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Local Lutheran Home Offering Residents A One-Man Pastoral Care Department



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This weekend will mark beginning of the 14th year of service at the Lutheran Home of Southbury for the Reverend Leo McIlrath. The 13th year of serving the residents in the long term care and assisted living areas has probably been the most challenging, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nevertheless, the Sandy Hook resident is eternally grateful, he said, “to our God for the honor of serving hundreds of people, many in their final months or years as citizens of earth.”

“Through multimedia, discussions on multiple topics, liturgical celebrations, and spiritual bonds,” McIlrath said, March 1, “communal bonds are forged that bring solace and inner peace to our residents.”

The Lutheran Home has residents who represent several religious persuasions: Orthodox, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Methodists, Baptists, and Pentecostals among them, according to McIlrath.

“We invite representatives of all faiths to minister to their congregants,” he said. “That is the setting when all things might be considered as normal.”

For 12 months, however, things have been far from normal.

“Since last year and the introduction of COVID-19 into our world, much has drastically changed,” McIlrath said. “We continue to visit residents and, most often, in their respective rooms.”

When someone arrives from a hospital, their room cannot be visited without staff gowning up and adding an additional mask for the first two weeks after arrival.

“Single masks, of course, are worn at all times while in the building,” McIlrath quickly pointed out.

In any type of gathering, be it religious or recreational nature, “social distancing is kept,” he added.

One of the biggest changes for the facility’s residents and staff, including McIlrath, has been the suspension of any religious activity by outside clergy.

A schedule had long been in place for visits: A Lutheran pastor would visit during the first week of each month, a Congregational minister would visit the second week, a Roman Catholic priest would visit during the third week, and an Episcopal priest would visit the final week of each month.

“In between, if anybody wanted to come from another faith community, all they had to do was call us, and we’d fit them in between,” McIlrath said last week.

That schedule went out the window last year when the world went on COVID-19 lockdown.

Catholic Background

Leo McIlrath was ordained to the priesthood for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., in May 1966. He has been in a variety of ministries since ordination, including pastor, retreat director (Cursillo, Marriage Encounter, and Charismatic Renewal), chaplain at Duke University, and civilian chaplain to the US Marines, at Havelock/Cherry Point, N.C.

He earned a license for nursing home administration in Massachusetts, and has served as director of elderly services for the Department of Elderly Services in Danbury, chaplain for Regional Hospice, and health test coordinator for the Western Area Agency on Aging, as well as serving in his current post in Southbury.

McIlrath has also been an educator, teachingatin and psychology at both Western Connecticut State University and the University of Bridgeport.

He is a member of interfaith communities in Newtown, Danbury, and Southbury/Woodbury.

He has, he told The Newtown Bee in 2016 during the observation of the 50th anniversary of his ordination, celebrated “many memorial services, funerals, and weddings over the past many years, particularly for people who desired a spiritually based service without having a connection to a faith-based community.”

That experience allowed him to serve the residents of the Lutheran Home for years. It has also allowed him, in recent months, to fully call on past experiences to offer services that appeal to multiple faiths.

Adapting Schedule

McIlrath last week said he and others at the Lutheran Home of Southbury (LHS) began hearing about coronavirus in earnest in January 2020, “and through most of February had discussions on the same, as most were doing.

“By March and April we got hit really hard,” he added.

LHS had canceled a few events by the end of February 2020, he said, including the remembrance service, the monthly event that memorializes LHS residents who died during the previous month. The January 2020 service was the last one conducted until November, when the event was held again, tied in to All Saints Day.

“Family members usually come in and take part in that remembrance service as well,” McIlrath said. “Of course, we couldn’t have them come in for that either, but we did hold one.”

Part of the service includes birch branches and leaves. In November, McIlrath fashioned artificial branches and cardboard leaves to memorialize those who had died during the previous 12 months.

“The 80 people represented all of those who died, either here at LHS or in the hospital or at home following a stay here,” he explained. “We lost about 25 to COVID.”

Following the service, McIlrath and other LHS staff took photos of every leaf on the tree. With the public still unable to visit the Main Street North facility, the photos were sent to the families of those who had died.

“We sent them to the families to let them know we are still thinking about” their loved ones, McIlrath said.

For months, McIlrath has served as the one leader of faith for the Lutheran Home’s residents. He has not been in the LHS chapel all year, he said, due to space constraints. There were several months when he was unable to visit the Lutheran home at all.

“For the longest time we couldn’t have any services,” he said. “There was nothing at all. Even sharing Communion could multiply the germs.”

To again provide hope and faith to the residents, a recorded service was created. McIlrath now records a 30-minute service on Wednesday or Thursday.

“I go in, vest up, and have the service ready,” said McIlrath, who admitted it was difficult to get used to the camera.

“It’s really strange, celebrating with a camera in front of you, and talking as if there was a crowd of people behind the camera,” he said with a laugh. “I sing and everything. They have to put up with my voice.”

Each service includes a reading, “a very, very minor homily,” and some music. A local cantor made a CD for McIlrath, which he plays as accompaniment whenever possible.

Communion is not possible, which is still something to get used to.

“Not being able to reach out and share the host with someone, and the cup, is still very odd,” McIlrath said. In place of the elements, he offers “a spiritual communion prayer” each week.

The new service then airs each Sunday, repeating all day, on an in-house channel.

About six weeks ago, in-person services resumed, on a very limited basis.

“We still cannot mix the floors,” he said. “We can’t even mix two units on the same floor,” he added.

McIlrath currently offers one in-person service on one floor on Fridays, and another service on a different floor on Sundays. The maximum capacity for each service is ten people.

“We used to have 35-40 people per service,” he said last week. “We can’t have that many people together right now.”

The recorded services continue, and benefit those who cannot or do not yet want to attend an in-person gathering. They also benefit new arrivals at the facility.

“We have people who come in, especially those from a hospital or home, who have to be quarantined in their rooms for two weeks,” McIrath said. “Many ask about services, so we let them know about the recordings.”

Prayer is still encouraged for all, said McIlrath.

“In this time of COVID-19, we are especially praying for all who have personally suffered, their families and friends, and for the overall medical community that they may continue to see ways to protect all.

“May we all, through this trial, become a more loving and caring community,” he said.

The Reverend Leo McIlrath has been serving as the sole leader of faith for all residents of The Lutheran Home of Southbury for months. —photo courtesy Anna Sullo
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