Holy Cross parishioners Beth Kabele and Jenny Ridenour pose with Rose Mebesius, now 102, during a pre-pandemic lunch at Cracker Barrel. Through a Holy Cross-based effort, nearly 250 people — mostly seniors but people of all ages, Catholic and non-Catholic — received vaccines. Kabele helped Mebesius, who is Jewish, secure the shots. (Courtesy Beth Kabele)
Holy Cross parishioners Beth Kabele and Jenny Ridenour pose with Rose Mebesius, now 102, during a pre-pandemic lunch at Cracker Barrel. Through a Holy Cross-based effort, nearly 250 people — mostly seniors but people of all ages, Catholic and non-Catholic — received vaccines. Kabele helped Mebesius, who is Jewish, secure the shots. (Courtesy Beth Kabele)

Luise Ritter has a prayer she says before using her 40-year-old air conditioner: “Please, dear Lord, turn it on.”

When the year’s second heat wave hit the Pacific Northwest, Ritter made her summertime supplication and also received a call. Jana Ripley, a fellow member of Holy Cross Parish in North Portland, was checking in to see if she was OK.

“Jana introduced me to Gatorade; I never knew there was such an amazing thing,” said the 96-year-old, laughing.

In June, nearly 100 people, most over age 65, died when temperatures reached a record-breaking 116 degrees. To prevent further tragedy during the August scorcher, a Holy Cross ministry rapidly mobilized. With a flurry of texts, calls, emails and home visits, parishioners made sure Ritter and all other elderly members had sufficient AC, fans and cool beverages.

“Some of our seniors are, bless them, old school and will say, ‘Oh, I’ll just go down to the basement and sit in a chair down by the laundry and be fine,’” Ripley said.

The summer outreach effort is just the latest initiative of the parish’s pandemic-era senior buddies ministry.

“It’s certainly grown and blossomed over the past year,” said Ripley, who at 74 has the spunk of a 20-something.

Early in the pandemic Ripley was concerned about parishioners, especially seniors, feeling isolated. So she began a parish email list — packed with jokes, fun facts, spiritual inspiration and stories about fellow members.

“They are newsy and lively and sometimes hysterical,” said Holy Cross parishioner Beth Kabele. “And when you read these amazing stories of people in the parish, you get to love them more because you know them better.”

Ripley also started the senior buddies ministry, encouraging parishioners to adopt elderly members and “let them know they are not forgotten, they are part of the community.”

Individuals, families and young children have made cards and written letters j seniors. They’ve called, texted and prayed with them. Some have dopped off groceries. Ripley’s husband, Vince, delivers bags of Fred Meyer groceries to Ritter each week.

“I believe parishioners here realized we were all facing a common problem — the pandemic — and came together even more, looking toward the vulnerable,” said Father Mark Bachmeier, pastor of Holy Cross. “It’s not just words and pious platitudes, they really do take care of each other.”

Ripley points out that Holy Cross is a small, primarily blue-collar parish. “We are regular folks, no one is uppity,” she said.

An emigrant from Germany, Ritter has no family in Portland since her husband died 24 years ago. Without the parish and its senior buddies ministry, “I don’t think I could make it,” she said. “My church is my family.

“You know those days when you feel blue and all by yourself? Well, I just call Jana and she straightens me out.”

Mark Gast, 61, adopted two parishioners through the ministry.

“I think regardless of the pandemic, the church is the body of Christ and we need to be there for one another,” he said. 

Vince Ripley, a member of Holy Cross Parish in North Portland, unloads groceries for a 96-year-old parishioner. (Bob Kerns/Catholic Sentinel)

When vaccines became available in Oregon, the ministry quickly focused on helping seniors obtain shots.

Many older individuals don’t have computers “and several I talked to burst into tears they were so overwhelmed by the crazy vaccination website,” said Ripley.

Kabele had mastered the sign-up process after helping her 101-year-old neighbor get vaccinated. So she shared what she’d learned with Ripley, who passed along what she’d figure out. “We were on the phone daily swapping notes,” said Kabele. The two used the pictorial parish directory to call everyone who looked around 70 and older and offer to help with appointments.

Ripley, typically up before dawn, mastered the Walgreens and Safeway pharmacy websites that opened at 4:15 a.m. Kabele became the expert at securing shots at the Oregon Convention Center and Portland airport.

If a location had an opening, the women would call each other in the wee hours, log in to their computers and set to work filling spots.

“We’d be whispering over the phone to not wake our husbands,” recalled Ripley with a chuckle.

The duo, aided by other parishioners, worked for several months to book vaccination appointments — obtaining vaccines for nearly 250 individuals.

“It started off as parishioners, but people were so desperate to be vaccinated it rippled out to their kids, grandkids, neighbors, Catholics and non-Catholics, and even total strangers who called us,” said Ripley. “When it all ended, I almost thought, ‘Gosh, what am I going to do now at 4:15 a.m.?’”

Ritter recalls how Ripley made her an appointment, drove her to the airport and waited with her for four hours before she got her jab. “There was not a peep of complaint from Jana, she was so cheerful,” said Ritter.

Ripley is quick to deflect attention from herself. “We as Catholics were taught to be the hands and feet of Jesus, and I am one of many,” she said. “Everyone has talents, has things they can do. I’m not one to weed the parish garden or sort and pass out food at the food pantry. I’m not a reader or altar server. But I can do the emails and help seniors because I’m a fast typist and have the gift of gab.”

Given how relatively easy it is to get a vaccination appointment in Oregon now, the hustle and bustle of those first few months seems less necessary in some ways, said Kabele. But at the same time, a vulnerable population was protected and “I think the effort took a lot of anxiety off people’s shoulders,” she said.

Kabele feels God gave her a window of time to do something helpful. “He plopped this into my life, and it’s a thrill to work with the Lord, a thrill to walk into something that the Lord needs done,” she said.

The senior buddies ministry is not a one-way act of charity, added Kabele. “The elderly give us many gifts, including putting life in perspective,” she said. “I’ve met so many who are strong and courageous and know how to press on. I love hearing their life stories. They help you see that sometimes you have a hard time, but that time heals.”

She recalled how one parishioner lost a young child. “She’ll share about her loss and her voice cracks, but she’s reassured that her son is with the Lord.”

This ministry, she said, “is one opportunity to show respect to our elders for their wisdom and for their many years of faithfulness.”