SPECIAL REPORT: Faith in the time of coronavirus: How the Church in Detroit has responded

Fr. Eric Fedewa, pastor of St. Basil the Great Parish in Eastpointe, blesses parishioners in their cars April 3 with the Blessed Sacrament. Across the Archdiocese of Detroit, Catholic have heroically responded to the worst global pandemic in a century with a mobilization of unmistakable faith, hope and love. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic) 

In mid-March, Archbishop Vigneron gave the Church 10 ‘guideposts’ to navigate the crisis; here’s how Catholics have answered the call

DETROIT — In the earliest days of the pandemic, as Metro Detroiters were beginning to grasp the magnitude of the new reality facing the world, Msgr. Patrick Halfpenny wrote that if Catholics in southeast Michigan seized the opportunity, the coronavirus crisis could become the Church in Detroit’s “finest hour.”

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Just days into Lent, no one knew how the crisis would unfold — or what would be asked of local Catholics during such a generation-defining moment. 

On March 18, Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron offered 10 “guideposts” to help the faithful navigate the choppy waters ahead. And the Church responded in spades.

As Detroit Catholic covered the evolving crisis over the past 30 days, countless stories of sacrifice, faith and a spirit of innovation emerged. As Fr. Gabriel Richard would say, Detroiters have indeed “hoped for better things” — and the city is already rising from the ashes. 

Here’s how local Catholics are putting the archbishop’s words into action:

Guidepost 1: No Time is Without its Grace

“Christ’s death and rising is a grace that should shape every day of a Christian’s life, and above all in these days,” Archbishop Vigneron wrote. 

With public Masses suspended, Catholics haven’t been able to participate in the most readily available source of grace — the holy Eucharist — but grace has abounded nonetheless.

Since the first week without public liturgies, families and individuals have clung to livestreamed Masses, digital retreats and spiritually uplifting resources as a way to keep connected during a time of “social distancing.”

From March 14 until Easter Sunday, more than 296,000 people tuned in to the Archdiocese of Detroit’s livestreams — and that only counts the faithful who watched events at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Throughout the archdiocese, Catholics have cleaved to the idea of “spiritual closeness” through digital parish communities, praying for “spiritual communion” despite physical distance.

In his first, emotional address to the faithful via livestream March 15, Archbishop Vigneron said the prayer “asks God to work in our hearts, the Holy Spirit to do within us what He would be doing” through the sacrament itself.

Watching with her family, Stephanie Leonardi of Sterling Heights said listening to the archbishop’s words “gave me a sense of peace that it was going to be OK.”

“We wanted to remind ourselves and the kids that even though we weren’t at Mass, it was still time with the Lord,” Leonardi said.

Guidepost 2: This is the Lent Our Father Wanted Us to Have

“God in Christ is the Lord of history. He’s in charge. His providential plan for our salvation and happiness cannot be defeated,” Archbishop Vigneron wrote.

While few Catholics anticipated giving up quite so much for Lent, one could argue they gained much more than they lost.

“I’ve been praying the rosary every day as part of my Lenten sacrifice” since the coronavirus outbreak, said Tia Chase, a member of St. Joseph Shrine in Detroit. “I think this all helped me, in a very unusual way, learn not to take the Eucharist for granted.”

Fr. Stephen Pullis, co-host of the archdiocese’s “Open Door Policy” podcast, kicked off his own “digital Lent” with a daily Facebook Live — drawing hundreds of viewers each night for an interactive prayer and discussion.

Pastors still made time for sacramental confession through parking lot and “drive-thru” confessionals — a huge blessing to Catholics looking to make their Lenten penances.

Engaged couples who had weddings planned during March and April faced the painful prospect of postponing their nuptials or scaled-down ceremonies — but found a renewed focus on each other and the sacrament of marriage as a result.

Candidates and catechumens scheduled to enter the Catholic Church at Easter had their sacraments postponed until a later date, but expressed hope and confidence that their time in RCIA would make them ever hungrier for the Eucharistic banquet. 

And while the traditional Lenten pillars of prayer, fasting and almsgiving took on a slightly different feel, Catholics still found ways to support their parishes and continued an outpouring of aid to those in need through soup kitchens, food pantries and homeless shelters.

