By Katie Beckmann Mahon, Communications Manager
A few months ago, Sr. Jennifer Schaaf, OP, an Assistant Chaplain at the Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale University, was all set to attend an Alternative Spring Break Trip to Guatemala.
Simultaneously, as she was preparing for this trip, the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading to the northeast, and forced Sr. Jennifer and her colleagues to cancel this trip, hours before departure.
This cancellation marked the beginning of a series of cancellations, closures, new safety regulations, and changes to the typical school year at Yale University and at Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center (STM.)
Sr. Jennifer, known to her colleagues and students as Sr. Jenn, adapted to these difficult times and connected with their students through technology and other creative ways, including sending out Graduation care packages to students with wine glasses and Pope Francis socks.
“We celebrated the Triduum with five people in the Chapel: the presider, cantor, accompanist, tech person, and myself. Live-streaming the most sacred days of the Christian year were important, but sad compared to the depth of symbolism and community typically celebrated.”
Sr. Jenn, a Sister of Saint Dominic of Blauvelt, New York, also shared how these difficulties affected her outside of her ministry.
“Personally, and in pastoral conversations, themes of fear, both of becoming seriously ill, or of infecting others, isolation, and grieving actual deaths and the deaths of dreams, were common. Searching for the truth about a disease that has so much unknown information about it became necessary in decision making about how we do ministry safely and in connection to my life as a Dominican.”
As the school year gets underway with new safety regulations from the State, Archdiocese, and University, Sr. Jenn and her colleagues have focused on how to minister and find ways to reach out to those dealing with new challenges created from the pandemic.
“Celebrating Mass and sharing written reflections on our blog was one way to pray with and for these particular communities. One-on-one Zoom conversations became the norm for pastoral conversations.”
Sr. Jenn added, “We reopened for in-person Mass for six weeks in July and August. Our Chapel, which normally seats over 250, was limited to 30 people. Our congregation finds community and music essential, and both of these were significantly limited to provide a safe worship experience. Yale has welcomed students back to campus, but with very strict regulations, we are now back to only virtual worship.”
Another way that Sr. Jenn and her colleagues have been connecting with students is with Zoom socials, book groups, and online retreats. Recently, students stopped by the Chapel to pick up welcome “swag bags” with water bottles and masks embroidered with STM on them.
“The masks were made in the Philippines by a company owned by one of the leaders of the International Dominican Youth Movement. He is using the profits to provide PPE to garbage workers in the Philippines.”
As more students continue to wear their STM masks and continue to connect with others during this “time for total creativity,” Sr. Jenn hopes that new students can make the most of starting their university experience during a historic moment.
“How you choose to use this experience will shape history and you. Take opportunities to meet new people, form community, and reflect on the experience through the lens of faith. Seek help when you need it. Chaplains and others on campus are available to listen and provide support.”
For those returning students, Sr. Jenn is “grateful for their willingness to be leaders during this challenging time” and asks them to think about how they can embrace this year with an open mindset.
“How can you capture that as you make academic and career decisions going forward? Where have you found truth amid uncertainty? What is needed for you to pray and be in community with others?”
To learn more about Sr. Jenn and her ministry, you can read her blog posts here.