Father Brendan Fitzgerald, who was raised in Co Kerry, is helping his predominantly Irish neighborhood in New York through the coronavirus crisis.
Father Brendan Fitzgerald, pastor of St. Barnabas Church in the Bronx, is leading his parish’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic through social media and old-fashioned human contact. He talks to Debbie McGoldrick, of IrishCentral's sister publication the Irish Voice newspaper, about how his predominantly Irish parishioners have come together like never before.
When the going gets tough, the Irish get going, and that’s exactly what’s happening in the proudly resilient Woodlawn / Yonkers area of New York, one of America’s most Irish neighborhoods, as it comes together like never before to combat the far-reaching effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Father Brendan Fitzgerald, pastor of St. Barnabas Church which sits right on the Woodlawn / Yonkers border, is helping lead his community’s fight against the virus that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and millions of small business jobs across America, including an untold number in his tight-knit parish, a home away from home for generations of Irish.
The pandemic has brought people closer to the comforts of the church than they’ve ever been before, Fitzgerald, 46, told the Irish Voice on May 18.
“By no means has our church closed down. My vision of the church has always been that it’s not about the building. The church is about the community,” says Fitzgerald, a native of the Rockaways in Queens who was raised in Killarney, Co. Kerry.
“The pandemic has actually brought the church alive in our parish. The people of God have responded to each other’s needs like never before.”
St. Barnabas on East 241st Street in Woodlawn was a vibrant parish before Covid-19 took root, and its relevance has only increased since New York, and much of America, was put on pause just before St. Patrick’s Day. While the parish typically offers nine masses on Saturdays and Sundays, most of them with full attendances according to Fitzgerald, masses have since moved online as the church building is closed.
Viewership has been “huge,” Fitzgerald says. “We were blessed with technology before the coronavirus happened. We are an immigrant parish and we had cameras installed so people could view weddings and funerals and baptisms from Ireland. So when we had the coronavirus shutdown we didn’t have to do too much to adapt,” he adds.
On average, 8,000-plus viewers are live streaming the Masses that Fitzgerald offers on Facebook every weekend, “way more than would usually attend Mass in the church building,” he says.
On St. Patrick’s Day morning, when lockdown rules were quickly becoming reality, the 8:30 a.m. St. Barnabas Mass would traditionally have up to 400 in attendance at the church, with many worshippers making their way to Manhattan for the Fifth Avenue parade later in the day. St. Patrick’s Day 2020 saw 8,500 viewers watching the live stream of Fitzgerald’s Mass from all over the tri-state area.
The virtual connection to the church has provided a needed comfort to his parishioners, says Fitzgerald, but many are missing what links them to their faith the most – receiving the Eucharist. The loss has been particularly acute for his elderly parishioners, so Fitzgerald devised a workaround – he visits his people in their homes every day to deliver Communion, garbed in a mask, gloves and goggles.
“Our older parishioners have been so well served by their families who have hooked them up with social media so they can watch Mass. But they miss receiving. I do rounds every day and they really appreciate it. And I so enjoy seeing them too,” says Fitzgerald, who laughs that his laundry chores have also increased as he changes clothes at least a couple of times per day.
Fitzgerald has never been busier, and never felt more certain that his faith is a force for good.
“People are looking for spirituality now. There are many who weren’t going to church, but now they are tapping into a foundation that maybe already existed in their lives and I love that. They are reconnecting,” he says.
Anxiety and depression are distressingly common offshoots of Covid-19. Those suffering most are the newly unemployed and those who are strictly homebound.
For the latter, Fitzgerald advises them to look at their four walls not as a prison, but as a cloister with the Lord as the center. “Jesus is watching over us like never before,” he advises. “I believe so much grace and good can come when we believe that.”
For the economically impacted, particularly the undocumented Irish, Fitzgerald is all in on finding solutions. A physical fitness devotee, he is the chaplain for the Team Aisling running squad that’s part of the Aisling Irish Community Center; the team has raised more than $25,000 in only three weeks for the newly formed group Sláinte 2020, which is providing financial assistance to Irish community members who are jobless as a result of the sudden pandemic.