Guidepost 3: It’s Still About Unleashing the Gospel

“Right now all of us, especially us pastors and our co-workers, are focused on responding to the coronavirus pandemic. But that doesn’t mean our work to ‘unleash the Gospel’ has been abandoned,” Archbishop Vigneron wrote.

If heroes are born in times of crisis, Detroit might have a shortage of capes.

In his pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel, Archbishop Vigneron wrote that one of the characteristics of a joyful, missionary disciple is a “spirit of innovation.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Detroit’s pastors have been nothing short of innovative, going above and beyond — literally — for their parishioners.

In Monroe, the pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish took the Blessed Sacrament to the skies in an effort to bless the people of his county. Taking flight in a two-seater airplane, Fr. Phil Ching sprinkled holy water over each of the churches in the Monroe Vicariate as those on the ground relayed their prayers.

“It was just amazing. It was a tremendous blessing,” Fr. Ching told Detroit Catholic. “We’ve got to keep finding ways to reach people, especially during this time. People are searching for answers. They’re hungry for it.”

Likewise, Fr. Eric Fedewa, pastor of St. Basil the Great Parish in Eastpointe, took the Eucharistic Lord on a drive around the city’s perimeter to invoke his protection against the coronavirus.

“The groceries stores are open to get physical food, but we still need spiritual food,” Fr. Fedewa said. 

Other pastors, in a bid to show solidarity with their parishioners at home, posted photos of their congregations on their pews at church to let people know they aren’t alone. And even teachers and lay ministers continued to unleash the Gospel through digital learning and creative “mobile prayer stations.”

Guidepost 4: Now is the Hour of the Domestic Church

“In these days when our large public gatherings for prayer and catechesis are suspended, the domestic church is all the more clearly ‘ground zero’ for our response,” Archbishop Vigneron wrote.

As goes the family, so goes the Church. And from the looks of it, the Church is getting stronger every day.

From the moment public Masses were suspended, Catholic families such as Jeffrey Quesnelle’s have set up home altars, made more time for meals together and designed at-home prayer spaces to keep Jesus at the center of their lives.

Quesnelle said in some ways, the lack of access to the sacraments has helped his family’s faith to grow. “It gives the feeling of being an underground church, that we are doing something counter-cultural,” said Quesnelle, whose family attends St. Hyacinth Parish in Detroit.

Others, like Beth Smith’s family of Independence Township, have found more opportunities to bond over games, walks and meals together. “It’s actually been good,” Smith said. “The kids are really bonding.”

Maria Schimmel’s family joined a growing trend by painting a stained-glass window on their Clinton Township home. “When we go for walks, we see hope in the crosses, the hearts and the rainbows for health care workers,” Schimmel said.

Peggy Gray — who would have been the grand marshal in this year’s Detroit St. Patrick’s Day Parade — wasn’t able to participate in the traditional Irish festivities, but said spending the day focusing on the holiday with her loved ones at home was almost better.

“We’ll remember St. Patrick, say the rosary as a family, and have dinner together,” Gray told Detroit Catholic. “The Irish are people who endured a lot of distress, but never lost their faith.”

Guidepost 5: Holiness Works with Science

“We must resist any idea that there’s some sort of divorce between our cooperating with public health officials to mitigate the spread of the virus and our complete trust in God’s power to protect us,” Archbishop Vigneron said.

Catholics are called, like Jesus, to be “in the world, but not of the world.”

As the coronavirus upends life as usual, the Church’s “incarnational” mission has manifested through local Catholics’ willingness to heed public authorities’ advice and help wherever needed.

Chelsea Gheesling, a member of Our Lady of Refuge Parish in Orchard Lake, saw a huge need in her community with local restaurants struggling to stay in business and overworked hospital staffs with barely enough time to eat.

As a result, Gheesling launched “Help Our Healthcare Heroes,” an effort to raise money to purchase large catering orders to deliver food to emergency room workers.

Despite the rising infection totals, local parishes continued to host much-needed blood drives, and Catholic businesses, schools and nonprofits joined the effort to make and donate N95 masks, face shields, masks and gloves for front-line health workers.

Even the Dominican Sisters of Peace, in one final act of service, donated 60 beds to an overflow COVID-19 facility in Ypsilanti from their recently closed retreat center in Oxford.

