“I’m thinking at this time of the saints who live next door. They are heroes: doctors, volunteers, religious sisters, priests, shop workers—all performing their duty so that society can continue functioning during the pandemic. How many doctors and nurses have died! How many religious sisters have died! All serving…” – Pope Francis in an interview with “Commonweal”
As the pandemic spread across the country, civil authorities prohibited public events and religious ceremonies. The bishop told the faithful not to gather in crowds, to avoid close contact and to hold Mass outside. He urged them to pray more fervently for an end to the scourge that had already taken thousands of lives.
The politicians who hadn’t already fled did little to deal with the crisis, and in desperation, they urged the bishop to take control. He did. Priests and volunteers set up emergency hospitals to care for the sick and dying, the wealthy were encouraged to provide for the poor and the jobless, regulations for worship were issued, and safety guidelines were established. Two years later, on Christmas 1577, what is known as “the Plague of St. Charles” began to abate.
Almost 450 years after the plague in Milan took tens of thousands of lives, the example of St. Charles Borromeo offers an illustration of how the Church has responded to pandemics throughout history, from as early as 165 CE and into the modern era with the Spanish influenza of 1918 and the present coronavirus crisis.
“St. Charles Borromeo is exemplary for how to lead during a pandemic,” says Deacon Patrick Toole of Westport, Episcopal Delegate for Administration of the Diocese of Bridgeport, who developed many of the protocols the diocese has followed for the past 10 months. “He was really conscious of the importance of social distancing and when he had Eucharistic processions, people walked nine feet apart. He also placed altars around the city for outdoor Masses, and in one of his famous homilies, he urges religious orders and priests to care for the sick. He had a tremendous response that can teach us a lot today.”
In drafting the diocesan response to COVID-19, Deacon Toole, a retired IBM executive, worked with Bishop Frank J. Caggiano and Msgr. Thomas Powers, Vicar General, and the administrative cabinet. After extensive research, he developed protocols for liturgy and public gatherings in an attempt to keep the faithful safe while allowing them the opportunity to worship.
“From my perspective, keeping our churches open is essential for the spiritual and physical well being of our people,” Deacon Toole says. “From the beginning, we had to study the virus to see how it was transmitted, and we did our best to follow CDC protocols and guidelines to keep our churches open and our people safe.”
As part of this process, he consulted medical experts, healthcare officials, immunologists and other dioceses. He examined the prevailing — sometimes changing — theories in scientific journals to come up with guidelines for social distancing and distribution of Communion.
He also consulted the CEO of a chemical company about sanitation and ventilation in his effort to formulate directives. When parishes were unable to get supplies, the diocese set up a distribution site at the Catholic Center that provided masks, shields and sanitizer. Schick company of Milford donated face shields, and engineering students at Fairfield University used 3-D printers to make them for parishes and first-responders.
“We realized that we needed to keep our churches safe and protect our clergy,” Deacon Toole said. “I think we’re doing everything possible to make Mass available for those who can come, and I firmly believe we are providing the safest environment under these circumstances.”
Throughout the pandemic, there has been no recorded incident when someone went to Sunday Mass and became infected, he says. Because people are required to register for Mass, this allows the diocese to notify attendees if anyone tested positive for COVID who was there.
“The Church is responding with great care and mercy,” he said. “As a community of faith, we are an essential service that must remain open.” To accommodate those who prefer not to attend in person, the diocese and parishes put technology in place so Masses could be live-streamed, including a weekly Sunday Mass by Bishop Caggiano.
“Our priests have shown amazing creativity to continue to foster the faith,” Deacon Toole said, “I give them a lot of credit for their creativity. Many offered outdoor Masses, and at my parish, St. Catherine of Siena, they are still doing outdoor drive-by confessions.”
Recognizing the importance of regular COVID testing, the diocese entered a partnership with Progressive Diagnostics LLC of Trumbull that allowed the Queen of Saints Hall of the Catholic Center at 238 Jewett Avenue to be used as a testing location for COVID-19 and antibody tests.
“We’re very proud of this initiative, which is offering an essential service to help safeguard lives in our community,” Deacon Toole said.
An estimated 1000 people a week are being tested, and future testing sites will open at diocesan locations in Danbury, Stamford, Norwalk and Wilton. As part of the agreement with Progressive, clergy are offered free weekly testing to ensure they do not have COVID when they celebrate weekend liturgies.
Deacon Toole sees this service as emblematic of what the Church has done many times in the past. “Historically the church was the hospital, and throughout history, we turned our churches over to bring in the sick,” he said.
The building where the Catholic Center is located was originally Englewood Hospital, a contagious disease facility, which opened in 1917 in response to the Spanish influenza pandemic that is believed to have claimed more than 50 million lives worldwide. In later decades, the hospital also treated patients for scarlet fever, mumps, measles and polio.
(The above report is Part 1 of a three-part series by Joe Pisani on “The Church during plagues and pandemics.” Part II will cover Christian heroism during pandemic).
Pictured: This reprint of “Charles Borromeo Giving Communion to the Plague Victims” is found at the Peoria parish that bears his name. The original was painted by Italian late-Mannerist/ early Baroque artist Antonio d’Enrico, called Tanzio da Varallo, (c. 1575/1580 – c. 1632/1633) circa 1616. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)