Carmen, a 42-year-old Oregon Catholic, prays in her home this past winter. The mother lost her youngest daughter to cancer several years ago, and her older daughter contracted COVID-19 in the fall. Prayer helped her navigate both. (Courtesy photo)
Carmen, a 42-year-old Oregon Catholic, prays in her home this past winter. The mother lost her youngest daughter to cancer several years ago, and her older daughter contracted COVID-19 in the fall. Prayer helped her navigate both. (Courtesy photo)


Almost 3 million people have died of COVID-19 worldwide. More than a half million have perished in the United States. Oregon has lost almost 2,500 people to the disease.

Many more have survived the virus and have been changed, subtly or significantly. A year after COVID-19 altered everyone’s life, here is a look at how the disease affected three Catholic households.

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The Fikstad-Lee family had their run-in with COVID-19 a year ago at the pandemic’s beginning. It was nearly impossible to get a test in the United States at that time, and so David Fikstad, a stay-at-home parent since his retirement, is not completely certain that his wife, Rachel Lee, even had the disease.

But Fikstad, a member of St. Andrew Parish, is sure that Lee had the symptoms. “The fever, difficulty breathing,” he said.

Lee, a lawyer who attends Mass at St. Stephen Parish in Southeast Portland, was returning from Washington, D.C., where she’d been meeting with clients for work. She felt sick, checked her temperature and retreated to bed.

The rest of the family left food and drink by her door, and when Lee emerged to visit the bathroom, Fikstad or his older daughters disinfected with bleach afterward.

“As far as I know, we didn’t get it,” Fikstad said of himself and his daughters, then ages 11, 15, 18 and 21. A couple of the young women, however, did develop mild symptoms that might have been COVID-19.

All cases begin as mild cases, and the Centers for Disease Control says 80% remain mild. “Mild,” however, can be miserable. Symptoms can include fever, cough, sore throat, malaise, headache, muscle pain, congestion, a runny nose, loss of taste, loss of smell and diarrhea.

Whether the Fikstad-Lee family really had COVID-19 or not, Fikstad believes their situation is notable for its non-damaging results. Lee not only still has her job, she is able to mostly work from home.

That’s not the case for many Oregonians. Fikstad notes that immigrant groups from Mexico and Guatemala are particularly at risk. COVID-19-caused job losses mean that families are doubling up even with the eviction moratorium. He knows of at least two members of his parish’s Spanish-speaking community who have died.

Fikstad admits that the social isolation has had an impact on his family, as it has on everyone.

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Father Mark Bachmeier survived COVID-19 while also being treated for colon cancer. Father Bachmeier, hardworking pastor of Holy Cross Parish in North Portland, had minor coronavirus symptoms but plowed through headaches and serious fatigue during the double trouble. Cancer treatment left him with blistered hands and feet and loss of feeling in his extremities.

Spiritually and emotionally, the priest felt two things.

First was anxious guilt at not being able to open the parish for larger congregations as soon as he’d wished. But his doctors and Archbishop Alexander Sample urged him to go slow so he could protect his compromised immune system, heal and serve his people in the long term. Holy Cross livestreamed Masses, kept congregations small and put off weddings, first Communions and quinceañeras.

“People understood, but our hearts were breaking,” Father Bachmeier said.

Second, he dwells more in the present moment and worries less about the past and the future. “That has actually been freeing,” he said.

His mandatory COVID-19 quarantine, on top of the usual pandemic isolation, has borne spiritual fruit. As it is for monks, he said, quiet and solitude is not all lightness and joy, but is an encounter with life and death from which there is no diversion or escape.

“You withdraw from the world but become so much more in touch with the world,” he said. “You face the raw reality. In that, you try to let the Lord speak.”

Father Bachmeier finished a second round of chemotherapy in mid-January. He explained that his experience will help him as he ministers to the sick in the future.

Holy Cross staff and parishioners have been understanding and supportive, the priest said. They organized outdoor adoration, email blasts, and other projects to keep the community praying and communing.

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Carmen is an Oregon Catholic whose daughter contracted the virus last fall. The 42-year-old, a native of Mexico, asked the Sentinel to withhold her real name, as her daughter does not feel comfortable disclosing her sickness publicly.

The family knows well the devastation an illness can bring. Carmen and her husband’s younger daughter died from cancer at age 11. The response to that grief and then to the knowledge her 20-year-old daughter had contracted COVID-19 was similar. “I was not scared,” Carmen said. “I tried to pray and to allow God to take control because there’s only so much we can do.”

Her daughter had a number of uncomfortable symptoms, such as congestion and a loss of taste and smell. But she did not develop a severe case of the coronavirus. “We were so thankful,” said Carmen, who regularly tended to her ill daughter while wearing two masks and bathing after any contact. The mother brewed teas and mixed herbal remedies she’d learned from family in Mexico. Foremost, she prayed.

Early in the pandemic, before her daughter became ill, she started a daily faith-sharing group with friends and family. Members connect via a video application on their phones and then read Scripture, discuss the day’s passages and pray.

“People have said the praying really changed them,” she said. “They said it took away some of the stress and anxiety of the coronavirus.”

Carmen’s daughter has fully recovered, but the group continues. “I think the pandemic has been hard on some people’s faith, but I think it’s also brought many families together in prayer,” she said.

— Kristen Hannum, Ed Langlois, Katie Scott