APPLETON — Although the doors of St. Mary Church are closed to the faithful for Mass during the coronavirus pandemic, the hearts of the parish are open wide as volunteers reach out to elderly members through a new phone ministry.
In March, 11 volunteers made 150 calls to parishioners age 80 and older, according to Nadine Duncan, minister of the parish’s Neighborhood Pastoral Outreach and Parish Vitality. “Connecting with our oldest and possibly most isolated individuals was the first priority,” she said. This month, April, the program will be expanded to phone calls to persons over 70.
“We wanted to know if they needed food or anything else. Was anyone checking on them? What we found was that our elderly are pretty well taken care of, but they were happy for the call,” she said.
Gene and Sylvia Dannecker fit Duncan’s description. They have been members of St. Mary for 60 years, with most of that time spent as leaders of a number of ministries, including social concerns. But various illnesses have kept them “locked up” for a long time, Sylvia said, so they depend on their son, Greg, who runs errands for them and visits about twice a week.
Now she accepts being on the receiving end of the parish’s goodwill. The Danneckers listen to the Mass broadcast on Relevant Radio every day. They don’t have a computer so they aren’t able to watch the Mass streamed live on YouTube by Fr. Bill Swichtenberg, pastor. The phone call helped them to feel connected to the parish they love, she said.
One of the parish callers, Jeanne Ehrhardt, said she identifies with the people she contacts. “The telephone for them is golden. I understand that; it is for me too,” she said. “I’ve been in my apartment for three weeks. We need to remember each other.”
While the people Ehrhardt called are grateful for the connection, she said they don’t seem to be panicking about the coronavirus threat. “The older the person is, the more they take it in stride,” she said. “I say, ‘We did it before and we can do it again,’ and they agree.”
Ehrhardt is referring to the deadly polio epidemic of 65 years ago. “The summer of 1955 was hot, and the pools were closed. There were five of us kids in the family at that time, and we had to stay in our yard,” Ehrhardt remembers.
Today’s seniors are simply waiting for this pandemic to end. “They’re not asking for anything, but everyone is wondering how long it will be and when we can get back to normal,” she said.
Barb Rowland and Jean Consie, both retired third-grade teachers, also made calls for the St. Mary ministry and report similar experiences to those of Ehrhardt.
Rowland said many people were glad to learn of Bishop David Ricken’s Mass televised at 10:30 a.m. each Sunday on WFRV Local 5. For Rowland, this phone outreach is not a temporary ministry.
“One woman’s husband is in hospice and she can’t visit him. She asked me if I could keep calling. I’m going to follow up with her and others in a week,” Rowland said. “I would like to be more involved with our elderly.”