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Archdiocese trains team of priests to give Catholics dying from COVID-19 final sacraments

"We were getting four to five calls a day from people who were dying from COVID who wanted the sacraments."

MINNEAPOLIS — When Dave Harris' 91-year-old grandmother tested positive for COVID-19 on May 1, he knew the outcome likely wouldn't be good. 

"The prognosis with COVID-19 is not real great for people who are advanced in years," he said. "We knew it wouldn't be long after talking with her on Monday afternoon."

Harris knew his grandmother, a Catholic, would want to be given the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, administered to Catholics who are seriously ill or in poor health. But the sacrament must be administered in person, and COVID-19 put that possibility into question. 

Then Harris found out, the very day he was inquiring about his grandmother receiving the sacrament, that training was underway to make it possible. 

"Early on, we knew that this could be a challenge," said Bishop Andrew Cozzens of the need for priests to give sacraments to Catholics with COVID-19. 

So the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis created what they're calling the "COVID Anointing Corps." It's made up of 12 priests. They're all volunteers, all under age 50, and all in good health.

Credit: Bishop Andrew Cozzens
Doctors and nurses trained 12 priests in the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis Monday how to put on protective gear.

"We wanted to, of course, pick priests who were not in any category of high risk should they contract [COVID-19]," Cozzens said. 

The Archdiocese modeled their practices after the Archdiocese of Chicago, which had implemented a similar program. 

Cozzens said the priests received virtual training from a supervisor in Chicago, who taught them how to be prepared for going into homes, nursing homes, and hospitals where a Catholic with COVID-19 is present. 

Then Monday, doctors and nurses taught the priests how to properly put on and take off personal protective equipment (PPE), and take other precautions so they don't spread the virus. 

The anointing, which is usually done by a priest placing oil with his thumb on a person's forehand and hands, will be instead administered with gloves and a cotton ball. 

Credit: Fr. Joseph Bambenek
COVID-19 patients will be anointed by a priest wearing gloves, with oil on a cotton ball. Usually, a priest uses his thumb to place the oil.

"When we use the cotton ball, we put it in a bag when we're done with it, and then we'll dispose of that in a ritual way," said Fr. Marcus Milless, a member of the corps, who are now the only priests in the Archdiocese to anoint Catholics with COVID-19.

When he spoke with KARE 11 at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Milless said he had yet to anoint a COVID-19 patient. By four that afternoon, he had anointed two. 

"As we were developing this corps of priests, the need was rapidly increasing," said Bishop Cozzens. "So even over the weekend, we were getting four to five calls a day from people who were dying from COVID who wanted the sacraments."

Harris was one of the people making that request. He was emailing with the Archdiocese Monday about getting a priest to anoint his grandmother. Around 8:15 p.m. that night, the request was fulfilled. A priest, who had just come from training, administered the sacrament to his grandmother. She died the next morning.

Credit: Harris Family
Jane Trusty, Dave Harris' grandmother, died May 5 from COVID-19. She was 91 years old.

"There's some reassurance there, right at the end, of forgiveness and peace," Harris said. "There really is a lot of closure that comes along with it."

The Archdiocese says right now, not every healthcare facility's policy allows for priests to be in the same room as a person with COVID-19. 

While the sacrament can be given to Catholics who are not necessarily near death, for safety reasons, the priests only will anoint COVID-19 patients who are dying, and therefore in critical need of the final sacrament.

The Archdiocese says anyone seeking the Anointing of the Sick for a COVID-19 patient, should contact their parish. 

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