Mission in southern Utah works to keep a Catholic identity amid pandemic

Mission in southern Utah works to keep a Catholic identity amid pandemic

The "Welcome to Utah" sign is shown Friday, April 10, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (Credit: Rick Bowmer/AP.)

One priest in Utah is keeping the faith alive in his southern Utah mission.

BERYL JUNCTION, Utah — San Pablo Mission is a mission small in size but large in spirit.

Located in Iron County, the town of Beryl Junction has an estimated population of 197, according to the 2010 U.S. census. Two years ago, the mission was comprised of just a few members, but now dozens of families attend the Sunday Masses. That is, until the coronavirus pandemic started.

Father Sebastien Sasa Nganomo Bibisayone, parochial vicar of St. George Parish in St. George, Utah, who ministers to San Pablo Mission, used to make the 100-mile round trip every Sunday for Mass. Now, however, he goes there four days a week, while continuing to follow the social distancing recommendations from the state government and the Salt Lake City Diocese, which covers the state of Utah.

On Sundays, he celebrates Mass, on Thursdays, he offers adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and twice on Fridays, he leads the Stations of the Cross. Thanks to his knowledge of social media and online communications, Sasa transmits the Mass through Facebook live and YouTube.

“I am looking to encourage the community to keep on having the Catholic Church close,” he told the Intermountain Catholic, Salt Lake City’s diocesan newspaper.

He has added a personal touch, as well, calling each family “to see how are they doing, what do they need, if anything, and to make sure they know they are not alone,” he said. “We are with them God is always with them.”

Father Sasa also has been visiting families, when needed.

“I believe that in these times, more than ever, our people need the priests, they need words of hope, they need comfort, they need support. … I, with all the precautions, visit them,” he said.

The families are afraid, but Sasa, using the Liturgy of the Hours, has prayed over the phone with them.

In these challenging times, people need to feel closer to God, he said.

“That’s why I have been also publishing online the words of the community, as well as words from Pope Francis,” said Sasa. “For me these words are key. … They can accompany the people through these challenging times.”

On his Facebook page, Sasa has been posting messages from his parishioners. Daniela M., a young catechist, is one who has shared some words. She wants all the young people and children to know that Jesus is with them.

“We need to get closer to the church. … Do not be afraid open your heart to God. He is always there with us,” she said in her message to the community.

Similarly, Luisa G. said that people need to maintain their Catholic identity.

“The word of Jesus keeps me alive. We need to share our faith with everyone, and that’s what we are doing here (at the mission),” she said. “Life keeps on going, and we need to keep our faith alive.”

Luisa, a mother, said that she is very grateful to Sasa.

“This is a very hard time. We are all scared, we keep hearing of very sad moments happening all over the U.S. and we are just asking God that this (pandemic) comes to an end soon. … We are scared to lose our jobs, about the economy … but we are not alone; we have our church,” she said.

Every Sunday, she and her children watch the Mass together.

“When I open the Facebook, my kids get really excited,” she said. “Their lives have changed. They can’t go to school, so now they are really looking forward to that moment when they can see Father Sasa. … For them, it is a distraction. They get happy when they see our priest talking through the screen.”

Her children are looking forward the moment when they can physically go back to church, she said, “but for now, we have to keep on going, we have to keep God’s word alive.”

Very few of the children at the mission have received the sacrament of confirmation, and many don’t receive the other sacraments regularly, Sasa said.

Even with the pandemic, parents need to keep their children close to the church, said Antonia Gatica, the mission’s director of religious education.

“We need to keep teaching them, we need to pray with them. … We cannot be in the church right now, but even like that we have to keep on learning of our church, even at a distance we can be together through our church,” she said.

Sasa has a similar message for all Catholics.

“Believe that God is with us, celebrate in communion with him, and keep celebrating that we are alive,” he said, and reminded people to keep present the three key words from Salt Lake City Bishop Oscar A. Solis’ pastoral plan: “Believe, celebrate and live,” he said.

Vallejo is a staff writer at the Intermountain Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Salt Lake City.

Latest Stories