As countless Catholics help from afar, others such as Fr. Jeff Allan, chaplain at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, are on the front lines, serving alongside hospital staffs by offering a listening ear and much-needed hope in a scary time.

“People are scared; there is a lot of fear in the hearts of people,” Fr. Allan said. “It’s not only the patients and families, but everyone is a little scared. People in the hospital are looking for Christ; they are looking for help.”

Guidepost 6: We’re Called to Accompany Our Neighbors

“We must support one another in this time of trouble, not only with sympathy but with ready acts of practical kindness — that is, works of mercy,” Archbishop Vigneron wrote.

If faith is the antidote to fear, then service is the antidote to selfishness.

In a time when Metro Detroiters are losing their jobs, worrying about the health of loved ones or mourning the death of someone close, local Catholics have responded with compassion outdone only by the love of God Himself.

As stress and anxiety related to the virus rises, Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan has made its counseling services available through telemedicine — offering a welcome relief for those struggling with mental health concerns.

While a painful effect of the pandemic has left those grieving a loved one’s death without the option of a traditional funeral, pastors and cemetery workers are comforting those who mourn through phone calls, graveside prayers and creative memorial services. 

One parish has even begun tying ribbons to its trees as a way to memorialize the 2,391 people who have died so far in Michigan from COVID-19.

As job losses mount, others have stepped up their outreach to the hungry by providing food to those in need — such as St. Mary Queen of Creation in New Baltimore, which offered 126 Easter baskets to local families.

Finally, while priests remember their flocks, their flocks haven’t forgotten them either, as shown by parishioners at St. Joseph Parish in Trenton who organized a 100-car “drive-by parade” to brighten the spirits of their pastor, Fr. Stephen Rooney.

Guidepost 7: We’re Called to Care for Those on the Peripheries

“The pains caused by the pandemic will fall particularly hard on the poor, the elderly and the chronically ill. We Christians have a particular duty to care for them,” Archbishop Vigneron said.

While COVID-19 is challenging average families, it can be nearly a death sentence for those on society’s margins.

For the elderly and immuno-compromised, as well as the poor and homeless with no support system to fall back on, the Catholic Church is often a singular source of hope in an otherwise desperate situation.

To soothe the fears of lonely and scared seniors, Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan began making daily phone calls to check in on vulnerable adults, while launching a service to deliver groceries and needed medicines to homebound individuals.

Lourdes Senior Community in Waterford is keeping its residents connected to their families by offering video chats and window visits, while at Senior Clergy Village in Livonia, the Archdiocese of Detroit’s retired priests are offering daily Mass on behalf of those affected by the virus.

Homeless shelters and soup kitchens such as the Pope Francis Center and the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit are serving the most at risk by providing showers, hot meals and coffee — often to-go, given the health concerns of people congregating together — providing a vital lifeline when other options disappear.

Finally, parish food ministries received a much-needed shot in the arm when the Knights of Columbus announced a $25,000 grant to buy food for 50 area pantries serving the vulnerable in Metro Detroit. And for students who otherwise might go hungry, local Catholic schools are offering meals up to twice a day for anyone under the age of 18.

Guidepost 8: Read God’s Word Through the Lens of this Time

“(God) wants to speak to your heart: to offer his wisdom about what this crisis means, his guidance about how to respond, his assurance that ‘all things work for good for those who love [him]’ (Rm 8: 28). He is close; listen for him,” Archbishop Vigneron said.

Human beings are, by nature, social creatures — created for communion with God and one another.

So when Catholics are asked to do the opposite — to stay away from church, friends and neighbors — it can have a jarring effect.

To help the faithful process faith in a pandemic, local Church leaders have developed resources to facilitate prayer, community and meditation on the Scriptures.

Fr. Charles Fox, a Detroit Catholic columnist, noted that when God created man, he said it was “not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). When man has to be alone, then, he must turn to Christ, who from the cross “will draw everyone to (himself)” (John 12:32).

As Catholics faced their first Holy Week without public Masses, faith leaders developed the archdiocese’s first-ever Holy Week Home Retreat, which featured nightly live reflections from local priests, Q&A discussions and virtual Stations of the Cross.

