Paul Miller
Paul Miller
During the pandemic, western Oregon Catholic parishes have adapted and transformed — perhaps never to return to the status quo.

St. Alice Parish in Springfield, for example, sent thrills through a dying industry by employing a journalist. At a time when the vital thing is reaching distant worshippers and the public at large, the new hire made sense, said Father Mark Bentz, pastor of St. Alice.

“To have effective communication with parishioners when they can’t come, we needed someone versed in digital communication,” said Father Bentz.

The new staffer — director of communication and digital evangelization — is Miguel Perez, who grew up at the parish and has a background in journalism, digital media and videography.

So far, Perez has worked with branding, unified messaging and upgrading video communication. He has interviewed parishioners on video, having them tell their faith stories. The mission is to get the Gospel message out at a time when relatively few people can come into the building.

The pandemic pushed St. Alice and other parishes to take steps they knew they should take anyway.

“Now that we know we can livestream and produce videos, we are not going to just go back,” said Father Bentz. “We want to improve.”

Perez brings another means of evangelization. As one of three young bilingual staffers who grew up at St. Alice, he and his coworkers are role models for today’s teens and children, said Father Bentz.

“It’s activating the next generation,” the priest said. “I am looking forward to it.”

St. Pius X in Northwest Portland, one of the busiest parishes in western Oregon, hired a new full-time IT worker more than a year ago. During the pandemic, his role has become more central. Last fall, to prepare the parish school for snow days, Paul Miller helped teachers learn how to teach remotely — well before the pandemic. He also was livestreaming liturgy before the world had heard of coronavirus. Since the outbreak, Miller’s been the go-to man, upgrading systems and training other staff in how to use them. He added a parish YouTube channel and Facebook Live capability.

Father Sean Weeks, pastor of St. Pius X, said his millennial-age staff have picked everything up almost instinctually.

The goal of the effort is to bring people closer to Jesus.

“I hope that we experience some kind of conversion,” said Father Weeks, who has embraced the relative quiet of the pandemic to boost his own prayer and reflection. “I hope we are appreciative of ministry and appreciate each other and appreciate the sacraments more. I hope we don’t go back to normal.”

One parish has found a way to keep musicians working even without church music. At St. John Fisher Church in Southwest Portland, the people who are signing parishioners in for Mass, taking temperatures and disinfecting the pews once played organ or led the psalm response.

“They are a familiar face to the people coming back to Mass,” said Elizabeth Millager, administrative secretary at St. John Fisher.

As for Millager’s duties: “My job now is COVID-19.” She takes Mass signups, prints out the rules, stands at the church door and answers questions. She and a coworker shoot video, having run through many experiments.

Millager knows other parish workers. They compare notes on details, like what kind of tape works best for cordoning off pews.

At some parishes, the new pandemic-era duties fell on a few staffers. In Central Point at Shepherd of the Valley, ministries coordinator Joyce Marks handled communications, closing the church, creating a new website, teaching catechism online, getting a Zoom account, reopening the church, signing in worshippers, obtaining an app for the parish, taking video of Mass and organizing federal coronavirus food aid distribution. She even drove around the area handing out food boxes herself.

When a parishioner is upset about something, Marks often gets the call.

“It was picking up many different hats at the same time,” said Marks, who suffered some exhaustion. The parish youth minister would have helped, but had a baby just as the pandemic was starting.

At St. Michael Parish in Sandy, pastoral associate Tammy Pagano reported that the staff of three worked hard to use Zoom, video tape Masses and enforce social distancing. An occasional call to the Archdiocese of Portland Pastoral Center yielded good results, Pagano said.

The pandemic often means parish staffers must keep their distance from one another. At Sacred Heart in Southeast Portland, four office workers have set up schedules so they don’t cross paths. Communication comes via text message and email.

Two parishioners have stepped forward to livestream liturgies and told Father Bob Barricks they will keep doing the work for the duration of the pandemic.

edl@catholicsentinel.org