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Empty pews and crowded hospitals


Saint Ignatius’ College old scholar Fr Stephen Howe, a priest with the Legionaries of Christ, has been serving on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York over the past 12 months. This is an edited version of an article on his ministry published by Regnum Christi.

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After growing up in Adelaide, Fr Stephen Howe was ordained a deacon by the late Archbishop Wilson in St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral in June 2014 and a priest at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome in December of 2014.

Now based at St Peter and St Denis Church, Yonkers, the Legionary priest spent much of his time during the worst of the COVID outbreak last year visiting and providing the Anointing of the Sick to his parishioners and, sadly, ministering at many funerals.

Fr Stephen Howe ministering to a COVID-19 patient in New York.

One of the ministries to which his priestly vocation called him was attending to the sick and dying at St John’s Riverside Hospital in Yonkers. In the spring of 2020, the small hospital was inundated with patients suffering from COVID; at the peak of the pandemic, all of the hospital’s 150 beds, plus another 30 beds placed in converted office space, held COVID patients, and a refrigerator truck was required when the morgue reached capacity.

Fr Stephen spent his time at the hospital praying with patients, administering the sacraments, and simply engaging with people who, because of isolation requirements, were separated from their families and loved ones and had little other human contact and interaction. At the bedside of one dying patient, Fr Stephen video-called the family so that they could all be together – at least virtually – in the man’s final moments. “What a privilege to be able to give them those last precious moments with their father,” he said.

Fr Stephen knows firsthand the feeling of helplessness and isolation that the patients he ministered to were experiencing. In March of 2020, he contracted COVID himself, becoming seriously ill. Because of his symptoms, which he described as feeling like he had been “beaten and left for dead,” and quarantine protocol, he spent several weeks alone self-isolating.

While the numbers of COVID infections in Yonkers remain as high, the cases needing hospitalisation have decreased, and there have been no COVID deaths of parishioners since spring.

And although the doctors at St John’s Hospital are now far more successful in helping those patients recover, the social and economic effects of the crisis are still prevalent, particularly at St Peter and St Denis Church, whose largely Hispanic congregation had already been experiencing a high level of poverty and unemployment before the pandemic hit.

At the height of the crisis in the spring of 2020, a large team of volunteers at the church’s Food Pantry were assembling and handing out up to 600 packages to families in need every Tuesday.

Recently, the number of food packages required has decreased to about 400 per week as families get back on their feet, but this is still double the amount of aid that was required before COVID.

The church also works closely with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, which is housed right next door. “I’m often sending people over there to get help,” Fr Stephen said.

“Although they’re often overwhelmed there because of COVID, they have been very helpful, even helping some people with their rent and other needs they have that can be significant.”

Fr Stephen was recently touched by the generosity of family, friends, and fellow Australians towards the parishioners of St Peter and St Denis. After an article was published in the Australian press about his experience ministering to COVID patients at St John’s Hospital and the financial struggles that many families in his parish were suffering, he began receiving generous donations from people back home.

“I know one family of eight kids in Australia who are not overly wealthy, and yet they very generously gave $5000 to help out families here,” Fr Stephen said.

“I’ve had other relatives and friends coming out of the woodwork to donate, so we’ve been able to give that to the families most in need.”

Like all parishes, St Peter and St Denis Church has had to adapt to ever-changing COVID restrictions and protocol – since the church can accommodate only about a third of the building’s capacity, and to accommodate the large turnouts at Spanish services, a second Mass is celebrated simultaneously in the gym below the church.

As well, all small groups and youth groups now meet online, and the parish has not been able to rent out its retreat centre since March 2020, which has had a significant financial impact.

Despite these difficulties, the parish hasn’t let the pandemic stop them from continuing to grow their ministries.

“One project that I have been particularly involved with is helping to resurrect a young adult group that has gone through a bit of a slump,” Fr Stephen said.

“COVID actually helped us, because we got together a new team to run the group, and we were doing weekly Zoom calls as opposed to the live monthly meetings we previously had.

“We were getting a good number signing in for those every week, and it really got people excited.”

In the past few months, the newly revitalised young adult group, called Made for More, has held outdoor activities as well as missions to serve those experiencing homelessness.

“It’s been really good to be involved with and see (the young adults’) desire to be formed in their faith and have good, strong Christian friendships.”

Fr Stephen shared one experience of a young woman who has already been impacted by the revitalised Made for More ministry.

One of the patients that he had ministered to in the hospital was a mother of five in her forties; when she died of COVID, her oldest daughter turned to the young adult ministry at the church.

“It’s been beautiful to see her really getting into her faith, because before she joined Made for More, she didn’t really know much about the faith, and wasn’t particularly practising,” he said.

“She has been getting involved in our young adult ministry and really loves it, and she has been finding a lot of consolation and strength in this time of mourning after losing her mother.”

For Fr Stephen, the most rewarding part of his ministry as vicar at St Peter and St Denis is the help and healing that he’s able to bring as a priest and minister of the sacraments to his parishioners, whether it’s in their homes, in the church or at their hospital bedsides.

“Their greatest need is God,” he said, “so it’s rewarding to be able to serve them in a very priestly ministry here.”

Originally published



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