Three days after Mother’s Day, the parishioners of St. John Neumann Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland, staged a surprise “Fathers’ Day,” not for dads, but to honor their parish priests for their faithful service during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When Msgr. Robert Panke, the parish’s pastor, headed over to St. John Neumann Church in the mid-afternoon after a meeting on May 13, he saw more than 100 handmade signs from parishioners planted in the grass beside the church’s entrance, thanking them for their priestly service.

“It was a total surprise,” he said, adding that he and the parish’s other two priests – Father William Wadsworth, the parochial vicar there, and Father Peter Sweeney, a retired priest in residence there – were “very moved by the support of the people.”

Mary Beth de Ribeaux, who leads the parish’s St. John Paul the Great Vocations Society, said it was a team effort that came about after several people told her that parishioners should do something to show the priests “appreciation for all the extra efforts and new layers of work they’ve been doing under extraordinary circumstances… No seminary course prepared them for this.”

They planned it a few weeks in advance, using communications channels among parishioners, neighbors and friends to keep it secret from the parish priests. She said they targeted May 13 after checking weather forecasts and making sure putting the signs there wouldn’t interfere with the parish grass cutting schedule. Plus that date was the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima, one of the saints to whom they were entrusting their efforts.

By that afternoon, that part of the yard was filled with colorful signs in English and Spanish, constructed of different materials, made by individuals and families.

“This came from their hearts and their homes,” said de Ribeaux, who joked that she had encouraged people to keep their signs simple and not worry about creating “a museum worthy masterpiece.”

Early that morning when her husband snuck over to the church shortly after dawn to plant his family’s sign that was in the shape of a sheep and said, “TO OUR PRIEST: YOUR FLOCK THANKS YOU,” several signs had already been placed in the yard, which was filled with signs by that afternoon in an array of colors, shapes, sizes and styles, surrounding the statue of the parish’s patron saint, St. John Neumann.

“I’ve been referring to it as a garden of gratitude,” she said, adding that a primary goal of the effort was for the priests “to see in a tangible way the love, appreciation and support from parishioners.”

Many of the posters that parishioners planted outside St. John Neumann Church in Gaithersburg were done by families to thank their parish priests. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The signs had messages expressing love and thanks to the priests, assuring them that people were praying for them and that they missed seeing them in person. One sign noted that priests are essential workers. A large sign featured a cartoon drawing of a smiling priest, and several others had drawings of the Blessed Mother. Another sign showed a thumb pointing upward, with the words, “You’re the Best!” And de Ribeaux said she was surprised by the two scarecrow-like figures in back, wearing the plumed hats and capes of a Knights of Columbus honor guard, with signs that read “Thank You” in script.

“I was just so pleased not only from the response from our parishioners, but with the variety of heartfelt messages they gave… Clearly they are recognizing our priests are a tremendous gift to us, and the work they do is so valuable,” she said.

Another sign had the words, “Thank you for connecting with us!” and had the YouTube symbol, reflecting how the priests have been posting daily and Sunday Masses online for the parishioners while public Masses have been suspended due to local government restrictions on the size of gatherings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The sign also had the email envelope symbol, reflecting how the priests have been in regular contact with parishioners.

“We’ve all been working hard to be in touch with our flock as best we can,” said Msgr. Panke, noting the online Masses and talks, and the priests’ communications through Flocknotes and other means. During the COVID-19 “stay-at-home” restrictions as the parish’s priests have adapted their ministries to serve their people, they’ve also been assisted by seminarian Conor Hardy, who is stationed there.

The pastor praised the St. John Neumann parishioners as “a wonderful community of people, very loving and very supportive.” Msgr. Panke became the pastor there this past summer after serving as the founding rector of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Saint John Paul II Seminary. Several young men who grew up in St. John Neumann Parish have studied there as they’ve prepared for the priesthood since the seminary opened its doors in 2011.

For safety reasons after the coronavirus shutdown began, St. John Neumann Parish began having an outdoor Adoration chapel, with the Eucharist exposed inside the glass front doors of the church, and people stopping by outside the church at all hours of the day and night to kneel and pray on the sidewalk or from their cars. The pastor noted the parish has also started a food pantry to help those in need during the crisis, the St. Vincent de Paul Society has been helping people with rent and utilities payments, and parish volunteers have been picking up and delivering groceries to senior citizens.

“It’s really hard not to be able to give people the Eucharist right now,” said Msgr. Panke. “Jesus is amazing, and He provides grace in many ways. It’s nice to know people are receiving grace from Christ, that’s the most consoling thing, the fact that Jesus is present.”

For de Ribeaux, the signs also may help inspire the people coming to the church to pray outside before the Blessed Sacrament or to drop off food or other donations to those in need. And she reiterated the goal of offering encouragement to their priests.

“It must be so hard for them. They have such a heart for service, for caring for parishioners, for meeting their spiritual needs and nourishing them with the sacraments. I can only imagine the pain and the longing in their hearts at this time when they had to be distanced from us, from nourishing us with the sacraments, especially the Eucharist,” she said.

And in the days after Mother’s Day, flowers in dozens of vases were placed before the church’s front doors, as people continued to kneel and pray before the Eucharist.

“There’s a bonding going on through this whole thing,” said Msgr. Panke. “A community can really grow, even though we’re apart. It’s a paradox, but it’s true. Only God can do that.”

A woman prays at the outdoor Adoration chapel set up inside the front doors of St. John Neumann Church for safety reasons during the coronavirus shutdown. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)