Challenged by COVID, an Oakdale church’s impact grows

28November 2020

As the impact from COVID batters the state, one church in Oakdale is standing as a bulwark.

Even though Guardian Angels Catholic Church has been hit hard by the pandemic, it manages to sponsor one of the biggest food shelves in the state, and the largest homeless shelter in the county.

The medium-sized church quietly feeds people, houses them and in some cases even buries their dead.

“We have a long history of social justice in the community,” said Suzanne Bernet, the church’s Director of Justice and Outreach.

IMPACT MULTIPLYING

The church is not a mega-church, which makes the mega-help all the more striking. In fact, Guardian Angels has been hurt by the epidemic — with weekly attendance dropping to 100, compared with 1,200 normally.

But somehow the church’s impact is multiplying.

Demand at the church’s homeless shelter has surged since March, when COVID hit the state. The church donates a building for the Hope for the Journey Home, operated with funds and volunteers from 25 area churches.

Guardian Angels created the shelter by remodeling a rectory that formerly housed priests and nuns. The eight-bedroom building is relatively large — the only other shelter in the county is the six-bedroom St. Andrew’s Family Shelter in Hugo.

Guardian Angels hosts the Christian Cupboard Emergency Food Shelf — which is now the fourth-largest in the state.

The food shelf, founded by Woodbury Lutheran Church, moved into a new building on Guardian Angels property in 2018. The host had no idea how active its guest was going to be.

DEMAND SPIKES

In 2019, the demand for food jumped by 42 percent. This year, with COVID, it’s expected to double — to two million pounds of food.

The church’s parking lot used to be peacefully deserted during weekdays, but now hungry people flood in from across the metro area. On “Drive-up Wildcard Wednesdays,” their cars stack up in lines as long as 200.

Instead of complaining, Guardian Angels allowed the food shelf to haul in three shipping containers to store food. The church then gave the food shelf its pole barn, for housing a cooler and a freezer.

This week the food shelf is building an addition — on church property, of course — for more refrigeration capacity.

The Catholic church is letting a group from a Lutheran church build a permanent home on its property. They might not be Catholics, explained Bernet, but they are working for the same reason.

“They are a cousin, rather than a sister,” said Bernet.

FOOD FOR COVID-IMPACTED FAMILIES

A long double row of cars waits to pick up groceries at the Christian Cupboard food shelf in Oakdale, Sept. 30, 2020. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

As a result, the food shelf is able to feed thousands of COVID-impacted families — without a dime of public support from taxpayers.

“Guardian Angels has been the absolutely perfect partner,” gushed food shelf director Jessica Francis. “I can’t overstate the impact they have had on it. If we were not at their site, there is no way we could have expanded the way we have.”

But there is even more. From the Guardian Angels food shelf garden, parishioners last year raised 9,000 pounds of organic food.

And next to the church is the cemetery. For years, Guardian Angels has donated burial services for babies under the age of three months, stillborn babies and miscarriages.

Church official Bernet did not know if demand had increased for those services. But they are part of an effort by the medium-sized church to make an impact on the community.

“We are trying to imitate the master. We are trying to be who Jesus was in the community,” said Bernet.

A view of the graveyard at the Guardian Angels Catholic Community in Oakdale. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

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