Betty and Leon Stupfel listen to the Gospel reading at Shepherd of the Valley during a recent Mass. “When I’m there in the pews looking around and seeing it fuller than it has been, it just warms your heart and makes you feel like, OK, things are getting back to normal,” said Leon. (Marc Salvatore/Catholic Sentinel)
Betty and Leon Stupfel listen to the Gospel reading at Shepherd of the Valley during a recent Mass. “When I’m there in the pews looking around and seeing it fuller than it has been, it just warms your heart and makes you feel like, OK, things are getting back to normal,” said Leon. (Marc Salvatore/Catholic Sentinel)

CENTRAL POINT — It was the first day fires ripped through southwestern Oregon last summer, and the sky over Shepherd of the Valley Church was eerily dark with smoke.

“It was so bad, so scary,” recalled Joyce Marks, who coordinates volunteers and ministries at the parish.

Volunteers had planned to distribute food boxes to needy families that afternoon through a pandemic-era program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“But the roads were closing down left and right, and the food truck barely got to us,” Marks said. Few people showed up to receive the boxes because of the blazes, and the produce and dairy products soon would spoil.

So, the Knights of Columbus stepped in. They mapped out side streets that hadn’t been blocked off, then drove the boxes along smoke cloaked roads and distributed them to immigrant farming families.

Before the Knights headed out, volunteers gathered in a circle and prayed. “God got them there and back safely,” said Marks.

That day’s response — with parishioners tending to people’s needs with adaptability, compassion, grit and faith — is emblematic of Shepherd of the Valley’s approach throughout the pandemic.

“I’ve seen authentic spiritual beauty that was so brave and selfless that it brings me to tears to think of it,” Marks said.

Fr. Fredy Bonilla Moreno preaches during Mass July 3. (Marc Salvatore/Catholic Sentinel) 

Listening and adapting

Finding new ways to connect, embracing flexibility and making changes according to needs — “that all has been huge this past year,” said Father Fredy Bonilla Moreno, pastor of Shepherd of the Valley.

The parish already had a Facebook page when the pandemic arrived, “and by God’s providence, I’d just started experimenting with Facebook Live,” said Father Stephen Kenyon, the parish’s former parochial vicar who recently was reassigned to St. Anne in Grants Pass.

Those first days of livestreaming Masses included trial and error. One day the image was tilted throughout the recording. “People had to watch Mass sideways,” said Father Kenyon with a sigh.

As soon as regulations allowed, the parish added weekly Mass times, giving parishioners the opportunity to receive the Eucharist while remaining socially distant. Father Bonilla Moreno moved daily Mass from noon to 6 p.m. so working parishioners could attend more easily.

The sacrament of reconciliation was held outdoors, and “every Saturday folks came by in a line of cars, got out and walked over to give their confession at an outside booth,” said Father Kenyon. “It worked well.”

Father Bonilla Moreno said he tried to cancel as few parish activities as possible, and religious education continued throughout the pandemic without interruption.

In the fall, the parish began a hybrid religious ed program. Parents taught two lessons to their children each month, while the remaining classes were in person — masked and socially distanced.

“It was the best decision we could have made,” said Marks. “The parents and children were so appreciative of the support, of being in community, of being in class.”

During adult catechism classes, leaders gave participants time to share how the pandemic was affecting them and to discuss everyday challenges. “We talked about cultural issues, family issues, messy issues, and not-so-popular and touchy issues — all from a Catholic perspective,” Marks said. “They are starving for it.” The plan is to continue these frank conversations this coming fall.

To further connect with parishioners, Father Bonilla Moreno sent out several letters to parish families, and every Sunday he and Father Kenyon would answer people’s questions online about the latest safety regulations and explain how the parish planned to respond.

Of course part of adapting to the coronavirus was working with ever-changing health protocols. Because Shepherd of the Valley vigilantly followed the regulations, many parishioners, even those with vulnerabilities, felt comfortable attending Mass much of the year.

Francisco Montes de Oca, his wife, Beatrice, and their six children are one such family. Beatrice had been diagnosed with cancer and underwent three surgeries and chemotherapy amid the pandemic. The couple also welcomed their youngest child, now 10 months old, who has Down syndrome and is thus more susceptible to virus-related complications. “It was quite difficult not knowing how the virus would affect us,” said Montes de Oca, 43.

Yet even with their health-related fears, “we didn’t hesitate to go to Mass,” he said. “The parish took safety measures seriously so it felt very safe.”

Beatrice’s cancer is now in remission and the baby is doing well.

Compassion in action

Throughout the past year, Shepherd of the Valley remained attuned to the most vulnerable and isolated — both inside and outside the parish.

