Two priests and one seminarian from the Diocese of Nashville who had planned to remain in Italy amidst the COVID-19 pandemic have returned to Middle Tennessee and are nearing the end of a two-week quarantine.
Fathers Rhodes Bolster and Luke Wilgenbusch, who were both ordained priests by Bishop J. Mark Spalding for the diocese last May, and seminarian Augustine Mang, all studying in Rome during the 2019-2020 school year, had planned to stay in Italy despite the near total-lockdown of the country to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
But that changed over the weekend of March 21 as COVID-19 cases and deaths continued to rise in Italy and the situation grew more dire. As of April 1, the World Health Organization reported 105,792 cases of COVID-19 in Italy, with the total number of deaths at 12,430.
As the situation in Italy continued to worsen, the Pontifical North American College, where Mang was in residence, and the priests’ residence at Casa Santa Maria, decided to send all students back to their home dioceses in the United States.
When the Nashville priests and seminarian, along with a seminarian from the Diocese of Memphis, landed in Nashville on March 23, they went straight to a house on the St. John Vianney Church property in Gallatin that was previously used as a convent for Dominican Sisters and later as a residence for diocesan seminarians.
“It’s a completely self-contained space,” with four bedrooms, living, dining areas, a chapel, study space and wi-fi, said Father Austin Gilstrap, director of vocations for the Diocese of Nashville, who previously lived there.
Father Gilstrap set up the house for the group with food, cleaning supplies, and a Mass kit among their essential items.
“Folks in the parish have been generous in providing meals,” said Father Bolster. “That being said, we do like to cook, so we have done a bit of that, too.”
Deacon Joseph Hastings, the seminarian from Memphis, enjoys baking, “so we are enjoying the fruits of his labors,” Father Bolster added.
The men are continuing to do class work, with the added challenges of attending live class lectures on Rome time, which is seven hours ahead of U.S. Central time. “I only have two classes, though one of them begins at 3:45 a.m. on Tuesdays, so that makes for an early morning,” said Father Bolster.
Seminarian Mang has to be up at 1:30 a.m. for a class. “It is a weird experience,” he said, but “I am starting to get used to it since I have been doing it almost two weeks.”
“We have tried to keep a schedule, which is helpful for maintaining sanity and sanctity. We have morning prayer at 4:15 a.m., lunch around noon, and evening prayer at 4:15 p.m.,” Father Bolster said.
None of the men who returned from Italy has shown signs of illness, Father Gilstrap noted, and all four of them had already been mostly quarantined in Italy for about two weeks before traveling back to the U.S.
Their U.S. quarantine is in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and out of an abundance of caution in case they were exposed to anything while traveling.
Their quarantine will end April 7; the diocese is currently making arrangements for them to live elsewhere and continue their studies through the end of the semester after that time.
Mang said that during his quarantine, “I am praying for everyone in the world now especially those who could not go to Mass and receive the Eucharist due to public restriction. It is very sad when I think of the situation we are facing now,” Mang said, where priests are available but public Masses are currently suspended.
“Everything is in the hand of God, and I trust in Him that He will not abandon us,” Mang added.
With two priests among the four men quarantined in Gallatin, the group celebrates two Masses every day. “I am particularly aware of the gift it is to have two Masses a day when most of the faithful around the world are deprived of the sacraments for weeks,” Father Bolster said. “I remember them at the altar daily and offer Mass for them regularly.”
Even though the faithful cannot attend Mass in person right now, this period of social distancing and “safer at home” can be a “wake up call to seek God more deeply,” Father Bolster said. “People always complain that they don’t have time to pray. Well, now you have plenty of time to pray. See this time as a gift God is giving you to slow down and root Him as the absolute center of your life.” And, he said, “if you are suffering or anxious, bring those concerns to Him … be consoled by the fact that thousands of priests are offering Mass for your soul around the clock.”
Mang’s advice for everyone living “safer at home” and missing their friends and family they can’t see in person right now: “I would say to live in the present. I know it is not easy, but we must have hope.”
Father Bolster, who was planning to finish his Licentiate of Sacred Theology in liturgical theology degree this spring, is now uncertain about the timing of completing it.
“Those of us who are finishing degree programs this semester wonder what the timeline will be for that since they involve submitting a thesis paper, doing a presentation and a lesson (in person). It could be delayed a couple weeks, months, moved totally online, certain things waived, who knows …”
“Any tragedy or crisis is a time to deepen our faith in God and abandon ourselves to His providential care,” Father Bolster said, “so we are hunkered down and trying to do just that.”