A Liverpool Catholic parish offers phone support to more than 500 people amid pandemic

Our Lady of the Assumption, Gateacre, Liverpool. Courtesy of @ourladygateacre Facebook page

A few years ago Catholics in Gateacre, Liverpool, recognised that they had a problem: parishioners didn’t know each other.

“Even people in the next pew to each other were maybe sat there for decades and didn’t know each other’s names,” said Fr. Stephen Pritchard, pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption, Gateacre.

People would disappear from parish life and he would only discover what had happened when it was too late.

“I was constantly doing funerals for people and then finding out that maybe they stopped going to church two or three years before and we never knew,” Fr Pritchard explained.

“We could have given them Communion. We could have supported them in lots of different ways. So I was finding that out: that people didn’t know each other, or that as a parish we weren’t really being attentive to their personal needs.”

Although Wikipedia describes Gateacre as an “affluent suburb,” Pritchard noted that there are pockets of high deprivation and child poverty.

“Our local community is not a rich community by any means,” he said. “There’s a lot of loneliness as well, a lot of isolation. The greatest epidemic we have here in this parish is an epidemic of loneliness and isolation.”

With Fr Pritchard’s encouragement, parishioners decided to do something about it.

“We invited everyone in the parish over a period of 12 months to a meal,” Chris Taylor, an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, recalled.

“It was a way of getting to know people, so that we had some idea of what the needs were for our parishioners.”

This year the church decided to hold birthday parties for parishioners. Everyone born in a particular month was invited to a celebration at the parish, beginning with January.

When the parish got to March, the coronavirus crisis struck and the government imposed a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the disease.

“Then because we had a lot of people’s contacts, a team of our ministers of the parish — our Eucharistic ministers, our funeral ministers, trusted people — took a group of names and they rang round all the parishioners,” said Fr Pritchard.

“Of course there were a lot of people on that list who had maybe stopped coming to church for some time or who had become disaffiliated in different ways. But they were really appreciative of the phone call.”

A team at the parish called an initial 510 people. Many were coping well, thanks to their families or neighbours. But some were vulnerable.

“It wasn’t that they didn’t have family and friends,” said Taylor. “But some of them were some distance away. Some of them had no social media, nothing. So they were basically at home alone with the telephone.”

“We asked if they wanted us to keep in touch with them. They were obviously frightened of the outcome of the virus. So we kept in touch.”

The team made regular follow-up calls, putting those who needed a priest in touch with Pritchard, who was especially busy in the first weeks of lockdown.

“I couldn’t do that as an individual, because unfortunately at the same time there were so many funerals happening and also we were trying to set up lots of online ministries,” he said.

“The fact that there was a team of lay people who were the voice of Christ really to many people in the parish was just wonderful.”

Taylor noted that Liverpool is famous for its community spirit. She cited the example of a woman who worked in a local supermarket and brought roses each week to an elderly widow who put the flowers in his living room in memory of his wife.

But as the weeks passed, she said, it became clear that many people needed emotional support as much as practical aid.

“In the beginning we could steer them to practical help,” she observed, “but in the latter time of this epidemic, we help them more emotionally because that was the thing that was lacking.”

“Neighbours could go and do shopping and it’s great, but if you’re there [at home] 24 hours a day, it’s a long, lonely life.”

Fr Pritchard emphasised that holding the dinners and birthday parties had prepared the church to reach out to parishioners during lockdown.

He said: “It all began because we really had a concern for each and every person in the parish. We did a lot of work in the past couple of years to ensure that nobody is anonymous in our parish, that everybody is known by name.”

He continued: “We want just to break down the barriers between people. So being known by name is a significant part of what we’re trying to do. If someone walks through the door here we want to welcome them. We want to get to know them.”

“And also people who for some reason have stopped coming, we want to follow that through in some way so that people don’t just disappear.”