Fr. Yamid Blanco was surprised by parish staff who placed photos of parishioners in the pews, so he could see who he was ministering to. (Submitted photo)

In this era of the Domestic Church, when public Masses have had to be suspended and the faithful cannot physically gather as the Body of Christ, pastors are challenged to minister in unique ways.

For many, it’s been a time of technological innovation and forward-thinking; for others, it’s a moment that requires returning to the basics. But for each parish, the goal is the same: reach the people where they are, make them feel loved and let them know they are missed.

That’s the biggest message Fr. Yamid Blanco wants to send to his parishioners at St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Mount Pleasant and St. Louis Parish in Caledonia. To do that, he is utilizing a combination of social media and personal engagement.

“I think God uses different ways to unite us in prayer and hope and faith. In this pandemic moment, the buildings are closed, but we are opening these domestic churches,” he said.

To minister to these domestic churches, Fr. Blanco said he finds himself busier than ever, putting together daily reflections that are sent out via FlockNote, sending out hand-signed cards to all parishioners, saying Mass that is streamed daily on Facebook and even keeping parishioners updated about how he spends his downtime. “I don’t want them to feel that their shepherd, their pastor, is away,” he said.

The parish of Holy Trinity in Newburg has taken a different tack than St. Paul and St. Louis. The community there, said Dcn. Mike Koebel, is a little less than 600 parishioners, most of whom are senior citizens living in rural or agricultural settings, with deep and long-lasting family ties to the parish. For this particular demographic, old-fashioned snail mail has proven to be just the ticket for engaging the parishioners during this time.

“We don’t want to intimidate anybody,” said Dcn. Koebel. “We want them to know that we care, that we love them.”

At the outset of the pandemic, Holy Trinity staff got to work updating their contact information database and immediately sent out a detailed letter to all parishioners outlining their plan for the upcoming weeks.

Parish trustee Tammy Weber said the direct mail approach is, in a way, a sign of respect. Many of the parishioners might not feel they have the resources and ability to search out this information on their own. “They feel appreciative that you took the time to reach out and write to them,” she said.

Response to the direct letters was overwhelmingly positive, Weber added. The parish’s plea for financial support was met with a flood of donations, many from individuals who have not attended church there for quite some time.

Honoring parishioners’ emotional ties to their physical church building has also been an important pastoral initiative for all three parishes. “People feel connected with their church — they like to see their building,” said Fr. Blanco. “I want that connection to be kept.” To that end, he presides over two live-streamed Masses each Sunday, one from St. Paul and one from St. Louis.

And because they knew that Fr. Blanco was missing having his parishioners in the congregation, St. Louis finance council chairperson Steve Goodrich, trustee/treasurer David Mudry and director of the parish office Deanne Auber coordinated a surprise for him — posting photos from parish families in the church pews so Fr. Blanco can see their faces as he celebrates Mass.

“It was really a touching moment,” he said. The first pew in the church is adorned with photos of Fr. Blanco’s family, who often watch his live-streamed Masses from their home in Colombia.

Keeping their church in the heart of the town of Newburg physically open for prayer has been a spiritual boon to the parishioners of Holy Trinity, said Dcn. Koebel. Extra votive candles have had to be ordered to accommodate the demand for them.

“I think people are searching for more of God’s presence today in their daily lives amongst all the chaos,” he said. “You listen to the news, it’s changing day by day. But God’s always the same.”

Ultimately, Fr. Blanco said he feels that this pandemic is an opportunity to show his parishioners the depth of his devotion to them, and to his role as their pastor.

“It’s very similar to how we approach a parishioner who has lost someone; we sit down and we listen to them, they cry and we give comfort to them. When Father is present to that family, they will never forget that, and they are willing to come back. It’s the same now,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity for us priests to communicate to people that we are shepherds, we are here to care for you, you are important.”