Ministry Adapts to COVID-19 with Operation Smile and Birthday Splash

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COVID-19 has been a challenging time for so many people mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Among the most vulnerable are seniors and those living in nursing homes and Assisted Living Facilities. Despite the challenges, St. Raphael Catholic Church has adapted during the pandemic to continue its long-time ministry to nursing home residents and seniors over the age of 90.

“A virus can’t stop God’s love,” said Louise Barrett, Nursing Home Ministry Leader of St. Raphael Parish since 1999. “We had to find a new way to share God’s love to those on the other side of the wall.”

Once the coronavirus hit the United States, nursing homes shut their doors to visitors as it became a danger to the residents’ health and well-being. This is when Barrett and her team began Operation Prayer Pal to serve the Nursing Home residents they could no longer visit.

“A volunteer was matched with a resident and the volunteer wrote the resident a weekly letter, sent a card, or something that could be received in the mail,” Barrett said.

Besides Operation Prayer Pal, Barrett said the ministry began to write to their residents not just by mail, but also by dropping off a page of jokes and a note as an insert in the weekly bulletin which was hand- delivered each Monday to the nursing home.

“We come to the door every week with this packet. We let the staff and residents know we will be reunited in person with them again and that they are not forgotten by their parish,” she said.

With the pandemic continuing longer than expected, Barrett said she became worried when the St Raphael Council of Catholic Women (CCW) could not have their annual Christmas Breakfast to collect Christmas gifts for the nursing home residents. 

Louise Barrett collects gifts for seniors.

“So this past Christmas, we asked those who could shop, to bring a gift to our CCW monthly Mass, and for those who could not get out to shop, to donate money which we could give to the Activity Director in the nursing home to buy gifts for the residents as needed,” she said. “We actually collected more gifts and collected a huge amount of money which enabled the Activity Director to buy many, many, many gifts this past Christmas.”

The ministry called this effort, Operation Smile, according to Barrett.

Ministry members also visit the homes of parishioners who are 90 years and older on their birthday. They previously invited them to the parish for a luncheon, but that was deemed unsafe during COVID.

“We started making individual outdoor home visitations on the birthdays of our beloved 90+ parishioners.” she said. “On a visit, we sing them happy birthday and are dressed in colorful clothes and fun hats.  We have happy birthday signs, tambourines and a bubble machine. We give them a gift bag. We try to keep it very short and very sweet.”

Barrett said parishioners are calling this the Birthday Splash.

“It has taken off and it has become a fun way of ministering,” Barrett said. “Our parishioners in their 90s and their families are really excited about these visits. It’s a boost to know they are supported and remembered by their church family.”

Barrett said she is honored to be a part of the nursing home and 90s ministry while witnessing the extensive love that comes from her parish.

“It is really tender to see a whole parish doing what they can to meet the needs of people in a nursing home and those who can’t leave their home at this time,” she said.

Article by Lauren Pieper