Story by Larry Altman
The Rev. Albert Avenido fiddled with the wires connecting the sound board to the cameras, microphones and recording equipment. He and his assistant worked late the night before to be ready for mass.
The priest at St. Kateri Tekakwitha Church in Santa Clarita wasn’t poring over his sermon or preparing the sacraments that morning. Once you go live, he said, “you’re live.”
“Technology has been my favorite hobby since I was in the seminary,” Avenido said. “When I was in high school and in college, these used to be my toys. When I became a priest, my time with this technology (got) shorter and shorter and shorter until being in a big parish, I don’t have any time at all.”
In the weeks since the COVID-19 pandemic shelter-in-place shut down church services, Avenido quickly put his hobby to use, broadcasting mass over Zoom to his parishioners and performing a funeral alone over Facetime to a 78-year-old woman’s family prohibited from attending.
Wearing a mask and gloves, Avenido said prayers, livestreaming to Eileen Neri’s husband and family watching at home on an iPad.
“Toward the end, when I was about to give the blessing, I looked at the camera to the family and I shared with them the blessing as well, because I believed at the time the grieving family needed the blessing the most,” Avenido said. “I truly believe that her soul will go to heaven. But the grieving family may find it difficult. And I hope in that difficulty they will not lose their faith.”
Avenido and clergy like him have adapted in recent weeks to life under COVID-19 restrictions, conducting services via Zoom, Facetime and other platforms.
Rabbi Ahud Sela of Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge recently placed his cellphone on a tripod near a gravesite at Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills to broadcast a funeral service where just 10 members of a family were allowed to attend in masks and gloves.
“I stuck the microphone on a flat piece of ground and when someone would speak I would turn it toward them,” Sela said. “It was just strange. You want to reach out and comfort people and can’t.”
Since safer-at-home orders were instituted in March, cemeteries and funeral homes closed their doors to large groups. Some funerals and cremations were conducted without families present. Many sites are now allowing mourners to attend funerals, but limiting the number to 10 people.
“We were restricted from seeing ‘Momma’ before she was buried,” said Sal Neri, whose wife of 57 years died March 23 following seven years with Alzheimer’s disease. Only Avenido was allowed to attend. “It was terrible. I can’t explain in words what it did to our level of grief. It was profoundly painful.”
Neri, who met his wife, Eileen, in New York shortly after he was discharged from the U.S. Air Force in 1959, moved west with her. Sal worked for American Airlines at Los Angeles International Airport. Eileen worked for the Los Angeles County Assessor’s Office. They raised a son and two daughters and enjoyed two grandchildren.
Following Eileen’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Sal promised he would stay with her in the house until the illness “took her away from us.”
A devout Catholic, Eileen remembered her prayers and family members’ names, but lost the ability to write, read her crime novels, work her crossword puzzles and care for her garden.
“She was a fun-loving mom,” daughter, Christine Neri, said. “She was just a beautiful soul, a gentle spirit.”
As the world focused on the growing pandemic in March, Sal Neri recognized his wife’s life was coming to an end. He called Avenido to their Santa Clarita home to perform Last Rites. Eileen died on March 23.
At the time, the Neri family knew that the county health department was allowing only 10 people to attend funerals, so they figured the immediate family would do so. But the night before the visitation, mortuary employees called the family to tell them no one but the priest would be allowed to come.
“My heart was shattered,” Christine said. “I can’t even describe it. I just wanted to give her one last kiss and I wasn’t allowed to do that.”
The family begged mortuary officials to allow her husband to attend, but were denied. They asked for someone to take photos so they could make sure Eileen was dressed properly before interment.
“It was completely out of our hands, out of our control,” Christine said.
Avenido arrived early at San Fernando Mission Cemetery on March 27 to say prayers. He watched the hearse arrive at the mausoleum. He agreed to a request that he perform a service over Facetime to Neri’s family at home.
“God bless him,” Sal said. “To show up at a shutdown funeral establishment to bless Momma before the coffin was closed. I will forever be appreciative of him.”
Technology has played a significant role for other families during the COVID-19 crisis. Besides offices using Zoom and other platforms for meetings, senior citizens have communicated with children they cannot visit.
Avenido’s church has had two parishioners die from COVID-19. Another is hospitalized.
Founding member Rose Salamone’s family was not allowed to see the 94-year-old woman in her final weeks.
“A caregiver would call us and do Facetime in the morning,” her son-in-law, Bill, said. “We were fortunate, four or five times a week before she passed away…She had a nurse who was a saint. Held an iPad for 45 minutes so we could talk to her.”
Salamone died on Easter Sunday. Ten members of her family were allowed to attend her service.
COVID-19 restrictions also have prevented normal customs from occurring, including cleansing of bodies and looking inside a casket for a final identification.
Sela’s recent service was conducted outdoors, the cantor chanting prayers in the cemetery road. Family and friends could not act as pallbearers or pass the shovel for the tradition of tossing dirt into the grave.
About 50 to 80 people watched at home through Sela’s phone. Afterward, the widow went home alone without a traditional gathering for a meal.
Evening prayers usually held in a home during the following week of sitting “Shiva” were held on Zoom instead.
“I’m assuming it’s going to be this way for months,” Sela said.
Avenido said he wondered how many more families will go through “this kind of experience.”
“At home with your family, I’m sure during the ‘sign of peace,’ people still hug each other and I hope they’re doing it,” the priest said. “One of the things that I realize over here is truly the value of family.”