At St. Paul Parish in Damascus, Maryland, parishioners have found consolation in “Rays of Hope” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The parish’s website includes a special section under that heading, where parishioners and parish staff members have shared “Rays of Hope” during a time when the pandemic has left sickness, death and anxiety in its wake, and while public Masses in the Archdiocese of Washington have been suspended following the restrictions on public gatherings recommended by local government leaders to prevent the spread of the virus.

In words introducing that section on the website, Father Joseph Pierce, St. Paul’s pastor, wrote, “As with everyone during this difficult time, our parish family is feeling the strain psychologically and financially. I want to tell you, though, that I remain hopeful. That hope comes from 'rays of hope' that are given by the Good Lord in times of difficulty.” 

One woman wrote about losing her mother to COVID-19, and about how compassionate the nurse was caring for her, and how she received loving support from family members and friends after her mother died. 

“These are the beams of light that give me hope, that keep me pushing through to the next day and the day after that.  Thank you all for showing me your light.  It has brightened my path and is guiding me through the darkness...," the woman wrote.

In another “Rays of Hope” post, a parishioner wrote about returning to work after teleworking for several weeks “in order to 3D print face shields for a hospital in the area. Yesterday I dropped off parts for 20 face shields with plans to produce more next week and into the future, plus ramp up production as well."

Other posts listed more “Rays of Hope” at the parish:

  • St. Paul’s parishioners have donated more than 1,400 pounds of food to the needy in the community, which the parish provides to Damascus Help and to the food pantry at St. Martin’s Parish in Gaithersburg.
  • Parishioners have begun sewing facemasks that they leave in a basket at the back of church. The facemasks are available for other parishioners who need them, and are also given to Catholic Charities for staff members, volunteers and clients. Father Pierce later praised the outpouring of donated sewn facemasks as “a bit of a cottage industry.”
  • When the parish announced that it was looking for volunteers to make phone calls to parishioners to see how they were doing, almost 40 people came forward willing to help make those contacts.
  • A sale of tomato plants helped raise $800 for the St. Paul Clinic in Honduras, which the parish established two decades ago and continues to support through donations, medical supplies and twice-yearly mission trips with medical and dental professionals from the Washington area going there to serve the poor.
  • A parishioner thanked Father Pierce for keeping connected with members of the parish during this challenging time with livestreamed Masses and with email messages and website updates.
  • St. Paul Parish delivered 55 Easter baskets plus extra bags of candy to the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless, who distributed them to the children at their different facilities.
  • In one post, Father Pierce shared “a financial ‘ray of hope.’ One of our financial council members, who is also a money counter, told me he was surprised by the size of the deposit we made this week. I told him I too was surprised, but I was also gratified. I am truly grateful to all of you who are sending your contributions. I realize that times for many are difficult, but we only have one means of support and that is the good people of our St. Paul community.” 
  • The Catholic Daughters at the parish made a generous donation to the St. Vincent de Paul Society to help the poor.
Megan McFarland, the administrative assistant and bookkeeper at St. Paul Parish in Damascus, joins Father Pierce in sorting out food donated by parishioners for area pantries. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Other posts highlighted people in the parish, including a young girl looking forward to her First Holy Communion, and a parishioner who marked her 25th anniversary as an OB/GYN doctor. The post about the doctor noted, “Shortly after the epidemic ramped up in early March, she did a video to aid pregnant women confronting questions on pregnancy and the coronavirus.

Another post described how “Virginia, our 98-year-old parishioner, has been very productive by lovingly crocheting baby hats and blankets for Holy Cross Hospital during the stay at home order.”

That parishioner, Virginia Rhodes, lives across the street from the church, and she and her husband Edmond were among the founding parishioners when St. Paul’s was established in 1957. He died in 1979, and now she lives with her son Michael.

Since the parish issued a call for people to sew facemasks, Rhodes has sewn about 30 of them and brought them over to the church. She is a member of the Catholic Daughters, and over the years, she has also volunteered in the parish’s altar society, washing linens and cleaning candlesticks. Rhodes also used to help serve meals after funerals at the parish. In recent years, she has kept busy crocheting baby blankets for pregnancy centers, the baby caps for Holy Cross Hospital and lap covers for a nursing home.

“As long as I’m able, I’m going to do something” to help, she said.

She was born in 1921, a few years after the 1918 flu pandemic that killed one of her mother’s brothers. Now she prays for people infected with the coronavirus, and continues to sew facemasks to help people stay safe.

“I think it’s terrible, I’m not going far (from home), I tell you,” she said.

Asked what St. Paul Parish means to her, Rhodes said, “Everything!”

People donate hand-sewn facemasks to St. Paul Parish in Damascus, placing them in a basket on a table inside the church. The facemasks are available to fellow parishioners who need them, and are also donated to Catholic Charities. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

During the coronavirus shutdown, St. Paul Church has remained open daily from 10 a.m. to noon, for people to visit and pray, and during daylight hours people are welcome to use its walkways for praying or strolling, as long as they wear masks and keep social distances. The parish’s religious education office remains in contact with parents via email, to continue their children’s faith education at home.

A few weeks ago, Father Pierce emailed parishioners about the tragic death of a young man in the parish, but he noted how while just a few family members could attend the funeral inside the church because of safety regulations, the parking lot was filled with cars, showing that people were united with the family in prayer.

The parish’s website now has a new portal called “Enter and Give Thanks!” with information on how parishioners will eventually be able to return to Masses there when Montgomery County eases its restrictions on the sizes of public gatherings. A Q/A from Father Pierce explains the new safety protocols that will be in place when Masses resume, including that people will have to wear masks, use hand sanitizer as they enter church, and maintain social distances in the pews and while entering and leaving the church.

Father Joseph Pierce, the pastor of St. Paul Parish, stands outside the Damascus church. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Amid a challenging spring, St. Paul Parish has found “Rays of Hope.” In his homily at his May 23 livestreamed Mass, Father Pierce noted that today’s Catholics, like the disciples, are called to be witnesses of Jesus in their lives. The hope that Christ brings has been something he has emphasized during the pandemic, the priest said in an interview.

“Hope is the principal message I’ve tried to encourage people with. The news during these past few weeks has had such a negative impact on our lives that we need to consciously look for hope wherever we can find it,” Father Pierce said in an email. 

He added, “We see God acting in real ways. We see His inspirations given life in ordinary ways to create extraordinary effects for us to recognize. This is why we created a section on our web page for people to express some things that they see as inspirational (and) as hopeful.”