Stay at home, search within

| Christina Capecchi | June 23, 2020 | 0 Comments

From left, Shea, Margaux, Dockery, Joseph, Fritz and Edith Olson take time in the backyard of their St. Paul home to play with two of their four chickens. During Minnesota’s stay-at-home order, the Olsons have been spending more time together as a family, taking walks in the neighborhood and noticing houses with chickens that inspired them to get their own. For more on how they and other Catholics are coping and learning during the coronavirus pandemic. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Catholics reflect on spiritual awakenings that came from pandemic restrictions

Derrick Diedrich was supposed to spend spring in Rome, studying with a group of University of St. Thomas students in the acclaimed Catholic Studies travel abroad program.

He had visions of papal encounters, gelato stands, late-night theological discussions and epic sightseeing.

Instead, the 21-year-old business leadership major found himself back on his family’s Wisconsin farm — participating in Zoom classes at the dining-room table, squabbling with siblings and putting up trim in their butcher shop.

The contrast couldn’t have been starker.

For Catholics across the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the coronavirus pandemic has brought many losses. Quarantine felt, at times, like being trapped with their worst habits, their innermost thoughts and their messy children. With every semblance of normalcy stripped away, it was hard not to re-examine life. Some came to difficult conclusions.

But many now recognize that the struggle was worth it, packing years of spiritual growth into one intense season, rearranging their hearts in unexpected ways. As business resumes, many Catholics say they are determined to continue the positive changes forced by the pandemic.

Shea Olson used to keep a jam-packed schedule. A St. Paul mom of four — ages 7 to 1 — who works at home as a Beautycounter mentor, she and her husband are both extroverts who like to fill their days with youth sports and social gatherings.

From left, Fritz, Edith, Dockery, Joseph and Shea Olson, holding Margaux, make kombucha together in the kitchen of their St. Paul home. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

When that came to a screeching halt, their orientation shifted.

“We have turned inward in who we are as a family,” said Olson, a member of St. Agnes in St. Paul. “We have grown in love for one another without all the distractions of constantly thinking or prepping for our next event or social time.”

The blank calendar felt “freeing,” she said, and prodded her to measure their time differently. She was surprised by what ensued: a season not of idleness but of abundance.

“We have celebrated four birthdays, been on too many hikes to count, potty trained, sleep trained, read more stories than I thought possible, mailed cards to friends who live down the street and made our little corner of the world in the backyard so much prettier.”

On daily neighborhood walks, the Olsons studied gardens and noticed two houses with chickens. It inspired them to get chickens of their own. Their 7-year-old son built a coop with his dad.

The feathered flock — a Buff Orpington, a Silver Wyandotte, a Rhode Island Red and a Prairie Bluebell Egger — have ushered in many lessons beyond the kids’ formal curriculum. And they provided a tangible way for Olson and her husband, Joseph, to embrace a challenge that emerged during the quarantine: to take a closer look at what the family consumes, food and otherwise.

The couple also became better communicators. “Joseph and I have had to re-learn how to communicate with one another without having somewhere to rush off to or friends to chat with,” she said. “We have each other and we’re in this together.”

Another takeaway from the pandemic was the charge to enrich their experience of home. “It’s been a joy to see my kids’ creativity emerge without the pressure to get ready to get out of the house,” she said. “There seems to be a gentleness in the day with more time spent at home.”

Reading “Theology of Home: Finding the Eternal in the Everyday,” published last year, has spurred Olson’s thinking. It includes a quote from Mother Teresa that resonated with the 30-something mom: “Try to put in the hearts of your children a love for home. Make them long to be with their families. So much sin could be avoided if our people really loved their homes.”

As activities resume, Olson plans to be more selective. “I think it may mean we’re not as social with as many people as we were before,” she said. “Maybe our circle will become smaller. And I might have to get over fear of missing out, that I’m not giving my kids as many opportunities — but to what end?”

Sister Liz Kerwin picks some flowers from her garden at Carondelet Village in St. Paul where she lives. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Giving thanks

COVID-19 poses a serious threat to Sister Liz Kerwin, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and retired spiritual director. At 87 and with an underlying condition — chronic lymphocytic leukemia — she’s well aware of her risk.

“I know this could end my life,” said Sister Liz, who lives at the Carondelet Village retirement home in St. Paul. “But I’m trying to focus more on the people around me. Since we only have today, I try to live as fully, lovingly, meaningfully and gratefully as I can. Love drives out fear, and I think gratitude does, too. In the morning, I say, ‘Lord, thank you for another day.’ And whatever it brings, I try to live with that.”

She has felt her trust in God deepening amid the pandemic, and she’s come to a peaceful acceptance of her life. “As I look back, I’m really grateful and amazed, and I guess I consciously have to let go of criticizing myself for the things I haven’t done in my life and just live with where God has led me,” she said.

Quarantine provided the time and space for many meditative exercises. Sister Liz has spent more time in prayer and in letter writing, which she describes as “an act of love.” She’s taking a painting class and making her own cards for the first time. She also joined a poetry group this spring that meets on Zoom, a “very contemplative” experience.

The reduced traffic has enhanced the birdsong on her grounds. “I love it,” Sister Liz said. “It warms the cockles of my heart.”

