NAPOLEON, N.D. — For the Rev. Neil Pfeifer of St. Philip Neri Catholic Church, the litany of crises began in April, when in-person Easter was canceled.
“You talk about mourning, starting Holy Week without people in the pews, that in itself is a grief,” Pfeifer says. “What brought me peace was realizing we got to experience this year as Jesus experienced it, with the Agony in the Garden… and to unite that suffering for a greater purpose.”
In some ways, the agony never let up. Pfeifer tried bringing normalcy to the parish, eventually drawing up to 1,500 visitors a week to their community through online Masses. But by the year’s end, a barrage of crises ensued.
It started with the suicide of one of his teen parishioners on Oct. 20; the second such loss in several years within this small, tight-knit community of 700, and the sixth suicide of his priesthood.
“I reached out, and he said he was OK, but was he?” Pfeifer says. “What more could I have done? That’s one of the things I constantly question.”
To help with healing, he brought in a suicide-prevention team, along with the Grief Share group he’d launched. However, more tragedy hit just days after the funeral, when Pfeifer’s friend, Monsignor Jeffrey Wald, a Napoleon native, died at 56 of COVID-19 complications in Jamestown, N.D.
“He was a mentor. If I struggled with something, I could pick up a phone and give him a call, and his advice and wisdom were always so sound,” Pfeifer says.
He couldn’t attend, nor preside over, his friend’s funeral Mass at his own parish, however. On the day of Wald’s death, Pfeifer learned he, too, was positive for COVID-19.
“For me to be home during his funeral and planning, it was a really difficult time,” Pfeifer says, adding that prayer and spiritual direction provided solace.
“We need others,” he adds, noting that even pastors need to be pastored at times. “In spiritual direction, we know we’re not alone.”
Though he sensed God near, Pfeifer says, on Oct. 30, this extrovert pastor, whom people describe as “always on the go,” celebrated his 46th birthday in his rectory, alone.
In-person Masses now resumed, his parish “was like sheep without a shepherd,” he says. Pfeifer convinced a few priest friends to travel to preside over Masses during his quarantine. Meantime, he peered longingly from the rectory as his parishioners arrived for Mass without him.
“I would watch from the parking lot, and wave, just trying to make that contact, trying to keep those connections.”
Then, a few days after Wald’s funeral, on Nov. 9, Monsignor Joseph Senger — who grew up near Pfeifer’s hometown of Rugby, N.D. — died, at 91, also of COVID-19, in Minot, N.D.
“Monsignor Senger is my uncle’s brother,” Pfeifer explains, noting that he had to grieve that death from afar.
Even while ill himself, Pfeifer says he never entertained dying; he just wouldn’t let himself go there. Twelve hours after his diagnosis, he wanted to “go back out into the world,” though he refrained.
But the effects still came. By the third day, he’d lost his taste, and the next, his smell. What he calls “brain fog” still hasn’t gone away completely; details elude him at times.
“I still have mornings where my hips feel like gel,” Pfeifer says. “I’m just grateful I can get out of bed, and I can still think and use my arms. We’ve got to keep turning to the blessings.”
And yet, the death toll continued, when, on Nov. 15, another mentor, Monsignor Valentine Gross — a retired priest who helped “build” Sts. Anne and Joachim in Fargo — died at the nursing home in Napoleon, also of COVID-19.
Now out of confinement, Pfeifer not only tended to Gross in his final hours, offering the anointing of the sick and reconciliation, or “last rites,” but presided over his funeral Mass, including helping prepare his body for burial.
“The funeral home needed help, so there I was, putting on his stole, his chasuble, for the last time,” he says. “I’ve never vested a priest for a casket. It brought a lot of closure and revived a lot of great memories.”
Including the impact of his friend’s life.
“My goodness, this guy gave it all for the Lord,” Pfeifer says. “His life was a life of service as a priest, and that’s what I’m called to do, too. But on the human side, I also have to seek that extra help from God.”
Pfeifer’s own illness was more tolerable due to a handful of medical people checking on him by phone daily, he says, and parishioners like Terry and Mary Schwartzenberger.
“Priests have emotions and feelings, too, but sometimes, I think as his flock, we forget that they are human,” Terry says. “It’s not an easy task what he does, and every day is different. You don’t know what’s coming up.”
Terry says the quarantine period of their pastor was trying for everyone. “We were so used to seeing him on a daily basis, and you miss that smile he always offers.”
Mary, a nurse, stayed in especially close contact.
“We had just gone through the COVID ourselves,” she says. “I also have the charism of help and mercy, so you see what needs to get done and do it.”
Along with the stress everyone was bearing, she says, Pfeifer was denied “feeding” his parish family with the Word and Eucharist. But the virus alone concerned her.
“If something’s wrong in the middle of the night, as a priest, you don’t have a bell to ring and someone will come running,” she says.
So, she dropped off vitamins, asked questions and made sure he was getting replenished nutritionally.
“I definitely felt like I was being babied,” Pfeifer says.
Mary also helped with church upkeep.
“It was so stressful, with the deaths and sick people and homebound, along with kids hurting,” she says. “It’s just really tough when you look at everything, and you feel that depth of sympathy in your heart.”
She wanted to give back to one who’d given the community so much.
“He has a real soft approach, giving you that direction in that gentle way,” while at the same time, being stern about God’s directives, she says. “He always takes you back to prayer.”
An employee of Napoleon Care Center, where Gross had been living, Mary knows the limitations of COVID-19.
“We lost some residents to COVID, but those who continue to live have lost so much more,” she says, mentioning visitor restrictions. “You definitely see the bare necessities these people need. COVID has robbed them of the close love of their families, which just adds to the sadness of it all.”
Pfeifer says those who approach the COVID crisis with positivity are more equipped to overcome this time mentally and spiritually well.
“People without faith, at the time of death, you can pick out of a crowd,” he says, recalling once observing a bereaved woman “drape herself over (her loved one’s) casket,” and lament loudly. “If there is no faith, death is the end. If we’re going to turn to the world for answers, the world will form us.”
“I can’t think of a needier moment for people than right now,” Pfeifer adds, encouraging those struggling to reach out to someone they can trust and share their heart.
“Yes, there was a time when I asked, ‘Lord, how much more are you going to throw on my plate?’” he admits. But talking it out with others helped him get through. “We have no idea how badly people are hurting… and we can be so irrational in our grief that we don’t know what the next step is.”
It’s why he’s never abandoned, even in the coronavirus pandemic, the practice of adoration — having a place to gaze upon Jesus in the Eucharist.
“Putting Jesus up front and center, being able to relay my thoughts and open up, that’s so important,” he says. “There are days I go in there and say, ‘Here’s what’s heavy on my heart,’ and just rest in the Lord. When I leave, I don’t have that problem anymore.”
Despite the year’s hardships, Terry says Napoleon, and their beloved priest, will be OK.
“In our community, no matter what, we turn to prayer and head to church; that’s just what we do.”
And, it would seem, in Pfeifer’s estimate, it is well enough.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Jan. 8, 2021.]