For Christians, Palm Sunday, observed April 5 this year, began the most important week in the liturgical calendar, but as the spread of COVID-19 continues, most churches remain shuttered.
It’s a difficult time for Christians, who’ve spent 40 days preparing to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the centerpiece of their faith.
Heather Olson, a member of Hauge Lutheran Church in Kenyon, is sharing links sent by her pastor, the Rev. Gideon Johnson, while connecting online with the churches of her friends — from California to Czechoslovakia.
“Without my faith, I know that I would be very self-involved and discouraged during this time,” said Olson, a counselor at a Plymouth-based Bible college.
Although she admits feeling isolated at times, Olson said her faith allows her to look beyond herself, to Jesus Christ and how he is working during this time. She believes the pandemic is a good time for the church to reach out to people to show them how God has spoken to them.
“Without that, I would be very discouraged, very feeling alone and in this isolation and not probably willing to reach out to other people doing the same thing,” Olson said.
One of her favorite biblical passages is in Corinthians, in which God is described as saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly in my weakness, so that the power of Christ may rest in me.”
A unique approach
For the first time in his 46 years of ministry, the Rev. Denny Labat of the Church of St. Peter in St. Peter observed Mass privately due to the pandemic. The Diocese of New Ulm recently stipulated there would be no public masses through at least April 13.
This week, Diocese of New Ulm Bishop John M. LeVoir will post a video of him privately celebrating the Mass on the diocese website. The diocese will also post videos of services on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. The bishops of the dioceses of Minneapolis-St. Paul and Winona Rochester have also granted a parishioners a dispensation from their obligation to attend Mass.
To Labat, the church must focus on older parishioners who could already be facing isolation and others who might question God during this difficult time. He said people need to be reassured that they are still spiritually connected and pray for each other, doing what they can by making a phone call, or establishing contact in other ways. Church staff have been using the Zoom app mid-day to pray together.
“In spite of the stay-at-home order of the governor and just our needing to abide by that, we still need to maintain contact with family and friends and our faith community,” Labat said. “And we are encouraging our parishioners to make a point of going out of our way to call people, just to touch base with them.”
Despite the hectic current state of affairs, Labat believes there will be better days.
“We will be stronger, and I think as much as you don’t want to go through difficult times or struggles, it does strengthen a person, it does strengthen a community,” he said.
‘We’re living, breathing, we’re working together’
Like so many of faith leaders, Episcopal priest, the Rev. Henry Doyle, is leading services without a congregation; believers view the Mass on Facebook or listen to recorded sermons. Services, now shortened, include a liturgy of the word but not the Eucharist. As many as 200 people stream church services online, and Doyle shares the Mass with his thousands of Facebook friends, who sometimes leave comments thanking him for doing so.
The Chapel of the Good Shepherd on the campus of Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault, where Doyle works in alumni relations and outreach, will remain closed for Easter services. He also serves as a father at Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour in Faribault.
But that hasn’t discouraged Doyle, who shared a message he recently received explaining that in-person church services are only a small portion of the work of the church.
“The church has always been the people who gather together to do the work of compassion and mercy and love and justice, regardless of where they gather,” he said. “They are living, breathing, animated sanctuaries who house divinity. In these terrifying, draining, disorienting moments, the church is doing what it was always supposed to do.”
To Doyle, examples of the church’s message can be seen in exhausted health care workers on the front lines, courageous first responders caring for others on a daily basis, grocery store employees constantly working to fill ever-emptied shelves, and the efforts of parents, teachers, and nonprofit and charity workers.
“We’re living, breathing, we’re working together,” he said. “The church is being the church outside of that physical space where we come to worship together.”
‘The Lord will bring us through this time’
Johnson, Hauge Lutheran pastor, says he’s received notes thanking him for sharing hope-filled messages. He is planning for congregants to send in Easter greetings stating, “He is risen,” so parishioners tuning in to his online service Easter Sunday can see the messages of hope.
“The Lord will bring us through this time,” he said.
Johnson cannot track the number of people who watch online, but he is aware of the number of views the videos receive. There were approximately 80 views on March 22. That number swelled to around 175 March 29, a larger audience than he typically has for in-person services. The number of views, he believes, shows people are hungry to share a Christian message with others.
“To me, it’s very encouraging to know that the church has a passion for sharing those things,” he said.
To Johnson, Kenyon’s faith community is similar to those around the world in that there is a sense of devotion amongst church-goers. He said although he hasn’t seen a lot of people in-person due to social distancing measures, he’s noticing a stronger pull to churches during the pandemic.
Parishioners raise more than $28,000 for those in need
Parishioners at The Church of St. Dominic in Northfield have raised more than $28,000 to loan those needing help paying for housing or other necessities during the pandemic. Donors are aware there is no guarantee they’ll get their money back. Borrowers do so with no expectation of repayment.
“If they can, fine,” said the church’s parochial administrator, the Rev. Bob Hart. “If they cannot, we understand.”
The church livestreams daily Mass at 10 a.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and continues recording Saturday evening services. Hart added he has heard a lot of appreciative comments from community members regarding their online services.
To Hart, having faith in Christ is essential in these times.
“It’s kind of what’s going to keep them all sane,” he said. “It would be easy to step away from what’s important, because there’s so many distractions. That’s the one thing that people can be assured of.”
Hart shares that faith deeply.
“As people of faith and a community and country, we’re going to come out stronger,” he said. “We just don’t know what’s going to come out on the other side.”
