Sister Joan Clare Jenny, OSF, is pictured after receiving her first COVID-19 vaccine shot at the Franciscan Villa in Salina. (Photo by Sister Eleanore Therese Vargas, OSF)
By Renée K. Gadoua | Contributing writer
Msgr. J. Robert Yeazel, retired pastor of Holy Cross Church in DeWitt, spent last Easter in intensive care, where a ventilator helped him breathe. It was about a month into the COVID-19 pandemic, a once-a-century public health crisis that would kill more than 2.5 million worldwide — including 500,000 in the United States — in about a year.
COVID-19 symptoms hit Msgr. Yeazel quickly; a cough and fever in late March sent him to Syracuse’s Crouse Hospital. He spent more than a month in a drug-induced coma, then remained at Crouse and spent two months in rehabilitation centers before returning Oct. 8 to his apartment at The Nottingham in Jamesville.
“With the Lord, you can handle anything,” he said. “I almost died twice. I couldn’t believe that I could handle all these things, and it just brought me closer to the Lord because he had to be the one to bring me back. I tend to realize more how much we’re friends.”
While the retired priest fought for his life, people worldwide underwent significant lifestyle changes as officials implemented closures and stay-at-home orders to keep people from spreading the virus that causes the respiratory disease. In the Syracuse Diocese, Bishop Douglas J. Lucia suspended all public Masses, schools closed, and ministries shut down and began to work remotely.
As Central New York enjoys warm, sunny days ahead of Holy Week, many people see hope in COVID-19 vaccines expected to protect them from hospitalization and death. Public school officials in the region are considering more in-person instruction, and businesses are welcoming at least some workers back to their offices.
Last year, Holy Week services across the diocese took place in nearly empty churches, livestreamed to parishioners at home via YouTube and social media platforms. Churches this year may welcome congregations up to 50% of their capacity, providing social distancing can be maintained.
Much remains uncertain, though. It’s unclear how long vaccines will protect people, and doctors continue to study transmission and immunity. Experts warn against too quickly returning to pre-COVID life, lest the virus again gallop out of control. Many people are enduring ongoing financial strain, which may grow worse when eviction moratoria and other COVID relief programs end. Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to inflict illness, death, and disruptions of all kinds. But wide vaccine availability and a year’s passage spur assessments of losses and lessons learned.
“It’s not over,” said Sister Barbara Jean Donovan, general minister of the Syracuse-based Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities. “The stress is not over. The grief is not over yet. And I don’t know how long it will take.The pain is there. It’s real pain.”
Three of the community’s 300 members — two in Mount Vernon and one in Pittsburgh — died from COVID-19.
While state and residential facility restrictions “really saved the lives of our sisters,” safety came with a high cost. “All the restrictions were very, very difficult, because most of what we do in our community life we do together,” Sister Barbara Jean said. “We worship together, we eat together, we pray together, and we celebrate together, and all of that went by the wayside as people spent much time alone.”
The pandemic and the isolation it demanded, she said, “is not part of our Franciscan charism.” The community — about 100 strong in the Syracuse Diocese — are “joyful people who do things together.”
Especially difficult was the inability to say goodbye.
“We lost some sisters just because it was their time to go to God,” Sister Barbara Jean said. “Not being able to grieve together was and is still an unsettled issue,” she said. “It’s very difficult when people are in the hospital, or are dying, and nobody can be with them. We have very strong community customs that nobody ever dies alone. We are with them on the journey, and we have not been able to do that.”
Michael Melara, diocesan Catholic Charities CEO and executive director of the Onondaga County agency, said losing face-to-face contact with clients was devastating.
“It’s in that relationship where we can convey our care, our concern or compassion, our nonjudgmental approach, where we can come to know and see the divine presence in the people that we serve,” he said. “Hopefully they can come and… see God’s love and compassion being reflected back to them.”
Melara and Catholic Charities staff have received the vaccine, as have the Franciscan sisters. “It is amazingly wonderful,” Sister Barbara Jean said. “It allows the restrictions to be lifted a bit, but it also allows us to have a safer feeling about staying well.”
Msgr. Yeazel has received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
“Please take it,” he said. “You don’t want to catch this COVID. You could also jeopardize your family, because you could be a carrier, and not have it. And you don’t want to do that. Your mother, father, spouse, children can get this and they get sick or die. You wouldn’t want to be the one to give it to them.”
He expects to celebrate Easter quietly at home this year. “The doctors told me that I’m still not supposed to be out in crowds,” he said. “Even though I’m invited to a rectory for dinner, usually after dinner I get pretty tired, and I don’t want to just get up and leave.”
A year after being diagnosed with COVID-19, Msgr. Yeazel still struggles to catch his breath. He can’t take walks by himself and he lacks strength to celebrate Mass. He recently experienced a disorienting hallucination. But the March sun cheers him, and Easter promises life and light.
“It’s not as bad as it could have been,” he said.
Renée K. Gadoua is a frequent contributor to the Catholic Sun. Follow her on Twitter @ReneeKGadoua.