Parishes clear hurdles when COVID forces priests into quarantine

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when priests are forced into quarantine because they have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the virus, it has meant another disruption in parish life.

Pastors, sometime with the help of the staff at the Diocese of Nashville, have had to scramble to find priests to celebrate the Sunday Masses when quarantined.

“That’s our faith, the Eucharist. Everything we say, think or do is based on that sacrament,” said Father Ed Steiner, pastor of St. Philip Church in Franklin, who has been forced into quarantine twice. “It’s so integral to who we are as a Church … all of us want to make sure parishioners have access to the Eucharist.”

Since the pandemic began to spread across the country earlier this year, pastors and associate pastors in several parishes, including the Cathedral of the Incarnation and St. Rose of Lima Church in Murfreesboro, have been forced into quarantine. And three parishes – St. Philip, St. Catherine Church in Columbia, and Our Lady of Lake Church in Hendersonville – all had priests quarantined on the same weekend, Oct. 31-Nov. 1.

Father Dan Reehil, pastor of St. Catherine, and Father Austin Gilstrap, pastor of Our Lady of the Lake, were able to find a priest to say the weekend Masses in their parishes.

But Father Steiner had to rely on Deacon Hans Toecker, diocesan director of clergy and pastoral support, to help him find priests to cover the six weekend Masses scheduled at his parish.

“That’s a whole lot of Masses,” said Father Steiner, who noted that one of the Masses is bilingual and another is a Spanish Mass. “I had found three priests for three Masses, but I had to have help to find more.”

Both Father Steiner and his associate pastor, Father Rhodes Bolster, were forced into quarantine after Father Bolster was exposed to someone who tested positive. Father Steiner had to be quarantined because he shares the rectory with Father Bolster. He had to go into quarantine earlier this year while pastor of the Cathedral of the Incarnation for an exposure from an employee.

“The difference of filling in for somebody in a COVID situation as opposed to a guy going on vacation is that with COVID it’s extremely last minute,” Father Steiner said.

“Typically, a pastor is loath to cancel a Mass or schedule the Church’s Sunday Service in the Absence of a Priest,” Father Steiner said. He even explored whether he could still celebrate Mass while maintaining social distancing from the other people on the altar and in the congregation.

After Father Steiner notified Bishop J. Mark Spalding that he and Father Bolster were in quarantine, the bishop’s secretary, Jenny Scaggs, let him know “don’t worry about it, we’re going to take care of it.”

“You talk about breathing easy,” said Father Steiner, who quickly collaborated with Deacon Toecker about finding replacements.

“I’m here to help pastors, and through them, help parishes,” Deacon Toecker said. “My office is a resource for Mass coverage and other things. There’s a lot of resources in the diocesan offices.”

When pastors come to him for help, Deacon Toecker said, “they have to trust me that I’m going to turn over every rock there is and I’m going to do it quickly.”

Typically, Deacon Toecker could turn to retired priests for help, “except they’re the ones most vulnerable” to the virus, he said.

To help St. Philip, he turned to other parishes to see if the priests there could help. Father Emmanuel Dirichukwu, associate pastor of St. Stephen Catholic Community in Old Hickory, and Father Andrew Bulso, pastor of St. Edward Church in Nashville, agreed to help.

“One of the nice things about the priesthood of the diocese is there is a fraternity among the priests,” Father Steiner said. “If one guy is in trouble, everybody rallies.”

Father John Sims Baker, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in Murfreesboro, had a similar experience when he and his associates were forced into quarantine earlier this year.

He noted that Deacon Toecker was helpful, as always, in finding a priest to cover his parish’s weekend Masses. “I can do nothing but brag on my brother priests in the diocese for their generosity and willingness to help out,” Father Baker added.

Father Reehil at St. Catherine and Father Gilstrap at Our Lady of the Lake were able to find replacements on their own when they went into quarantine after an exposure. 

“It’s always easier when you have an associate,” said Father Reehil, who is in his first year as a pastor without an associate. “You have to be more creative in finding help.”

He called on Father Tom Weise, a priest from Alabama, who has helped at St. Catherine before. “He was happy to come up,” Father Reehil said.

For the weekday Masses while he was in quarantine, Father Reehil, who was exposed to a member of the staff who tested positive, said private Masses for the intentions that were previously scheduled for those days. And Deacon Dan McCulley led Communion services during the week.

Father Gilstrap looked to his two associate pastors, Father Thomas Kalam, CMI, and Father Luke Wilgenbusch to cover the weekend Masses while he was in quarantine the weekend of Nov. 1. When Father Wilgenbusch joined Father Gilstrap in quarantine for the next weekend, Father Kalam said the Masses with an assist from Bishop Spalding. Although Father Gilstrap’s installation as pastor was rescheduled because he was in quarantine, the bishop came to Our Lady of the Lake anyway on Nov. 8 and celebrated the 11 a.m. Mass.

Father Wilgenbusch and Father Gilstrap were quarantined because of separate exposures to people who had tested positive. Father Kalam was never exposed, so avoided quarantine.

“We are in a unique circumstance to be in a position to weather a storm like this,” Father Gilstrap said. The parish has three priests because he and Father Wilgenbusch split their time between their duties at the parish and at the diocesan offices. Father Gilstrap is also Director of Vocations and Director of Deacon Formation, and Father Wilgenbusch serves as Assistant Director of Vocations.

“We want to make sure the people of God can come to Mass and receive the sacraments,” Father Gilstrap said. “That’s essentially our primary mission as a parish, that the faithful are taken care of and the sacraments are as available to them as much as possible.”