You could be forgiven if you had forgotten that the city of St. Peter was in the process, in early 2020, of securing approval from the Minnesota Legislature for a local option sales tax to pay for a new fire station in town. But while an ongoing pandemic has thrown a wrench in just about everything, the city is still conducting its business and taking next steps on the project.
According to St. Peter City Administrator Todd Prafke, there is no certainty that the local options sales tax is even going to have the opportunity for passage in the Legislature this year, but the city can move forward regardless. Even if the sales tax doesn’t get approval in the regular spring legislative session, it could potentially still get it in a special legislative session, if that comes to pass. Otherwise, it may need to wait until 2021.
Approval from the community, via a referendum, is also required to pass the sales tax. So it’s possible that final approval, if secured, may not come until the end of 2021.
However, Prafke noted that the City Council has been clear from the start that a new fire station is needed in town, and the only question is whether a sales tax will be utilized to help pay for it or if property taxes will pay the entire cost. The point of the sales tax is to create a revenue stream for the fire hall that consumers in St. Peter, both residents and visitors of the community, contribute to.
Prafke noted that the project construction and debt may not start until 2022, so the city has some time to secure the sales tax before the project impacts taxpayers.
As part of the March 30 St. Peter City Council meeting, architect Michael Clark, of Five Bugles Design, provided an early stage schematic design of the new fire station for the council. The station, which would sit at the corner of Broadway Avenue and Sunrise Drive, facing Sunrise, would include an open space kitchen and training area, an administrative office area, vehicle bays (enough for 12 full size trucks) with six garage doors on the front and back sides, support spaces for operations like decontamination, and storage spaces.
Clark said the fire station driveway would come off Sunrise, because Broadway is a county highway and there are complications/restrictions related to access from that road. He noted that the response time for the Fire Department is equal with the access coming from either roadway.
City staff believes the intersection at Broadway and Sunrise may continue to see increased traffic, and Prafke said it’s likely to see a study in the next year or so. At some point, the intersection may be a candidate for a roundabout, and Clark said the fire station design is planned accordingly, with the building set back far enough from both roads to not impact any changes there.
The front of the building will have bi-fold garage doors, which open faster and are easier to see for truck drivers. They’re more expensive, though, so the design team is planning overhead doors in the back, unless the bi-fold doors can be afforded there, too. One of the garage bays (space for two full size trucks) is considered needed but will be the first thing to go, if the project estimate comes in too high.
The outside of the facility will display brick and stone to match some of the other new municipal buildings in St. Peter, like the Community Center and the Water Treatment Center. The space for the trucks and equipment would be composed of mostly pre-case panels, more functional for that area’s purposes.
“We’re trying to find the right balance of cost and look,” Clark said.
The city is expecting the total cost of the project for building a new fire hall to come in just over $9 million with construction beginning spring 2021 if all goes to plan.
A city has the ability to issue bond debt, which is paid for through property taxes, on a capital project without asking residents for permission through a vote. A local option sales tax, though, can be used in capital projects when a city wants to shift the burden away from just property taxes. As an example, the city of Mankato has had a half-percent sales tax in place for many years to help pay for its Civic Center.
Local options sales taxes are often used for recreational-based projects, like civic centers, parks, etc., but St. Peter City Administrator Todd Prafke believes it is well suited for the fire hall project, even if that is more of a need than a want in the community.
Gustavus Adolphus College, as an educational institution, does not pay property taxes. Same goes for the Regional Treatment Center, as that is a state entity. A sales tax, though, applies to everyone spending money within city limits, meaning not only residents contribute, but likewise in-town workers and visitors.
For a sales tax to be put in place, the city must first get approval from the Legislature. If that is given, the city must hold a referendum on whether to implement the tax. If the referendum passes, the tax goes in effect, and it will remain in effect until the capital project is paid for.
The city is looking at payment over 40 years, using federal dollars, rather than a traditional bonding format, because it allows for the longer payment term. If the city gets the federal loan and can spread the debt over 40 years, then Administrator Prafke believes a half-percent sales tax would pay for a majority of the cost, though some property tax contributions would still be needed.
St. Peter Finance Director Sally Vogel said, at the March 30 council meeting, the application process for the federal loan is “going slower” than she was hoping, but it’s moving along, and the city may know by June 30 whether the dollars are secured. She also noted that interest rates are low and may be even lower soon.
Officials from the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed that Nicollet County now has a confirmed COVID-19 case transmitted through community spread.
The case was initially reported on Saturday, April 4, but details about the case were provided to Nicollet County Health and Human Services April 6. Community transmission means the individual did not have relevant travel history or exposure to another known patient with COVID-19. Not all suspected cases of COVID-19 are tested, so the official case, four as of the April 8 report, is not representative of the total number of people in Nicollet County who have or had COVID-19.
In a release Monday, Public Health said, “As COVID-19 continues to spread in Minnesota, we must all do what we can to keep each other safe. Steps that everyone can take to slow the spread of the virus include:
• Limit your movement in the community beyond essential needs.
• Wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies). These help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.
• Cover your coughs and sneezes with your elbow or sleeve, or a tissue and then throw the tissue in the trash and wash your hands afterwards.
• Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom or before eating. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
• Avoid touching your face – especially your eyes, nose and mouth – with unwashed hands.
• Stay home if you have cold- or flu-like symptoms for seven days after your illness onset or three days after your fever resolves without fever-reducing medicine and avoid close contact with people who are sick.”
A stay-at-home order from Gov. Tim Walz, which originally ran through April 10, was expected to be extended through the rest of April. For the latest, go to www.stpeterherald.com.