After almost a week of making the rounds caring for ill patients at Regina Cleri, Doctor Marie Paul Lockerd welcomed a pause in the work to enjoy a game of croquet with a dozen retired priests who live at the home in Shrewsbury.
Donning masks and gloves for the outdoor game on the nearby grounds of the Cardinal Rigali Center, the group laughed and rooted for one another on a breezy afternoon. The game ended just before a rain shower moved in. It was some time for a little exercise, but more, importantly, to simply enjoy one another’s company — the priests had been quarantined in their rooms.
“It was such a great afternoon,” said Sister Marie Paul, a family practice physician and Religious Sister of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, who moved into the residence April 28 to help care for retired priests who have been ill with the COVID-19 coronavirus. “I think it raised their morale just to get out and to be together.”
Father Gary Vollmer, one of the winners of the croquet game whose prize was a thermometer and a package of zinc supplements, has been regaining strength every day after being diagnosed with the virus in mid-April. He’s grateful for the support of Sister Marie Paul and others who have been caring for him and other retired priests who are recovering from the illness.
“I think I can speak for all the priests here who are just are just overwhelmed by all the love from the archdiocese and everybody,” he said. “The employees are going out of their way and giving 100 percent and trying to keep us safe and healthy. It’s been overwhelming.”
Regina Cleri reported its first case of COVID-19 on April 18. Eventually, 29 of 31 residents tested positive for the virus, as did 13 of 25 employees.
Prior to caring for the priests at Regina Cleri, Sister Marie Paul had been serving as the medical director of the Rural Parish Mobile Medical Clinic, which had been providing health care to uninsured people in rural areas of the archdiocese. Services were suspended due to concerns with the pandemic. Both the Rural Parish Clinic and Regina Cleri are ministries supported by the Annual Catholic Appeal.
Concerned about the health of retired priests, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson requested Sister Marie Paul’s services at Regina Cleri. She’s assisting priests with their recovery and caring for them spiritually.
“The stability here is prayer, and we all support each other,” she said. “It’s been a privilege for me to serve our retired priests.”
By May 6, no one living or working at the facility had a fever. Eight priests were hospitalized, with seven of them expected to recover and return to Regina Cleri soon. Five priests who had underlying health conditions have died. One employee with underlying health conditions also has died.
The concern and support of the Catholic community, including phone calls, cards and donated meals from organizations such as the Knights of Columbus, has been overwhelmingly positive and has lifted the priests’ spirits, Sister Marie Paul said.
Per Missouri Health Department guidelines, priests were quarantined in their rooms since the first case was reported. They had celebrated Masses privately in their rooms. The chapel was reopened on May 4 for private prayer; Mass resumed in the chapel May 10, following guidelines set by the Archdiocese. Some priests also have been able to take short walks, or sit outside on the grounds of the residence, as well as take drives to the countryside.
“I am encouraging them to get out,” Sister Marie Paul said. “They’re excited. I think we have turned a corner here in that priests are getting outside. The restorative quality of nature has certainly lifted their spirits.”
Father Kenneth Brown, Vicar for Priests and director of the Office of Priest Personnel, noted the great faith and good humor of the priests at Regina Cleri. “They have been generous, submitting themselves to quarantine, and being very cooperative — and through it all, remaining good, faithful priests. It’s their faith that undergirds everything.”
He said it’s also been understandably difficult for the priests who had remained active in their retirement, including those who had been helping celebrate Masses at parishes in the archdiocese before the outbreak. “They miss serving their people,” Father Brown said.
Because some of the staff have tested positive for the virus and are staying in quarantine at home, Father Brown also has been helping at Regina Cleri wherever needed. He credited the leadership of Regina Cleri’s administrator, Mike Miller, “who has done an incredible job.”
Father Vollmer said his health is improving each day. His symptoms at first seemed similar to that of a sinus infection. Within a week, he said he lost his energy and exhibited some of the tell-tale signs of the virus, including a dry cough and chest pain. “It’s like nothing I ever felt before,” he said. As his health has improved, he’s been getting outside for short walks or just to sit and enjoy the sunshine.
Father Vollmer, who has served at several parishes in the archdiocese including as pastor of St. Theodore in Flint Hill for 12 years, said he’s been encouraged by the prayers and well-wishes from former parishioners and others.
Father Vollmer recently received a video of St. Theodore parishioners praying the Rosary for him, while others have called or made signs. Parishioners at Ascension in Chesterfield, where Father Vollmer had been helping out around Christmas, had prayer shawls delivered to the priests at Regina Cleri, too.
“The responses from all of the parishes is what keeps me going,” he said.
While recovering, he’s been celebrating Mass in his room. He’s also been offering Mass at the same time as other Masses occurring in the archdiocese, including the recent ordination Mass for six transitional deacons.
“In my 42 years as a priest, have never celebrated Mass by myself,” Father Vollmer said. “It’s a strange feeling. I sure hope people are really going to appreciate the Eucharist even more when all of this is over.”
Msgr. Walter Whited reported that his symptoms were relatively minor, including an elevated temperature for a few days.
Overall, “I have been doing quite well,” said the former pastor of numerous parishes in the archdiocese. “We’ve been staying in our rooms, and I have been using a mask. With the warmer weather, it’s been nice to sit outside away from people, and we wear a mask and gloves outside of our room.”
Msgr. Whited has been watching livestreamed Masses, and continues to pray the Divine Office every day.
“I have gotten a number of calls from parishioners,” which he has enjoyed, he added. His most recent assignment before retirement was at All Saints in St. Peters, and before the virus outbreak, he had been helping with Masses at St. Robert Bellarmine in St. Charles.
“I look forward to the days when I can go out on my own,” he said, adding that he wants to help celebrate Masses when things return to normal someday. “I have already gotten calls that they’re looking for me to help with Masses. I’d rather be out there, but I just need to be patient and wait for things to open up.”
Supported by the Annual Catholic Appeal
Regina Cleri, a home for retired priests, and Sister Marie Paul Lockerd’s healthcare work are supported by the generosity of the Annual Catholic Appeal.
The parish giving portion of the 2020 appeal has been rescheduled and will begin June 13-14. People are encouraged to give to the appeal through their parish or at aca.archstl.org