Rain did not dampen the enthusiastic spirits of the parishioners of Saint Paul Catholic Church in Valparaiso. The Harrison Street church property was lined with more than160 decorated cars, honking and cheering. All were there to uplift two who are known for encouraging them through the COVID-19 crisis, Father Jeff Burton and Father Doug Mayer.
The surprise parade was organized by parishioner Cathie Dull after seeing the idea online. A few quick emails suggesting the idea quickly spread into a massive outpouring of love.
“We miss the gathering of our faith family,” Dull said. “Our priests have done an amazing job. They have risen to the occasion of trying to feed us spiritually and keep us connected to our church. We wanted to show them how we appreciate them.”
Angelica Lahart was there with her husband Richard and their three children. Fr. Mayer had married Lahart and her husband as well as baptized their children.
“We miss Fr. Doug and it’s nice to do something to show them that we appreciate all that they have been doing to bring the church to us,” Lahart said. She and her family have been watching the services online.
Belinda Rodriguez with the Spanish Ministry who was there in a packed car of supporters along with flags, echoed the sentiments.
“They have virtual mass every Sunday and they have Spanish Mass too,” Rodriguez said. “They support us.”
Kids and adults alike – and even a few furry friends - hung out of their vehicles bearing signs of support and yelling words of encouragement in appreciation to the duo. Parishioners paused their cars alongside the priests who were standing a socially safe distance away.
“I had a birthday! I’m three!” one young girl yelled from her parents’ car.
“When will we be able to come back?” others asked.
The priests asked and answered questions in English and Spanish, sharing laughs, waving, giving thumbs up, and even just giving comforting nods at times. The parade took almost an hour and it was clear, the priests were honored and touched.
“You miss everybody,” Fr. Mayer said. “It was so nice to connect and feel the love.”
“It was great to see everyone,” Fr. Burton said.
As the last of the cars slowly left, an eerie silence took hold.
“This is a 43-acre campus that every single day, under normal circumstances is bustling,” Fr. Burton said. “It’s kind of been like a long-running episode of The Twilight Zone.
While they may not be gathering in the church for now, the parishioners of Saint Paul Catholic Church made it clear, they will be packing the pews again someday, for their faith, and for their love of the two priests who have worked hard to keep them all connected.