May 1, 2020

Local priests care for the dying during coronavirus pandemic

Father Sengole Thomas Gnanaraj, administrator of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Richmond, stands outside Reid Health, a hospital in the eastern Indiana city. He is among a select group of priests in the archdiocese who are ministering to the dying during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Father Sengole Thomas Gnanaraj, administrator of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Richmond, stands outside Reid Health, a hospital in the eastern Indiana city. He is among a select group of priests in the archdiocese who are ministering to the dying during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

RICHMOND—Robert Muldoon was close to death, infected with the coronavirus, as he waited for a visit from Dominican Father Patrick Hyde.

When the priest greeted him as he came into his room at a nursing home in Bloomington, Muldoon was overjoyed.

“Father, I’m so glad you’re here,” he said. “Now I can go in peace.”

Father Patrick, administrator of the St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington, recounted the graced encounter on Twitter without identifying Muldoon at the time.

“This is the power of the sacraments and why I’m a priest,” he wrote.

For more than a month, churches have been empty. No baptisms. No weddings. No confessions heard. Priests celebrate Masses alone, livestreaming them on the Internet.

But they still go out to people who are dying to celebrate the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, even those who are suffering from the virus.

A select group of priests across central and southern Indiana have committed themselves to this ministry to people who are quarantined from the rest of society. (Related article: Select priests ministering to the dying in pandemic use protective equipment)

This dedication in a time of social distancing and rigid quarantining of the infected is a solace for Catholics like Muldoon who yearn for the sacraments, and for members of their families.

“It’s very comforting to know that somebody will be there for him,” said Paul Muldoon, one of Robert’s sons. “That’s a wonderful thing.”

“It was beautiful just to be able to be there,” said Father Patrick. “As we Catholics believe, the priest acts in the person of Christ when he acts sacramentally. So, being able to bring and to be Jesus for him in that moment was a powerful experience.”

‘The priest is not his own’

Being asked to be a priest for the Connersville Deanery to minister to the dying led Father Sengole Thomas Gnanaraj to prayer.

“I was praying for the ministry and preparing myself mentally so that, if someone called me, I would go,” said Father Gnanaraj, administrator of

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Richmond. “I really care for people, particularly for people who are in danger of death and have a last recourse to the sacraments.”

In mid-April, that call came. Three people from the same family living in a home in Connersville were sick. Two had tested positive for the virus. A third was presumed to be infected. One was believed to be close to death.

Father Gnanaraj drove to their home in the southeastern Indiana town, put on a protective suit that covered him from head to foot and went in to anoint the three.

“It was a feeling that I’ve never had before,” he said of the experience. “I couldn’t describe what I felt. I was not scared.”

It was a moving moment for the people.

“They thanked me profusely,” Father Gnanaraj said. “Deep within myself, I was very happy to be able to do this ministry, giving God’s mercy and sacraments when people are in dire need of it. We do what we can and God takes care of the rest. We are his instruments and his ministers, always serving the Lord. It’s not our ministry. It’s his ministry.”

He has also anointed patients close to death infected with the virus who were being treated at Reid Health in Richmond.

Father Patrick said being asked to minister to the dying during the pandemic emphasizes the commitment that priests make at their ordination.

“Just like [Archbishop] Fulton Sheen said, the priest is not his own,” Father Patrick said. “It’s a commitment to be faithful to what the good Lord is asking of us in whatever situation in which we find ourselves.”

He admitted that the prospect of ministering to people with the coronavirus gives him pause.

“It’s scary,” he said. “You just don’t know. At the same time, I became a priest not so that I could go to heaven, although I hope and pray that I go to heaven, but because I felt called to lead other people to heaven. And that’s part of what the anointing of the sick is … . It’s about giving people peace of mind and soul and preparing them to see God face to face.”

‘The Church reaches out to them’

Father Sean Danda has done this a number of times since the start of the pandemic as a priest designated to minister to the dying in the Indianapolis West Deanery. He serves as pastor of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg.

While on a retreat in Belgium before his ordination in 2009, he prayed at the tomb of

St. Damien of Molokai, a Belgian missionary priest who ministered in a leper colony in the 19th century on the Hawaiian island. Because of the contagiousness of leprosy (now known as Hansen’s disease) and social stigmas connected to it, St. Damien could not leave the colony once he went there.

St. Damien has come to Father Danda’s mind during the pandemic.

“I’m called right now in my priesthood to go amongst those who are considered untouchable and to touch them,” he reflected, “to minister to them, to put my life in harm’s way to bring the healing hand of God to many people who are desirous to meet the Lord and his love.

“Damien of Molokai said, ‘I am going to go into the heart of what the world fears, and I am going to bring the presence of God there.’ I feel very much that the priests who are responding to this call now are doing this, too.”

Father Gnanaraj said his ministry to people infected with the coronavirus is a way the Church reaches out to people on the margins of society, which Pope Francis has emphasized during his papacy.

“Who is on the periphery now? I would say it’s those people who are affected by this illness,” Father Gnanaraj said. “They are on the periphery. They’re quarantined. No one can go near them. The Church reaches out to them through the priests and the sacraments.”

This even applies to those dying of other conditions during this time of quarantine and social distancing.

Father Danda recently anointed Bill Snoddy, a dying parishioner who had been isolated from all visitors in a nursing home until he entered hospice care and was allowed to live out his final days in the home of his daughter, Stacey Snoddy.

“It meant a lot to me,” said Stacey tearfully. “I know my dad would have wanted this. I was very surprised that [Father Danda] came out in person. But it meant so much that he did. He really showed no fear or hesitation.”

Stacey said her father, who was in and out of consciousness at the time of the anointing, seemed to appreciate it as well.

“I could see him relax,” Stacey said. “After that, he was very calm and at peace until he passed. The formality of it a little bit gave me some calm, too.”

Father Danda, like the other priests across central and southern Indiana who are ministering to the dying during the pandemic, finds happiness instead of fear when reaching out to them.

“Providing the grace of the sacraments and bringing God’s presence to them is an honor and a joy for the people who are dying or close to death,” he said. “It also eases the minds and hearts of their loved ones.” †

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