“As disciples of Jesus Christ, hope is the light that guides our pilgrim journey,” Bishop Malooly wrote in his letter on the 2021 Annual Catholic Appeal. “Disciples of Christ, Witnesses of Hope” is the theme of the Appeal. This year’s fundraising goal is $4,871,000.
Witnessing Christian hope to others is a call that is paramount this year, when COVID has tested the ability of the Diocese of Wilmington to provide more than 30 ministries that help more than 100,000 people annually in Delaware and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
A look at challenges faced by just two Appeal-supported ministries, Catholic Education and Catholic Charities, reveals the pandemic failed to curtail the commitment of diocesan “disciples” to provide hope to school communities and to those in need.
During this school year, enrollment actually increased from 6,026 students on Sept. 1, 2020, to 6,064 pupils by March 1, 2021, said Lou De Angelo, diocesan superintendent of schools. He credited all who co-operated with school and diocesan plans to keep classrooms open safely, either with hybrid class schedules, remote learning or full enrollment precautions.
“It’s really the success of all the people working with the Catholic Schools Office to get us to this point,” said De Angelo. Under an overarching diocesan policy, “each pastor and principal tailored that plan to their own needs,” De Angelo said. There are guidelines for masking, social distancing, hand sanitizations and wellness checks. Some schools take temperatures of staff and students every day,” others have the parents check students for fevers. Also, De Angelo said, schools’ pastors spent a lot of parish money and government funding on Plexiglas dividers for classrooms and offices.
To be transparent during the pandemic, De Angelo has sent a letter every month to families and school personnel on COVID cases as they occurred. Anytime a student, teacher or staff member tests positive, a report must be sent to the Catholic Schools Office and school families are notified about each case.
In his March 1 letter this year, the superintendent noted there have been 365 student COVID cases since Sept. 1, 2020, and 75 school staff-member cases. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been no student, teacher or staff fatalities, De Angelo said.
Many school practices triggered by the pandemic are positive developments, he said. For instance, classroom technology exploded. Videoconferences hosted on Zoom have become normal classroom occasions. Teacher technology skills have increased as a result.
“We became experts in less than 12 months,” De Angelo said, noting teacher-parent conferences are more conveniently held online than by phone or visiting the school.
Each year, diocesan and parish high schools “get direct funding from the Annual Catholic Appeal,” said De Angelo. “Elementary schools are supported indirectly through the parish. Everybody benefits from the Appeal.
“Forming students, informing students and transforming students is our goal,” De Angelo said. Catholic education leads to the kinds of leaders we need in both the nation and the church, he added. “This year it looks different in how it’s delivered, but it’s the same education.”
‘Didn’t run away’
Catholic Charities, supported in part by the Appeal, provides a wide range of services — including food, shelter and counseling — to all in need regardless of race, religion, sex, age, disability or national origin. The COVID pandemic challenged every Catholic Charities’ social service program, but its essential missions have continued, said Fritz Jones, executive director.
“When COVID first hit, it was required to basically close down where we could,” but as a crucial service provider “we couldn’t close down everything,” he said. “We didn’t run away from COVID, we ran toward it; we knew what it was going to do to our clients.”
People provided emergency shelter at Catholic Charities’ Casa San Francisco in Milton, were among those impacted by the pandemic.
“We have eight staff there,” Jones said. “When six of our eight staff got COVID, we moved Casa’s tenants into a hotel and got food to them; not one of those clients got sick.” Two healthy staff members then cleaned and sanitized the Casa facility and volunteers have kept Casa’s emergency food pantry active in Sussex County.
Jones praised Catholic Charities staff members for “their hard work, their commitment and dedication” during the pandemic. Charities’ Basic Needs programs, such as rental, utility and mortgage assistance have grown exponentially in the past year, Jones said. “We’ve cross-trained case management staff so those in positions not as busy” can help in needed areas.
Jones said city, state and private donations to Charities have also grown as the COVID-era needs have increased in the community. “The money is going out to help people as soon as we get it.”
The staff of Catholic Charities Seton Center in Princess Ann, Md., has also done a “yeoman’s job,” Jones said. Its food program received a grant from Somerset County, Md., that will provide Seton with a fulltime food distribution specialist. “In the next 30 days we’ll be identifying six offsite distribution centers in Somerset County and taking emergency food on the road for distribution,” said Jones.
As more COVID shots are received and employers begin hiring again, Jones wants people to make sure “we don’t let our guard down.” People are returning to work, but their bills have piled up, he said. “The need and demand for Catholic Charities’ services is not going away any time soon,” Jones said, adding, support for the Annual Catholic Appeal will “help meet the ongoing needs of clients who come to us. “The demand is greater than ever and it will continue to be that way.”