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‘Lift up your hearts’

St. Agnes celebrates St. Patrick’s Day Mass before diocese suspends Catholic services

St. Agnes Catholic Church on Tuesday, March 17 (News photo — Andy Flynn)

LAKE PLACID — The Rev. John Yonkovig and his parishioners at St. Agnes Catholic Church could celebrate one more Mass Tuesday, March 17 — at 5:30 in the evening — just hours after Bishop Terry R. LaValley suspended all public gatherings for Mass, prayer, faith formation and certain parish activities in the Diocese of Ogdensburg — effective Wednesday, March 18 until further notice — due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19.

A sign at the front door notifying parishioners of the change greeted those attending the Mass, which celebrated the Feast of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Although Mass will most likely not be held again inside the church during Lent, St. Agnes Church will be open for private prayer from early morning to late afternoon.

And Yankovig announced after the Mass that he is talking with village officials to allow him to hold an outdoor Mass for Easter at Teddy Bear Park, a short distance from the church on Hillcrest Avenue.

Yonkovig is the pastor of St. Agnes Catholic Church in Lake Placid and St. Brendan’s Catholic Church in Keene. After the St. Patrick’s Day Mass, the News asked Yonkovig about how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting his work and his parish. Here is the interview.

St. Agnes Catholic Church on Tuesday, March 17 (News photo — Andy Flynn)

LPN: How important is religion at this time of crisis?

Rev. Yonkovig: First I believe religion is important at every time, but there’s no doubt that when a crisis happens, it does pull us back to our roots. The word “crisis” is actually a Greek word that means “opportunity.” And I do think that this crisis that the country, that the world is facing is an opportunity to look at really what is most important in our lives and how do we live our lives well fruitfully. So religion is very important right now because God, I think, is at the very center of creation, of our life, so God is going to give us the strength to maneuver through this crisis.

LPN: How challenging is having this crisis at this particular time, during Lent?

Rev. Yonkovig: Well, as I mentioned just at the end of the Mass here, it’s somewhat opportune in the sense that Lent was at one time seen as a time that we would throw off from all the social activities of life. It gives us time to do some introspective thinking, to reflect on how well we are living. And so this particular social distancing that we’re now experiencing is, I think, a part of what Lent is all about. It’s asking us to get all the frivolous parts of life, to step away from them. The parties, the celebrations, and to look more at the austere things of life, to get back to the roots again of what life is all about.

The Rev. John Yonkovig celebrates Mass the evening of Tuesday, March 17 at St. Agnes Catholic Church. Earlier in the day, the Diocese of Ogdensburg directed all churches in the region to stop offering Mass as of Wednesday, March 18 due to concerns over COVID-19. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

LPN: Has this crisis posed a challenge to your schedule?

Rev. Yonkovig: The present situation certainly for Catholics, Mass, which speaks about the gathering of people, is critical for us. It gives us an identity. The Jewish people say if you keep the Sabbath, the Sabbath will keep you. So Mass in many ways keeps us together as the body of Christ. We nurture each other and strengthen each other through God’s grace at Mass. So without Mass, that is an added challenge I think for me and for every Catholic.

Now the government is certainly asking us to keep distance, and so visiting people is not part of the agenda. However, the parish has responded in wonderful ways. There are now nearly 80 people in the parish who are willing to reach out to their fellow neighbors who are struggling, if they’re home sick and quarantined and can’t get food, drink, medicines. The parishioners will go out and distribute those and brings those. All they have to do is call the rectory or email the church, and we’ll make that happen.

So it’s a delicate balancing act, I think, between caring for one another and yet not having a great deal of interaction with one another. But I think it can be done.

Rev. John Yonkovig, pastor of St. Agnes Church (News photo — Andy Flynn)

LPN: I’m not sure if you’re aware of the history during the Spanish influenza. The pastor at St. Agnes died of the Spanish flu in 1918 and got it while tending to his parishioners who were sick. How are you taking care of yourself?

Rev. Yonkovig: Well, I was unaware of that. Thank you for enlightening me. That’s certainly an inspiring or challenging role model to follow from my predecessor. Certainly I’m taking all the precautions that the government is suggesting, the medical authorities are suggesting. And I realize that according to government statistics I’m in the elderly category being 68. So maybe that’s an added challenge to the whole thing. But my ministry here is to reach out to those who are sick, to be with them and that’s the way it will be.

LPN: I like the moment during Mass when you said, “Lift up your hearts.” And for a moment, I felt better.

Rev. Yonkovig: Prayer has that ability. I think it touches us at our very core. Even in this very dreary time, with this illness affecting so many, how do we live with the people that have hope in our hearts, trust in God and how do we lift up our lives and know that all will be well?

LPN: You won’t have Mass to do now. How will you fill that time?

Rev. Yonkovig: I suspect like everybody else, we have lists of things that are on the to-do list that we never got to do. So there are some of those kinds of projects, desk work, filing, projects here in the church, so that will fill up some of it. And then, as you say, care for the sick, making sure that’s all arranged, that people are reaching out.

The food pantry here at St. Agnes is going to be open, so there will be extra staffing there, possibly even additional times because I think as these weeks go on, the needs are going to be more significant than ever. Tragically here in this village, the hospitality industry is the prime employer, A lot of people are going to be unemployed, so the needs are going to be severe. So in many ways, the spiritual demands of my job as pastor are probably going to be pushed into more of the material or social demands and making sure that people are not homeless or hungry or abandoned.