Tennessee priests, seminarians, return home as Italy grapples with deadly coronavirus

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Standing in the window of the library of the Apostolic Palace overlooking an empty St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis blesses the city of Rome March 15, 2020, still under lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. CNS photo/Vatican Media via Reuters

Two priests and one seminarian from the Diocese of Nashville who had planned to remain in Italy amidst the COVID-19 pandemic are now returning home to Middle Tennessee, where they will remain in quarantine for two weeks.


Fathers Rhodes Bolster and Luke Wilgenbusch, who were both ordained priests by Bishop J. Mark Spalding for the diocese last May, and are studying for their Licentiate of Sacred Theology degrees at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, and Augustine Mang, a seminarian of the diocese studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, had planned to stay despite the near total-lockdown of the country to combat the spread of the virus.

But that changed over the weekend as COVID-19 cases and deaths continued to rise in Italy.

As of March 23, the World Health Organization reported 59,138 cases of COVID-19 in Italy, with the total number of deaths near 5,500. The virus has hit Italy harder than any country in the world outside of China, where the virus originated.

As the situation in Italy continued to worsen, the Pontifical North American College decided to send all students at their two campuses back to their home dioceses in the United States.

The U.S. State Department March 20 issued a “Global Level 4 Health Advisory,” which stated: “In countries where commercial departure options remain available, U.S. citizens who live in the United States should arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.”

Father Bolster

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced March 21 the closing of all “nonessential” business throughout the country.

The Prime Minister’s announcement, according to North American College officials, raised questions “regarding the production of goods and the further restriction on the movements of workers.”

“While disappointing,” they said, the decision to send all the students home “is based on our desire and responsibility to assure that, at this time, our students are closest to the emotional support systems of their diocese and families.”

When the Nashville priests and seminarian, along with a seminarian from the Diocese of Memphis, land in Nashville on Monday evening, March 23, they will go straight to a house on the St. John Vianney Church property in Gallatin that has previously been used as a residence for Dominican Sisters and 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 was working on Monday to get the house set up for the group who would be staying there for the next two weeks, with food, cleaning supplies, and a Mass kit among their essential items.

Father Wilgenbusch

“They should be able to continue to live a semi-normal seminary life,” said Father Gilstrap. The men are continuing to do class work, he said. However, one of the challenges might be if they need to attend live class lectures, they would have to adjust to being present for those on Rome time, which is six hours ahead of U.S. Central time.

Father Gilstrap noted that none of the men has shown signs of illness, and all four of them had already been mostly quarantined in Italy for about two weeks. Their U.S. quarantine is in accordance with CDC guidelines and out of an abundance of caution in case they were exposed to anything while traveling.

Initially, the American seminarians and priests studying in Rome, including those from the Diocese of Nashville were given the choice to stay or leave. “My decision was to stay here at the NAC,” said Mang. “I am a seminarian, and I am called to pray and to study at this moment of my life.”

About half of Mang’s fellow seminarians at the North American College had already travelled back home, and “we all made our decisions where we felt at peace,” he said via e-mail.

While Mang was remaining at the North American College in Rome, Fathers Bolster and Wilgenbusch had left the city for Bracciano, about an hour north of Rome, where the Nashville Dominicans have a retreat center.

“Our universities are closed, though some professors are doing online classes while others are merely assigning reading. Since we didn’t need to be in Rome to go to school, we accepted the invitation and came up to Bracciano with the Sisters,” Father Bolster said via email. “It’s good to be able to celebrate the sacraments for them, and the retreat center is pretty isolated.”

The Nashville priests arrived at the retreat center on March 10 and expected to be there for about six weeks.

“We left the day that Italy enacted serious travel restrictions basically telling people only to leave the house for groceries, to go to medical appointments, or work,” said Father Bolster. “I walked around a bit that day and Rome was like a ghost town.”

“Over the past couple of weeks, things have escalated rather quickly,” said Father Bolster.

Most of the Diocese of Nashville’s seminarians studying in the U.S. are remaining at their seminaries at this time, according to Father Gilstrap.

“The exception is (seminarians studying at) Holy Trinity in Dallas who are on ‘spring break’ right now and will remain in Nashville for a couple of weeks at least,” he said.

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.

Father Bolster, who was planning to finish his Licentiate of Sacred Theology in liturgical theology degree this spring, is now uncertain when he will be able to complete 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.”

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