The Rev. Eric Burgener stopped counting how many COVID-19 patients he had ministered to around November. By then, he estimates he had seen more than 100.
Burgener, a priest at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Fort Wayne, became a full-time chaplain at Parkview North Hospital a couple of months before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. And while Burgener had already been tending to patients' needs before the pandemic, he says COVID “added a bit more complexity” to his work, including wearing a mask, gloves and other personal protective equipment gear, and most of all, putting him in danger of catching the virus.
Burgener is one of many area spiritual leaders who have taken personal risks over the last year to comfort the sick and their families, give last rites or conduct funerals for people who have died of COVID. In addition, many of these leaders have faced divisiveness in their congregations regarding pandemic protocols, such as whether or not to close churches, or how long to keep them closed, wearing face masks and social distancing.
Roger Reece, executive director of Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County, says this journey with parishioners has been a huge challenge for pastors.
He says trying to navigate caring for their congregants while adhering to numerous COVID-19 precautions has been difficult.
Reece recalls how early last March, when the pandemic began, the first directive came to close places of worship and churches had to figure out different alternatives for communicating outside the normal worship setting. “I remember when that first came on,” Reece says, “pastors were calling and saying, 'You need to talk with the health commissioner; we can't just shut down.' It became a real balancing act for places of worship to reach out and care for their congregations.
“Spiritual health is just as important as anything else.”
During crises, including when a person has lost a loved one, Reece says it's vital that the pastor come and be a part of that journey. That means pastors often put themselves in harm's way. “Pastors have learned to suit up, so to speak,” Reece says.
There's also been a debate among parishioners regarding safety protocols, including whether or not to wear a mask. Reece says there are loud voices asking others to “wear your mask,” while others are saying, “No, I'm not going to.”
“It's been a very difficult place for pastors to care for congregants that have such a wide opinion even on the protocols,” Reece says.
He says pastors have tried to navigate relationships on both sides, all the while dealing with the pandemic, recent social unrest, mental health, loved ones in nursing homes and ministering to families with loved ones in nursing homes.
“My heart goes out to pastors,” Reece says. “(I want to) lift up the pastors, to say thank you for your service in this community in the midst of this time.”
Burgener says he was one of the few priests allowed to minister to COVID patients, most of them Catholic, at several hospitals. In addition to Parkview, Burgener, 33, would visit other hospitals, including Dupont and in Auburn, to cover for many of the older priests, who were more susceptible to catching the virus because of their age and other health issues.
“I would lie to you if I said I wasn't scared,” Burgener says. He says there were times when he asked, “What am I doing here?” But he says “the Lord Jesus just kind of pushes in there” then the fear would disappear when he would look at the person who was suffering. “Those things are way bigger than anything I was concerned about.”
Then at the end of June, Burgener contracted the virus. He had a high fever and difficulty breathing. He was out a few weeks, but once he recovered, he returned to the hospitals to continue his work.
As a priest, Burgener knew what it was like to tend to a patient's needs, but once he had the virus, “I had a whole different perspective,” he says. “I knew what they were going through.”
And some days were tougher than others.
“There were days, ... somebody would call (me to go minister) and I'm like, 'I don't want to go.' But you continue to go, and a lot of that is not of my own strength,” Burgener says.
“Experientially now, I've seen God's work; ... (I) have seen God act in these times.”
He actually framed the N95 mask that he had worn a year to remind him that God is stronger than anything he faces.
Need to return
Brian MacMichael, with the Office of Worship at the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, has been involved with many of the safety precautions for area Catholic churches. He says before COVID-19 hit, the diocese conducted seminars in Allen and St. Joseph counties, which are two of the biggest counties in the diocese, because diocese officials “saw” it coming. “It was quite a whirlwind, of course,” he says.
Safety measures were implemented, including mask mandates, social distancing and limiting the capacities in churches. Then on March 17, 2020, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades issued a directive that all weekday and Sunday celebrations of Mass be suspended in all parishes.
During that time, MacMichael says he was communicating with other dioceses, getting updates from everywhere about what others were doing.
Public Masses resumed the weekend of May 23 and 24, however, there is still no obligation to take public Mass, MacMichael says.
While the churches have reopened, many parishes have continued to offer livestreaming, provided overflow areas to help in social distancing and have asked priests to conduct additional Masses when possible to prevent overcrowding.
However, MacMichael concedes that parishes are pushing the limits in what can be accommodated during this time. With all the safety measures in place, MacMichael says he is not aware of any COVID-19 outbreaks in the churches, and that is reassuring to people, especially when religious institutions and services are important things that people want to turn to during tough times. He says there is a need for community and social interaction.
“For a lot of people that happens through their churches,” MacMichael says. “(There's a) deep human need to take part in a worship experience in times of trial.”
Pastor Willie Bolden moved worship services to Facebook Live when his church, The Well of Fort Wayne, was forced to close early last year. Now more than a year later, the church still hasn't met in person.
His wife, Rhonda, says they decided to close the church and remain closed because, “We didn't want to put our members in danger.”
But unlike many churches who were forced to close, The Well was prepared to make the switch to online services, having conducted online ministry eight years.
What the Boldens weren't prepared for is when Willie Bolden contracted the virus in October.
The 73-year-old, who began pastoring in Fort Wayne in 1976, just got out of rehab last month after spending 62 days in the hospital – 35 days on a ventilator.
“It's the worse thing I have had in my life,” Bolden says. “I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.”
Bolden also developed pneumonia and had a stroke. He is still trying to relearn how to walk.
With her husband in the hospital, Rhonda Bolden conducted the church services online, while also battling her own health issues.
In June, Rhonda Bolden was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a mastectomy and underwent chemotherapy. She also contracted the virus from her husband.
“I was fighting chemo, side effects and the virus,” she says.
Rhonda Bolden says the virus made her very fatigued. However, she continued to push through and preach on Sundays.
The 55-year-old has been declared cancer free, but she knows that the fight isn't over when it comes to the virus.
The church at one time had a congregation of 2,000 members. Over the years that number has dropped, but Willie Bolden says they were in the process of building the congregation back up before the pandemic hit.
The couple say when things clear up and it seems safe to once again meet in person, they will return to church. However, they can't predict when that will be.
Many religious leaders aren't sure what “church” will look like once health restrictions are lifted and congregations are able to meet in full. Many agree that churches will most likely continue their online and social media efforts, but for most, they are ready to get back to normal, Reece says.
“Now I think people are ready and anxious to get back into some normalcy where you can really talk with people face to face and be with them,” he says.
But for the Boldens, they plan to continue to do what they have been doing since March of last year. And when their church resumes in-person service, Willie Bolden says they will continue to wear masks and social distance.
“We may be taking it light,” Willie Bolden says, “but the disease is not taking it light.”