The Rev. Andrew Jaspers walked into the hospital room of a man dying of COVID-19 with a mask over his mouth, a shield over his face and a prayer in his heart.

Making the sign of the cross, he searched the man's face for signs of recognition, then bent toward his ear as he recited the last rites of the Catholic faith, dipping his gloved finger into anointing oil to touch the patient's forehead.

A dozen family members joined the priest in prayer from their living room, their grief clearly visible from the iPad on a bedside cart.

"Everybody in the room was crying," Jaspers said of this recent visit. "One person at a time, they'd speak. They'd say 'Father, I love you. …' They'd just pour out their hearts even though he was unconscious."

Such unusual final blessings have become part of life for Minnesota chaplains tending to the spiritual health of those sick or dying of COVID-19, which has taken the lives of more than 3,800 Minnesotans to date and infected 340,000.

These chaplains — of all faiths — are quietly providing another dimension of support to Minnesota's COVID patients, their families and often medical staff. They've adapted to once-in-a-lifetime roles that have robbed them of some of their most important tools, such as a gentle touch of the hand, a warm embrace or a visible smile on their face.

"You learn to smile with your eyes," said Rabbi Lynn Liberman, a Jewish community service and hospice chaplain. "I work with elderly people, many with difficulty hearing. They can't see my lips. They've lost a way to communicate."

As COVID cases continue to spike, chaplains say they're honored to be of sacred service but acknowledge the strains of the work.

Jaspers, for example, said he has offered the anointing of the sick to more than 200 sick or dying COVID patients since March, most in his role as a chaplain at HCMC.

The 'Anointing Corps'

In the Catholic faith, the last rites are a sacrament preparing a person to enter heaven. Given its significance, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis last April created an "Anointing Corps" to focus on ushering souls on their heavenly journey.

The archdiocese recruited more than a dozen younger priests, including Jaspers, offering safety training by a medical team. It created a triage system run by volunteer Catholic nursing professionals who field calls to a COVID hotline and dispatch priests to those facing imminent death. They also work to remove barriers at the medical setting that might impede the visit.

Hotline coordinator Sydney March said a record 127 calls were made to the hotline in November, 610 calls since March. After dispatching a priest, the nurses contact a prayer line coordinator, who notifies about 2,000 area Catholics of the impending death so they can offer prayers.

The Rev. Matt Shireman, for example, received a hotline text while at Thanksgiving dinner. A parish priest in Hastings, he headed to his car, where he keeps bags containing his mask, face shield, cotton balls dipped in anointing oil, prayer sheets and more.

Soon he was pulling into a nursing home, delivering the last rites to a man he had never met. The person's parish priest was not a member of the corps so couldn't be there.

"Most of the time, if the person is close to death they are nonresponsive," Shireman said. "But I go through the prayers thinking that maybe they can hear me."

Penny Tupy of New Prague is among Catholics grateful for a rapid response. Last summer, her father-in-law's nursing facility called the hotline to request a priest as death was near. Her family rushed to the facility, gathering outside his window. Soon Shireman arrived, giving his final blessings as they prayed outside.

"For families with someone sick with COVID, to be able to get these last rites is such a blessing," Tupy said.

Adapting familiar rituals

Chris Quistad is a chaplain and director of spiritual care for Ecumen, a Shoreview-based nonprofit that operates senior housing and other services across the state. She said patients or their loved ones request a variety of ways to soothe the souls of the COVID sick and dying.

"We meet people wherever their faith is," she said.

Some people request religious hymns, classics such as "Amazing Grace" or "The Old Rugged Cross." Some want country music. Others seek a scripture reading, such as Psalm 23, which begins "The Lord is my Shepherd." Some want to pray the Lord's Prayer or other individual prayers.

"And we talk about heaven," said Quistad. "I ask, what do you think it will be like?"

Liberman said when she is at the bedside of Jewish patients, she or the patient recites the Vidui prayers said before the end of life. If the family is present — in person, on the phone, on an iPad — they join in reciting the Shema in Hebrew: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God. The Lord is one."

She invites families to speak to their loved ones, even if he or she is nonresponsive, noting "hearing is the last to go."

The Rev. Laura Snyder, a Lutheran chaplain at Maple Grove Hospital, said just being present is a gift for many COVID patients, typically isolated in their rooms.

"For a lot of people [with COVID], they don't see anybody who isn't poking them, prodding them, helping them use the restroom," said Snyder. "If I can … come in and care about them in a different way, that's my role."

Crystal Vogt, a chaplain of the Covenant faith at Maple Grove Hospital, has viewed COVID through a different lens than most. Her focus isn't on last rites, but more on supporting those creating new life.

Vogt spends much of her time in the hospital's birth center and the neonatal intensive care unit. She's witnessed several instances when a new mother, who just learned she's tested positive for COVID-19, was told she couldn't cradle her newborn.

"Anytime a parent can't immediately be with their child, it's heartbreaking," Vogt said.

Like others, Vogt said social distancing and other safety requirements add challenges to her work.

"It can be tricky to try to comfort someone from six feet away," Vogt said. "You have to balance safety with humanity. But we err on the side of humanity. ... I have had people weep because it's the first time they've had that contact in a long time."

Vogt admitted there are days she feels overwhelmed. When the emotions of new parents in crisis are raw. When their questions about why cannot be easily answered. She'll sometimes steal away for a 10-minute walk to clear her head and "find the places we need to go to just breathe."

Then it's back to listening, to connecting, to just sitting "with the big things."

Comforting the caregivers

It's not just COVID patients whom chaplains feel called to serve. They're keenly aware of the stresses on medical staff, the long, intense hours, often with death as a companion.

Snyder stays attuned to that dynamic as she makes her rounds to comfort COVID patients. She's discovered the curative powers of a basket of bananas and granola bars, which she wields in her other role ministering to nurses, doctors and aides sapped by the unrelenting pace of an unforgiving virus.

"People are stretched," said Snyder. "They are working superhard and are doing incredible work, but they're exhausted. … I do a lot of focused checking in with people, asking 'How can I support you?' "

Quistad said sometimes staff approach her in the halls and ask to share a prayer on a particularly hard day or just be "a listening ear." Chaplains also volunteer for ordinary jobs to lessen staff strain, such as removing dinner trays, taking out trash "or anything that helps," she said.

Snyder acknowledged the job can seem overwhelming. But instead of finding it daunting, she's drawn to comforting people during their most difficult hours, adding "I feel like this is where I'm called to be."

This "call" is unlike anything chaplains ever imagined. They expose themselves daily to a life-threatening disease and adapt spiritual rituals in new ways. They return home, remove protective gear, put their clothes in the wash and immediately shower. Then they return the next day to console.

"I will never forget this," said Jaspers. "Initially I viewed this as … a scary thing. I've overcome that. I've seen the tremendous appreciation of spiritual things, of the variety of religious experience among people. It's been the most intense and extraordinary adventure I've had in ministry."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

James Walsh • 612-673-7428