Seniors provide inspiration as St. Gabriel Parish adapts in challenging time
May 13, 2020
Marking its 100th anniversary this year, St. Gabriel Parish with its majestic church on Grant Circle in Northwest Washington has been a landmark of faith to generations of Catholics in that Petworth neighborhood and the surrounding area, through a Great Depression, World War II and the dawn of a new millennium. St. Gabriel’s diverse parish family includes lifelong parishioners and recently arrived young families and a growing Hispanic population.
“We have a microcosm of the Church in our own parish,” said St. Gabriel’s pastor, Father Kevin Kennedy, noting the parish is celebrating that diversity and unity in faith as a theme for its centennial.
When the COVID-19 pandemic caused a shutdown of local public gatherings including Masses at Catholic churches, Father Kennedy, like other local pastors, had to adapt his parish’s ministries and outreach to continue connecting with and serving the needs of his parishioners.
One immediate priority, he said, was “putting communications platforms in place and becoming a virtual church.” St. Gabriel’s IT manager Mauricio Castro and a volunteer cameraman helped him record bilingual Masses that are posted on the parish website, and the parish began putting out an e-bulletin three times a week with bilingual “video podcasts” from Father Kennedy. The parish also revved up its communications with parishioners on Facebook and via text messages.
On a recent video podcast, Father Kennedy described how inspiring it has been for him and Sister Mary Ann Farrington, the director of St. Gabriel’s homebound ministry, to make personal phone calls to senior citizens and people with health conditions, to make sure they are okay.
“So far, everyone we’ve spoken to is being cared for – family members or friends or neighbors have responded to their needs,” he said, noting how inspiring it is to see people reaching out to help others and bringing them hope in a challenging time.
Sister Mary Ann Farrington, a Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary for 62 years, has served for the last two decades at St. Gabriel’s. She earlier served as a principal at the Academy of the Holy Names and taught at St. Michael the Archangel School in Silver Spring, and at St. Gabriel School, all of which are now closed.
In normal times, she and a team of volunteers have the privilege of bringing Communion to the homebound in the parish.
“The homebound people are the salt of the Earth,” she said in an interview.
When she has called them during the coronavirus shutdown, she has told them “we’re praying for you, and we love you.”
“They tell me they pray every single day for us and the parish,” she said.
And when Sister Mary Ann asks them what makes them peaceful and happy, she said they tell her, “I stay close to the Lord, I pray.”
Sister Mary Ann said she is humbled and inspired by their steadfast faith. “They are so close to the Lord. They’ve been so close to Him for years,” she said. “They say, ‘If I would die of the virus tomorrow, I would die happy, because I would be seeing my Lord face to face.”
In an interview, Father Kennedy said he has been inspired by the witness of faith by the senior citizens and other homebound people in his parish. A common response he has heard during his phone calls with them is, “The Lord provides. I’m putting this in God’s hands.”
The pastor said that offers “a reminder to me, I need to do the same thing. Their faith is a reminder to me to put my confidence and faith in God, and nothing else.”
On his video podcast, Father Kennedy thanked the medical professionals in the parish for their selfless service during the COVID-19 crisis. He later asked an emergency room nurse who sings in the parish choir how she is doing, and she responded, “Well, I’m a nurse, it’s just what I do.”
This year, Father Kennedy -- a native New Yorker who worked on Wall Street before entering the seminary -- marks the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. He previously served as a pastor at St. Paul’s in Damascus and St. Ambrose in Cheverly. He teaches classes in organizational development and leadership at The Catholic University of America.
Father Kennedy said that during the pandemic, it’s important to respond to people impacted physically, emotionally, spiritually and economically by the crisis, and the parish is working to establish a response fund, so parishioners can help fellow parishioners in financial distress.
The limit on the size of public gatherings has led to heart-wrenching situations where only a small number of family members can attend funerals. In an email, he noted, “I had a graveside service today for a 39-year-old mother of four children. Only five family members were permitted to attend. If it was difficult for me to remain composed, I can’t imagine what the experience was like for the family.”
During the crisis, parishioners have continued to support the parish generously through online giving and by mailing in envelopes. He praised their generosity, saying it shows they believe in and support the mission of the Church.
During weekly conference calls, Father Kennedy and the pastors of eight other Catholic parishes in that section of the city share ideas and information and offer each other support.
He said as a pastor and college professor, he’s had to learn how to carry out his duties in new ways using online and digital platforms, and think about restructuring how the parish carries out its ministries “to accommodate what the ‘new normal’ is going to be.” He believes it is important to be attentive to new opportunities for sharing the faith differently.
One challenge that the parish has faced in recent years has been a lack of space for meetings and religious education classes, because its former school is rented out as a charter school. But the virtual meetings they have been holding in recent weeks have shown that might be a way to gather in the future, he said.
“When the crisis phase of the pandemic subsides, many of the effective practices we are putting in place will prevail,” said the priest who is inspired by the faith of his diverse parish, including its senior citizens, as he charts a new path forward for St. Gabriel’s. “God will show us how to be a better church after the pandemic.”
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