The year 2021 has been difficult for Maria Thornton’s family, but she said it’s God who has given her the strength to keep going.
Thornton’s younger sister, Lorena Hernandez, died from the COVID-19 virus in January in Zitácuaro, Michoacán, Mexico, at the age of 35. Lorena tested positive for the virus around Christmas and was sick for two weeks before she passed away.
Thornton, a member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Ferguson and preschool teacher at the parish school, said, “It was hard because we couldn’t go to a funeral or make a visit — anything. Everything happened so quick. I talked to her every day.”
Then in March, Thornton’s father-in-law, Trevor Thornton, died at the age of 86. His death was not COVID-related. “I lost my dad a long time ago, so (Thornton) was like a father to me,” she said.
The parish community at Our Lady of Guadalupe held an outdoor prayer service May 12 to remember those who died in the past year from COVID, as well as other causes. In all, 26 people with direct connections to the parish or school communities died in the past year from COVID. In addition, more than 40 relatives of parishioners or school families also died from
COVID, said pastoral associate Sister Cathy Doherty, SSND.
While the number of COVID-related deaths has declined in the United States in recent months, there have been 583,074 COVID-related deaths in the United States as of mid-May, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Latino COVID-related deaths comprise 18.7% of all cases in the United States, second only to people who are white (58.7%), according to CDC data from mid-May. Race and ethnicity data is available for 82% of the nation’s cases.
“A lot of our school families had to go to work, and they caught it at work,” Sister Cathy said. “Some families have loved ones in other countries, such as Mexico, and because of the conditions and medical resources, they got sick and never got the help to survive.”
Parishioners and school families held each other up in prayer via prayer chains that are communicated via email and WhatsApp. Parishioners also found support through men’s and women’s Emmaus groups, which until recently had been meeting over Zoom. Our Lady of Guadalupe also held a prayer service in November to remember the deceased, with their names inscribed in the parish’s Book of Life.
“They have supported one another in so many ways,” Sister Cathy said. “I talked to one man whose dad died in Mexico, and he could not go back for the funeral. I can’t imagine having your father dying and not being able to be there. Some have not been able to be at their relatives’ funerals.”
Thornton said the prayer service was a way to help her process her grief. “In Mexico, we have a custom where when a person dies, you have the wake at home — and you have it there for a whole week if you wanted to. You are doing Rosaries and praying … It is something that is important to us, so when you don’t have that, you feel like you haven’t had closure.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe pastor Father Eric Olsen said the prayer service was important as an outreach of the Church to those who are grieving. “St. Paul says we are amabssadors for Christ,” he said. “If we don’t reach out to the brokenhearted, if we don’t offer comfort to the grieving, who else is God counting on? Christ is counting on us to share His mercy and to share with others to experience His love.”
Hope in the Resurrection
Maria Garcia’s uncle, Juan Flores, 62, had gone to Mexico for a visit, where he became sick. “He tested positive (for COVID) and he never came back,” said Garcia, who attended the May 12 prayer service with her four children. “We never had the opportunity to be there for the funeral.” Garcia has experienced other losses in the last few years, including an infant nephew, and a brother, who passed away unexpectedly.
Reflecting on a recent Gospel reading, Garcia thought about the meaning of the word “obedience” as it relates to God.
“Sometimes we think we know more than God, but He’s all-knowing,” she said. “Having hope is the only thing that is making me walk through this. The hope is that one day we will be together again. And when I am going through a tough time, I can call on Him.”
At the May 12 prayer service, several symbols were placed on the steps of the church as a remembrance of those who have been lost, including white roses — a symbol of the resurrection; the parish’s Book of Life; and the Paschal candle.
“When the candle is lit, it represents Christ within us,” Sister Cathy said. “In the season of Easter that we’re in right now, the readings of Scripture talk about the men on the road to Emmaus, (and they told the third man who joined them), ‘Don’t you know what’s going on? Jesus has died, and we are without Him.’ And yet when they got to the town and invited Him to come in, it was in the breaking of the bread that they knew it was Jesus with them.”
The Church is reflecting on a time in which Jesus is walking with the apostles, but soon He is going to go. “The apostles can’t go back to the way life was when Jesus was walking with them,” she said. “Each one of us who have lost a loved one are living a life without that loved one present with us. And yet Jesus keeps saying, ‘I will send hope. I will give you hope.’
“How do we carry on our lives without our loved ones present? Jesus invites us to that new challenge, that new unknown in our lives, just like the apostles,” she said. “That’s where we need to continue to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. We carry the memories of hope, of gratitude, of what that person meant to us,” Sister Cathy said. “The Spirit can give us a life filled with memories, filled with gratitude, to continue on.
“This evening of remembrance, of healing is just one step closer to how we carry on with the memories of our loved ones within us. Tonight we celebrate those memories and the spirit of our loved ones, through Jesus Christ, to be carried with us, and to be that light to go into the future.”
>> Grief ministry
The archdiocesan Catholic Renewal Center offers support via Compassion Groups for those who have lost a child, a spouse or a parent. The group setting allows individuals to share and heal from the loss of a loved one. Groups meet at the Catholic Renewal Center in Crestwood.
The Catholic Renewal Center also maintains a list of Catholic counselors in the area.
Seasons of Hope is a scriptural approach to grief. This parish-based ministry offers people an opportunity to come together to share in God’s love and to explore mourning through Scripture, prayer, reflection activities and faith sharing.
For more information on any of these resources, contact Jane Guenther with the Catholic Renewal Center at [email protected] (314) 792-7734. Or visit archstl.org/catholic-renewal-center.
Saint Louis Counseling, a federated agency of Catholic Charities of St. Louis, offers professional counseling and psychiatry services. Saint Louis Counseling currently offers a limited number of in-person office sessions at each of its locations. Teletherapy services continue for both existing and new clients. For more information, see saintlouiscounseling.org.
>> Jonah Prayer Ministry
Kim Stanley believes prayer is an important way to reach people who are dealing with grief or loss. One way in which that’s delivered is through the Jonah Prayer Ministry, offered at her parish, Incarnate Word in Chesterfield.
Stanley is one of about 20 people at her parish who are trained as Jonah prayer ministers, providing ministry on the first Sunday of the month between two Masses. The parish-based ministry involves praying in small groups with individuals who request prayer support. Praying over each other is a way to affirm each other’s faith as a community, to let the Holy Spirit heal those who are hurting, and to open their eyes to being thankful for the truth and love in every situation. The ministry also is described as being present through prayer, and praying with expectant faith knowing God brings about transformation, healing and growth.
Some people have lost their sense of hope during the pandemic, while others approach the prayer ministry team for other issues such as upcoming surgeries or healing from illnesses, Stanley said. “Fear is the number one issue, and it manifests in different ways,” she said. “There’s a fear of coming to church and being around people, even with a vaccine.”
At Incarnate Word, Jonah ministers typically spread out after Mass, with some approaching individuals asking if they want to pray together. “That sometimes takes the pressure off” of approaching ministers, Stanley said. “We ask, ‘What do you want to take to Jesus today?’ If you don’t ask God, you don’t know what His answer is going to be.”
For more information on Jonah Prayer Ministry, including a list of parishes with active ministries, see www.archstl.org/catholic-renewal-center/ministries-and-seminars/jonah-prayer-ministry.