound.
- Nearly two-thirds of parishes provided direct help to families struggling with food, fuel, utilities or rent. Often unadvertised, many parishes reported that the number of requests received in 2020 rose due to people facing unexpected layoffs or a reduction of hours.
- Currently, 75% of Diocesan parishes are now streaming Mass to the faithful. This effort comes after Bishop Joseph C. Bambera has stressed the importance of keeping the faithful connected during the pandemic.
Nearly every parish responding to The Catholic Light survey indicated that food assistance for the community was a main priority of their social ministry programs.
That includes the widespread outreach of Saint Ann Parish in Shohola and its sister parish of Saint John Neumann in Lords Valley, both of which are located in Pike County.
According to Carol Laput, administrative manager at Saint Ann’s, the parish coordinates no less than a four-prong effort in providing social services to the area’s less fortunate, especially with regard to food assistance.
The Saint Ann’s Bridgepoint Food Pantry opens its doors on the first and third Thursday of each month, with 45 families registered as patrons, but serving many more.
Supported by the generosity of parishioners and assisted by several community grants, including those provided by the Diocesan Annual Appeal, the food pantry recorded 620 food distributions in 2020.
Located near the bank of the Delaware River in the eastern most part of the Diocese, the food pantry and other parish charitable giving programs are “interstate,” whereby also providing for their neighbors in need across the New York state border in Sullivan County.
“Our parish is literally in walking distance of the bridge that takes you across the river into New York,” Laput said. “We are so proud to provide assistance to those who make the trip into Pennsylvania for help. The fact we can serve all who arrive at our doorstep is a true tribute to the generosity of our community.”
The “Food for Families and Friends” program operated by Knights of Columbus Council 12571, which is based at Saint John Neumann Parish, provides a nutritious, home-cooked meal every month for families and individuals experiencing financial difficulties.
Dinners are distributed on the second Sunday of the month and it is estimated the Knights and their army of volunteers provided nearly 1,400 meals last year.
“This is most impressive when you keep in mind the program was shut down for two months due to COVID precautions,” Laput added.
Between 150 to 180 meals are typically served each month and the food assistance effort estimates that it may provide nearly 2,000 dinners in 2021.
Holiday assistance programs providing Thanksgiving and Christmas food baskets are also a hallmark of Saint Ann Parish.
“We make available grocery bags with one of four shopping lists,” Laput explained. “Parishioners shop for the items on their list and return the bags to the church.”
She also noted that special collection envelopes are distributed for the Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets, which allow parishioners to donate funds to purchase extra food.
Finally, the parish’s “Lorenzo’s Lunch” program, recently highlighted in The Catholic Light, was launched to give out-of-school children a healthy meal during the summer months. The project has since expanded to include anyone in need.
Laput noted that with the pandemic postponing students return to the classroom, the program extended into the first week of October. Operating every Thursday from June through Oct. 1, “Lorenzo’s Lunch” distributed more than 1,900 afternoon meals during 2020.
In addition, nearly 1,300 lunches were served as part of Saint Ann’s “Grab ‘n Go” program to ensure area students had access to nutritious food while schools were closed due to the coronavirus.
NEED IS EVER PRESENT
The food pantry sponsored by Saint Paul Parish in Scranton’s Green Ridge section has been a mainstay for providing help to working families and senior citizens facing a food shortage.
“For a long time (Saint Paul) parish has always felt a need to support as broad a clientele as possible,” Barbara Burkhouse said of the program, which operates out of the basement of Saint Clare Church, a nearby worship site of Saint Paul Parish. “People would be surprised, and just don’t realize, how many individuals count on a place like this to meet their food needs.”
The Scranton food pantry welcomes clients twice a month on Friday afternoon from 3 to 4:30 p.m., with plenty of volunteers to serve the incoming patrons.
Burkhouse explained the assistance program is unique in that it features “client choice,” or a la carte service, where clients can pick between various items based on their needs, rather than being given an assortment of pre-packaged or bundled food.
“Volunteers are absolutely critical,” Burkhouse said of the operation. “Parishioners are always there to help, along with students from The University of Scranton,” who volunteer while in school during their fall and spring semesters. “Every year, they also recruit new volunteers among their college peers.”
In Luzerne County, Holy Family Parish helps roughly 50 to 75 families in need on a monthly basis. Its food pantry provides non-perishable meal items on the last Saturday of every month.
According to pantry coordinator Carol Cardoni, bags of food are distributed based on family size and no one is ever turned away.
“We give food to anyone in need from the surrounding areas, so we do not only serve members of our parish,” Cardoni explained. “In fact, almost all of the people who come for food are not members of the parish.”
Cardoni credited former pastor Father Dave Cappelloni for launching the parish food pantry nearly 20 years ago. She and her husband Louis have served as coordinators for the past six years after taking over the reins from longtime directors Kathy and Ken Long.
“We have a loyal group of volunteers who faithfully come to work at the pantry every month,” Cardoni noted. “Some are members of our parish and some are from Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Swoyersville,” which holds food drives on a regular basis to support the pantry.
According to the Holy Family pantry coordinator, the program receives tremendous support from local groups and businesses that often run food collections to donate to its operation. Faithful parishioners donate food via receptacles at the church’s entrance, and a parish envelope is distributed four times during the year for monetary donations in support of the pantry.
“All of the volunteers love their work at the pantry,” Cardoni concluded. “We feel that the pantry is such a worthwhile endeavor. It feels good to be able to help our community out in this way.”
HOSPITALITY FOR HOSPITALIZED
During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been significant focus on individuals who are hospitalized with the virus. Numerous parishes, including Saint Therese Parish in Shavertown, have established ministries to make sure people know someone in their parish is thinking about them.
“We have a program in place where if we know a parishioner is home from a recent hospital stay, we give them a call to see how they are doing,” Saint Therese staffer Terri Besecker, who heads up the parish ministry support team, explained. “We ask if they are in need of assistance by way of meals or transportation to a follow-up visit with a doctor.”
According to Besecker, the unique apostolate is part of the Pastoral Outreach and Hospital Ministry at the parish in Luzerne County’s Back Mountain region, and has adapted with the changing times over the years.
One parishioner who knows that better than anyone is Terry Brown, who has been contacting area hospitals to reach out to Saint Therese patients every weekday morning since the program’s inception in the late 1990s.
“That information is given to the Hospital Visitation Volunteer for that week, as well as the pastor,” Brown said. “If allowed, the volunteer would personally visit any patients and pray with them for their health and healing.”
Once the patient is released, Brown alerts the next volunteer to offer any assistance the parish can provide.
Due to HIPAA regulations and the current COVID restrictions, Besecker said, “Things are much different these days.”
“We now rely on family members or the parishioners to tell us when they or a loved one is in the hospital, because we can’t always get the information we need by calling the hospital,” she continued.
Meals and transportation are considered on a case-by-case basis, depending on volunteer feasibility.
“This program has had to change with the times,” Besecker remarked. “Even though we cannot visit anyone in person for the time being, we still want to know when someone is sick and in need of prayers.
“We know how important a phone call can be or a kind word to say we care. Of course, prayers for someone who is going through a tough time are most appreciated.”