She is delighted by two Canadian Jays — a “magnificent” gray bird uncommon in St. Paul — that flutter outside her window.

Despite the arthritis in her knees, Sister Liz makes a point to get outside. In the span of one week, she hung a hummingbird feeder, planted tomatoes and picked Shasta daisies.

The quarantine has strengthened her resolve to care for the environment. It has forced her to give up a favorite hobby of shopping and instead cut back on her wardrobe, donating unused clothing.

She commemorated the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” and watched two films on plastics. Eliminating them from daily life is a sacrifice but worthwhile, she said.

Sister Liz recently joined three groups dedicated to sustainability — a local CSJ group, a national CSJ group and an archdiocesan team called the Archdiocesan Care for Creation Committee.

She trusts in God, she trusts in her fellow Catholics and she trusts that blessings will emerge from the pandemic. “The Chinese word for ‘crisis’ is the same word as ‘opportunity,’” she said. “What kind of opportunity is this for us? I wonder how we’re going to be changed, how we’re going to be different as we move forward.”

Doctor dad

Samuel Russ, a member of St. Peter in Mendota, is asking those same questions. The young dad just completed a five-year residency program to become an orthopedic doctor.

Before the coronavirus, he would work 12- to 16-hour days. Sometimes, when he was on call, he could log up to 24 hours straight.

In response to COVID-19, his residency split into teams. Russ would work one week and then spend the following two weeks home in quarantine.

“It was definitely an adjustment to go from constantly moving 100 mph to life slowing down with more time at home,” he said. “It was a welcome adjustment, though, to take some much-needed time with the family.”

Finally, Russ had the chance to tend to everything he had shoved to the back burner. “In many ways, this pandemic gave us time to catch up on life things and renew our relationships as a family,” he said.

During quarantine, Russ taught his oldest to ride a bike, played T-ball with his 3-year-old and watched his youngest child learn to walk. “Being present for these precious moments is something I do not take for granted.”

The experience reinforced his goal to make family time a priority after his residency. “I will work hard to ensure I have some sort of work-life balance going forward,” he said.

The quarantine enabled the new doctor to address an area of weakness. “I have struggled with making prayer a priority during the busyness of work and family life,” he said.

This spring he completed the Exodus 90, a 90-day spiritual exercise for Catholic men, reaping many fruits. “I believe it has made me a better husband, father, doctor and servant to my family,” he said.

Rural wisdom

Then there is Diedrich, the St. Thomas student who suddenly found himself back home in Hortonville, Wisconsin, struggling to reconcile the gap between the Eternal City and the family farm.

As he wrote papers in the dining room and contended with his brothers, little grievances returned. “Spending every day with your siblings, you start to remember all the pet peeves you had,” he said. “Your old self starts to come back.”

It felt like a setback for the student who had enjoyed so much autonomy since starting college in St. Paul.

Diedrich had been going to daily Mass. Now, he couldn’t attend Mass at all. He juggled Zoom classes with farm chores but also had time to hang out with his 16-year-old sister.

She was 13 the last time he’d lived at home for an extended period. She had changed.

The two talked about everything — her interests, her friends, the guy who had begun texting her. At the end of the day, Diedrich would go to her room and encourage her to get out of bed and kneel with him to pray.

There were times Diedrich recognized as something special, such as when all six members of the family settled in together to watch a movie or play a board game. “I realized we were having really quality family time that we got away from having because our lives are so busy,” he said. “To have that family life again and to interact so frequently was a blessing. I don’t know if that’ll ever happen again.”

He vowed to make Easter on the farm memorable, knowing how sacred the holiday would have been in Rome. The novice cook prepared the biggest meal he’d ever made, spending hours on an elaborate brunch for his family — complete with Finnish pancakes, Spanish tortillas and Mexican horchata, recipes he’d pick up from his travels.

“I was in over my head, but I pulled it off, and it was a great family time,” he said.

Slowing down on the farm didn’t come naturally to the extrovert accustomed to lively college life. Connecting with his scattered peers felt different, forcing him to examine the content of their friendships.

“It was humbling to call up friends,” he said. “Normally you catch up and share about your lives, but now I didn’t have much to talk about, and I thought, ‘Oh, wow, maybe I haven’t been very substantive in my relationships.’”

Diedrich adjusted.

“Now I asked totally different questions. ‘How are you feeling? How are things with your family? Do you need any help?’”

Different questions shook out different insights. “You knew what people were going through because they weren’t doing anything, so they would talk about their thoughts and feelings and their prayer life.”

He and his friends set up a 9 p.m. rosary via Facetime on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He was surprised how many joined — and how rewarding it was.

“I’m used to being super social, and I became more introverted,” he said. “What I really looked forward to was not interacting with my friends but praying with them. That felt substantive. It was really beautiful.”

It’s a ritual Diedrich plans to continue, and it helps him feel more optimistic about a senior year that will look different this fall than he had envisioned.

“The normal I was expecting isn’t happening, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be joyful and take the opportunity to do new things, connect more deeply with people and continue to see the Lord working in my life,” he said.

Yes, he acknowledges, it would’ve been glorious to spend a semester in Rome, worshipping at St. Peter’s Basilica, studying art history and moral theology.

But perhaps the sweaty, dusty lessons Diedrich learned on the farm this spring were the ones he needed most.

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