St. Camillus parish in Silver Spring, Maryland, staffed by Franciscan friars, is the largest and most diverse parish in the archdiocese of Washington. It is also located in the area that has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the entire Washington metropolitan region.
St. Camillus Church is nationally recognized as a model for intercultural parishes. It is a spiritual home to a large Latino, French-speaking African, African American, Bangla, English-speaking Caucasian, and many other communities. Many Catholic communities around the globe have learned to become virtual with prayer and worship during this crisis, but St. Camillus has maintained a particular commitment to staying active through service and action just as before the pandemic.
Saint Francis International School (SFIS), the parochial school at St. Camillus, did what the vast majority of Catholic schools did across the United States. Under the leadership of Toby Harkleroad, Principal of that school who is also a Secular Franciscans, the parochial school has converted to be a full-fledged distance learning school for its student body of 443 children age three through 8th grade. Within weeks, the school guaranteed that every student from first grade up had access to a computer at home and teachers were providing online instruction even down to the three-year-olds in Pre-K https://bit.ly/3hwHBYv
As the faculty and staff took on the herculean effort of transforming, the school’s nutrition program worked with young Franciscan Postulants in their first year of formation who live on the parish’s property to start delivering food to kids in the surrounding neighborhoods. On March 17, they distributed 381 meals and by May 25 they had given out 35,874 meals https://bit.ly/2XZJrcJ
In its persistence to serve the community around the parish’s outreach office in the heart of Langley Park neighborhood (which the Washington Post described as “catastrophic” due to COVID-19), SFIS convinced a more affluent parish to send volunteers to help prepare meals convinced the county executive’s office to reach out to Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen program, convinced the National Guard to help hand out meals, and convinced the local councilmember to bring thousands of boxes of produce into the neighborhood each week https://bit.ly/3e4GvB8
Meanwhile, the parish food pantry program, which had been faithfully distributing food for the needy out of the friary’s basement on Fridays and Saturdays for years became a designated hub for the regional food bank and increased capacity. With the school physically closed, the parish loaned the gym out to the county’s gang prevention network to use as a base for distributing food and the science room was loaned out to a group of young Latinas who created an ad hoc mutual aid group.
Despite a massive decrease in Sunday collections due to the state-wide stay-at-home order, the parish raised over $75,000 money for the St. Francis Emergency Assistance Fund to support those facing potential eviction due to the financial effects of the COVID-19 crisis. The parish stayed committed to its annual commitment to participate in Bread for the World’s Offering of letters in support of hunger relief.
Both the parish and the school have had numerous members struggle with the effects of the coronavirus. Three parents at SFIS have died due to COVID-19 and at least two parishioners have been lost. The parish’s first Franciscan pastor, Fr. Martin Bednar, passed away from COVID-19 in a nursing home in New York State.
Despite all of the struggles, the reduced income, and the uncertainty, this Catholic community continues to be open and vibrant despite the fact that church doors have been closed for 10 weeks.
Three Franciscans Postulants harvesting organic lettuce grown at St. Francis International School and then given to the people in the local immigrant community that need food