The Servants of Jesus the Divine Mercy, meanwhile, are encouraging Catholics to fortify their homes by posting the Divine Mercy icon on their doorposts, and Teresa Tomeo, an author and radio host on Ave Maria Radio (990-AM), even wrote a book about crisis-borne faith, “Conquering Coronavirus: How Faith Can Put Your Fears to Rest.”

And while parish musicians don’t have live congregations to play for these days, at least one is making use of weekly livestreamed praise-and-worship sessions, sprinkled with Scripture reflection.

“Catholics are uniquely prepared to understand both the deep suffering brought by such social distance and the unique antidote to its poison,” Fr. Fox wrote. “That antidote is the Cross of Jesus Christ.”

Guidepost 9: Our First Touchstone is Eucharistic Communion

“During this time when the public celebration of Holy Mass has to be suspended, we need the graces of the Eucharist more than ever,” Archbishop Vigneron said.

The Eucharistic Lord has not abandoned his people. And despite the fact Catholics cannot partake of the Eucharist, it’s still the “source and summit” of the Catholic faith.

Archbishop Vigneron preaches often about the holy Eucharist — perhaps the subject on which he preaches most — and its significance wasn’t lost on him even as he addressed its painful absence from the lives of the faithful.

“We experience today in a powerful way, the thirst we cannot slake physically,” Archbishop Vigneron said March 15. “In the year of grace 2020, we feel in an unprecedented way our thirst for Communion, our thirst for living water. We suffer.”

Yet, the archbishop said, this thirst can both help Catholics more fully appreciate the gift of Jesus’ own Body and Blood as well as be a source of grace unto itself.

Nowhere was the gift of the Eucharist more powerfully evident than in Pope Francis’ extraordinary “urbi et orbi” blessing March 27, when the Holy Father, standing in the pouring rain, implored Jesus’ Real Presence to bless the whole world.

Following the pope’s example, the archbishop himself offered a Eucharistic blessing to the local Church from the steps of the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament on Easter Sunday — a powerfully moving sign of solidarity between a shepherd and his people.

Across the archdiocese, parishes have turned time and again to the Eucharist as a source of faith during the crisis, including parking lot blessings, Holy Hours, processions and adoration — a sign that God’s love is anything but absent in these times.

Guidepost 10: Our Second Touchstone is Our Lady’s Protection

“In every age — from the days before Pentecost until today — the Church has been blessed through the Mother of God interceding for us, from her being close to us with her care and protection,” Archbishop Vigneron said.

The Archdiocese of Detroit has many intercessors: Blessed Solanus Casey, Ste. Anne and St. Therese of Lisieux among them.

But no one is more powerful than the Virgin Mother of God.

In entrusting the archdiocese to the protection of Our Lady of Lourdes — the special intercessor of St. Bernadette who has been credited with 70 confirmed miracles through her shrine in Lourdes, France — Archbishop Vigneron paid homage to the Blessed Virgin Mary’s deep love for her children.

As Blessed Solanus would do, the archbishop “thanked God ahead of time” for His mother’s protection during the pandemic by pledging to build a grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament as “a lasting, perpetual reminder” of her care.

The archbishop noted — half-seriously — that the Memorare prayer, which he recommended all Catholics regularly pray, takes about 20 seconds: the amount of time the CDC recommends washing one’s hands.

Across the archdiocese, Catholics have “flown” to Our Lady’s protection, with Detroit’s bishops pledging to pray a weekly livestream rosary with the faithful until the pandemic ends, and families everywhere adopting new prayers and devotions to the Blessed Mother.

Finally, as the rest of the world learns how to quarantine, the cloistered Discalced Carmelite Nuns of the Monastery of the Blessed Sacrament in Clinton Township have been doing it for years — with a special nod to Our Lady’s help:

“God is our rock and our joy, and we’re very happy living this kind of life,” Mother Mary Elizabeth, OCD, told Detroit Catholic. “It’s hard for people not called to be cloistered nuns, but God brings grace out of all, and this could be an opportunity for people to concentrate on their relationship with the Lord.”


Michael Stechschulte is editor-in-chief of Detroit Catholic. To receive Detroit Catholic news in your inbox daily, weekly or monthly, subscribe to our e-newsletter.