Marks developed a telephone team to contact parishioners 70 and older, those with a chronic illness and caregivers. “We were letting them know they were not forgotten,” said Marks, adding that many of the calls forged new friendships.

Parishioners reached out to their neighbors to check in and offer assistance with shopping or other errands. Parish staff mailed bulletins and helped people who didn’t know how to livestream Masses. “They’d call the office and I’d do tutorials over the phone,” Marks said.

The rate of hunger in Oregon nearly doubled during the pandemic, and for a year the parish was one of several participating in the federal food box program. The fresh food was available to anyone in need.

For Advent, members of Shepherd of the Valley made gift bags that Father Kenyon delivered during sacramental visits to the homebound or ill. At Christmas, parishioners purchased gifts for residents of a senior care facility and a facility for adults with mental illness. They also gave presents to parish families who were suffering from the virus, poverty or other challenges. And when parishioners received federal coronavirus relief checks, some gave theirs to those in need.

“It is true when they say that adversity reveals character,” said Marks of her fellow Catholics’ compassion.

Francisco Montes de Oca practices before the Spanish-language vigil Mass July 3. (Marc Salvatore/Catholic Sentinel)

Fortitude and hope

Like all parishes, Shepherd of the Valley has had its share of painful pandemic stories.

Leon Stupfel has been a member of the parish since it was founded more than 40 years ago. “I’ve always loved it; it’s such a friendly, close community,” said the 75-year-old.

Last November, Stupfel and his wife, Betty, contracted COVID-19 from someone outside the parish. Betty’s case was mild, but Stupfel’s oxygen fell to dangerously low levels and he was rushed to the emergency room. “My wife dropped me off and wasn’t allowed to go in, and she had no way of visiting me,” said Stupfel. “We’ve been married 55 years, so it was a very difficult time.”

At the parish, Marks had ministries to oversee, a sign-up system to establish, volunteers to manage, Mass to record and a new website to create so as to meet heightened demands. She was hospitalized for internal bleeding from all the stress.

Then in September her mother’s house burned down and in November her mom died.

“The year was a personal tragedy in many ways,” said Marks. But at the same time, there were “wonderful surprises like discipleship growth of those who chose to hang in there with their church family.”

Now the church family here is feeling a sense of relief and hope.

“My wife and I sit in the same area in church every time; I don’t know why Catholics do that but they do,” said Stupfel, laughing. “And when I’m there in the pews looking around and seeing it fuller than it has been, it just warms your heart and makes you feel like, OK, things are getting back to normal.”

Father Bonilla Moreno feels the change from the altar.

“Now that people are returning, there’s this energy and power of the Holy Spirit and I’m able to preach with more power and more conviction,” said the priest.

God at work

In mid-June, the church was not yet back to pre-COVID-19 numbers but the congregation was growing. By the Fourth of July weekend, a few days after Archbishop Alexander Sample announced the general dispensation would end July 16, Masses were even more well-attended.

“That holiday weekend you usually see a lot less people, so it was surprising,” said Montes de Oca, who is part of a parish choir.

A month before the dispensation news was announced, Father Kenyon noted a challenge in bringing people back to Mass. “In the beginning, we, the church, told people to stay home. I don’t want to come from the attitude, of ‘Hey, why aren’t you coming back?’”

Instead, he said all Catholics need to rediscover the beauty and paramount importance of the Eucharist in their lives. “You cannot receive and experience the real presence of Jesus through a computer screen,” he said.

In homilies Father Bonilla Moreno “focuses on Jesus, on salvation, on the sacramental life and on the church community,” said the pastor. “We are the mystical body of the church” and must gather together as one.

The parish is encouraging parishioners to call friends, family and co-workers and tell them that all are welcome at Shepherd of the Valley. “The whole community is encouraged to invite people to return,” said Father Bonilla Moreno.

“It’s saying, ‘I haven’t seen you at Mass and I’d love to,’” said Stupfel. “It’s about encouragement, not pressure.”

Father Bonilla Moreno and parish staff personally invite people back, too.

“When the pastor expresses how much he’s missed people and wants them back, that’s really significant and makes a huge difference,” said parishioner Terry Lesser, 80.

This summer the parish is hosting outdoor family nights “to welcome teens and families and give them a chance to pray, have fun and eat together,” said Father Bonilla Moreno.

Marks has suggestions for parishes as more Catholics return to Mass. “Some people are still scared, so be sensitive and alert to their needs,” she said. And have your “kindest, most helpful people up front.”

“You don’t know what it has taken or how long God has been working on this person to get them through your doors.”