“Sláinte 2020 is showing how much we all care for each other in a huge way. I’m so happy people are reaching out for help. My biggest fear was that they wouldn’t, especially those who wouldn’t be entitled to government stimulus checks,” says Fitzgerald, who is also using donations to his parish to purchase and deliver gift cards to those most in need.
As far as weekly donations to the upkeep of St. Barnabas itself, Fitzgerald has been gratified that his parishioners haven’t forgotten the church even though they can’t attend weekly Mass in person.
“People have been so generous in dropping off envelopes, that allows us to not only meet our bills but extend charity to those in need,” he says, adding that many friends have donated personal protection equipment such as masks to ensure Fitzgerald stays safe on his journeys.
“It’s incredibly touching, the generosity of others during this time of need. But that’s what we Irish are known for.”
The kids of St. Barnabas – students in the grammar and high schools – have had to mark spring milestones like graduation, Confirmation, and First Holy Communion without each other’s company. Fitzgerald has been organizing social media gatherings with the youngsters and says they’ve been troopers.
“They’ve found other ways to celebrate. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And one day – I don’t know when, but one day – we will gather in person to celebrate,” he says.
Irish music and dance classes are commonplace in the local community, and many students have taken their talents to the streets to entertain the homebound – utilizing social distancing measures.
“We have a bunch of kids going around playing ceili music. They came last week to play for me. It’s just wonderful to see,” says Fitzgerald.
Deaths and funerals are especially heartbreaking in these coronavirus days. There are no Masses to pay tribute to the deceased; all Fitzgerald can do is offer prayers at the cemeteries, some of which won’t allow family members at the gravesite. Fitzgerald can go to the graves, and families receive some comfort knowing he is present.
“I believe that Jesus is never closer to their loved ones at that time. It is just so sad for them,” Fitzgerald says of the bereaved families and friends.
“They can’t properly grieve. We miss our Irish wakes. They are part of the healing process. But the thing I tell people is that Jesus does not socially distance and he is standing right by their loved ones. In fact, he’s closer than ever before.”
Fitzgerald’s parents – mom Esther and dad Denis – have owned Fitzgerald’s Pub on Third Avenue and 25th Street since 1991; years before, the bar was located two blocks south. The popular location is now closed, so Fitzgerald is keenly aware of Covid-19 displacement.
“My parents were never ones to take days off, so this is the first time in their lives that they haven’t been working. It’s a major adjustment for them. They live in Woodside and I’m blessed that my twin brother lives nearby to check in on them regularly. It allows me to carry forth my ministry with peace of mind,” he says.
What will the future look like for Mass resumption with people in attendance? At this point, Fitzgerald isn’t quite sure. The nine weekend Masses offered at St. Barnabas are all well attended, so social distancing could be a problem.
But he says the one thing his parishioners are missing the most is Communion, and a potential short-term solution could be delivering the Eucharist on the steps of the church, utilizing distancing guidelines.
“The Eucharist is everything, especially to Irish people. And there’s a hunger for it. So outdoor receiving might be something we can do at some point,” Fitzgerald says.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating. Father Fitzgerald says he’s honored to help untangle the horror and lead a path forward. He adds that he’s never been busier, and never more ready for a challenge.
“I feel the Lord has brought me to the right place at the right time. I’m with my own people. We are going to get through this together,” he assures.
“I have never been prouder of our Irish community. They are rising to the challenge and taking care of each other. We are full of kindness right now and it’s just great to see. They are actually leading me forward. We are all in this together, and we will make each other better.”
What is he looking forward to most of all when some semblance of normal life resumes?
“Going to dinner with my mom and dad! I have seen them since the pandemic started but at a social distance. For the first time in 46 years, I haven’t been able to hug them, but right now we have to show our love for everyone by just adhering to social distance. Good days will follow if we do.”