In South Dakota, a Jesuit on the Rosebud Indian Reservation prayed the rosary outside a dining room window. In Detroit, high school seniors distanced themselves in the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament. In Chicago, a line of cars routinely stretched for blocks, and school alumni — some of them still teenagers — returned to volunteer.
In the wake of COVID-19 shutdowns, Jesuit organizations across the Midwest acted fast to serve members of their schools and communities with food shortage solutions and technology assistance. They also offered much-needed spiritual and moral support.
Chicago Jesuit Academy (CJA), a full- scholarship lower and middle school, ended in-person learning on a Friday in March, and by the following Tuesday, online learning had begun. CJA also organized a food drive and made biweekly home deliveries to compensate for the breakfasts and lunches CJA students would have eaten at school.
As shutdown effects worsened — via lost work and income — CJA organized a more comprehensive food-distribution program. Working with Gourmet Gorilla, CJA utilized a United States Department of Agriculture program that purchases surplus produce and dairy which otherwise would have gone to waste. At these weekly CJA distributions, cars lined up for blocks. At its peak, the program distributed 600 25-pound food boxes a week — and not just to CJA families.
“All of that was a very humbling process,” says CJA President Matthew Lynch. “I think it gave us an overwhelming understanding of just how hard the pandemic hit our neighborhood.”
CJA offered three types of food boxes: produce, dairy and produce, and protein, which contained assorted frozen meats. Each car was allowed four boxes, but families often insisted on taking only what they knew they’d need, Lynch says.
On distribution days, school nurse Pam Kiefer offered health consultations to people in line, and throughout the shutdown Principal Thomas Beckley conducted regular pastoral wellness calls.
“To feel like you’re doing something constructive and helping other people is really good for your heart and soul right now,” says Lynch. He wasn’t surprised at all when former CJA students returned to help. “That’s exactly who we know our alumni to be.”
When COVID-19 arrived in Detroit, Loyola High School’s zip code and the surrounding area, where most Loyola High students live, was the hardest-hit area in the city.
“The coronavirus really ravaged our community,” says Fr. Adam DeLeon, SJ, a Loyola teacher and the school’s campus minister. “All of our students know someone who has died, whether it’s an extended family member or someone on their street.”
Despite the heartache, by June there was cause for celebration as Loyola became the only Detroit school to hold an in-person graduation. But it was a long road getting there. In March, when parents assured Loyola their kids were equipped with technology for online learning, the school didn’t realize parents were talking about cell phones. Loyola loaned out all of its Chromebooks and raised money to buy more. The school also helped boost home internet services as they bogged down under the strain of multiple users at once. But graduation remained a question mark.
“Graduation is really a hallmark moment for our guys,” Fr. DeLeon says. “Graduation rates in the African American community, specifically for Black men, are so low that it takes a communal effort to make it happen, and that’s what graduation here represents.”
By June, the Archdiocese of Detroit had resumed Masses for up to 175 people, so Loyola asked if its 30
seniors could graduate in the cathedral. They could, with two family guests each.
“It was a huge collaboration,” Fr. DeLeon says. “The guys were super grateful, and they took it seriously. They all wore matching Loyola Bulldog masks, which was awesome.”
Sapa Un Catholic Academy is operated by the St. Francis Mission on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation. When the school shut down in March, Rosebud’s Lakota people had reason to be especially concerned.
Many of its 53 students would miss the meals they would have received at school, says Fr. Jim Kubicki, SJ, the mission’s director. So, in collaboration with the organization Feeding South Dakota, and with the help of donations, food was made available for families to pick up or have delivered by school staff.After securing a grant from the South Dakota Community Foundation, the mission tasked Fr. Jim Lafontaine, SJ, with shopping for food and delivering it to families. In some cases, several generations — a dozen people or more — live in one small house. Diabetes is common, and the nearest intensive care unit is 200 miles away. All of this made a bad situation worse.
“People have been very afraid,” Fr. Kubicki says.
When the reservation’s 12-step recovery center closed, its director, Jim Stands, stayed in touch with attendees via daily phone calls and emails. While the mission’s churches were shut down, Fr. Lafontaine and Fr. Jacob Boddicker, SJ, did everything from livestreaming Mass on YouTube to distributing Communion in church parking lots and homes, including a nursing home where Fr. Boddicker prayed the rosary outside the dining room.
In every case, stepping up was the most important thing.
“I think the biggest way we could ease the fears of the people we serve was to be present,” Fr. Kubicki says.
Michael Austin is a freelance writer based in Chicago, a national James Beard Award finalist for magazine feature writing, and a former nationally syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune.