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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- One year ago, many Catholic parishes were starting to close their doors, temporarily, at the start of the pandemic.
Now, some of them are opening their parking lots or church halls as venues for people in their local communities to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.
Hospitals have been teaming up with churches of all denominations to make these vaccine clinics happen, primarily as a way to reach more people and to get them to a place they might know or can get to easily.
Church leaders who have opened their doors, or parking lots, can't help but see a spiritual connection in this partnership.
Vincentian Father Gregory Gay, the pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Charlotte, North Carolina, found it fitting that the parish's first clinic was on the Feb. 11 feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, which also was World Day of the Sick. The parish hosted another clinic a month later for people to get their second shots.
The vaccination clinic was organized by the parish's health ministry and Atrium Health, a health care system in North Carolina and Georgia.
Rita Dominguez, Atrium's community health project manager, said it partners "with community organizations trusted in underserved communities to bring the resources, services and support. We want to eliminate barriers, such as transportation and internet access, required to make an appointment."
Father Gay said the three priests at the diocese's largest Latino-majority parish have emphasized the importance of receiving the vaccine echoing Pope Francis' New Year's Day message about creating a culture of care.
"We have also encouraged the people as the U.S. bishops said. We're not obliging people, but as they said, it is an act of charity and solidarity to get vaccinated," he told the Catholic News Herald, newspaper of the Charlotte Diocese.
"That is why I wanted to get the vaccine. We come into contact with lots of people -- I don't want to infect anyone. One of the ways to prevent that was to get the vaccine myself," he added.
Seeing people from the community coming in to get their vaccinations gave Claudia Carcamo, the parish's safety and environment coordinator, a sense of relief.
One elderly couple who came in for their shots needed assistance getting in and out of the church, she recalled. "It was emotional because you see that situation, they need help. I'm glad to know that the parish can provide this service. We are always trying to do the best, because God is teaching us how to be the best servers for the community."
Our Lady of Consolation Church in Charlotte, whose health ministry has already built a strong partnership with Atrium Health to provide monthly COVID-19 testing and information, partnered with a local Presbyterian Church and the health system for vaccination clinics on March 5.
Organizers said the churches were ideal locations because they are familiar and nearby and also smaller and less intimidating than large-scale vaccination sites.
Ron Berry, health ministry leader at Our Lady of Consolation Parish, said he hopes the effort to provide vaccines will help give parishioners the confidence to return to church soon.
The pastor, Father Basile Sede, agreed, saying: "The vaccination is one way we can all help to restore activities and engagement in a safe and healthy manner so that we can support the financial, emotional, physical and spiritual welfare of all individuals who have been and continue to be challenged by the ills of COVID-19."
More than 1,500 miles away, in Denver, elderly members of the Latino community received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at St. Cajetan Church at a drive-through clinic Feb. 5.
Linda Sosa, parishioner at St. Cajetan for more than 30 years, was one of the first people to support this initiative, along with the pastor, Father Angel Perez.
"Many of our people don't have health insurance, do not know how to register online, and don't speak English," Sosa told the Denver Catholic, news outlet of the Denver Archdiocese. "All these obstacles stop them from seeking help altogether. This is one of the main reasons this initiative started."
Young adults and teens from the parish helped by making phones calls to register those who wanted the vaccination and guiding them through the process. About 2,000 people were vaccinated in the parish clinic.
In dozens of other parishes, vaccine clinics ranged from one-day events to daily programs scheduled throughout the summer.
St. Philip Phan Van Minh Vietnamese Catholic Church in Orlando, Florida, was the site of a state-run vaccination site March 6 where 500 members of the community received their vaccines.
Vu Nguyen, a parishioner who helped register fellow parishioners for the vaccine along with other members of the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement, told Spectrum News 13, a 24-hour news channel in Orlando, that he was relieved so many were getting the vaccination.
He said for many of them, just getting the vaccine at a place they trusted was "comforting not only from a health perspective but from a spiritual and mental perspective."
In York, Maine, the basement of St. Christopher's Catholic Church is slated to be a vaccination center through August in a partnership with York Hospital and it plans to vaccinate 500 people there each weekday.
Similarly, St. Joseph Catholic Church in Saginaw, Michigan, in partnership with Covenant HealthCare, will be hosting a daily vaccination clinic from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Since February, the District of Columbia has been running a pilot program with clinics at churches throughout the city in the effort to alleviate some vaccine hesitancy and improve access to the shots in neighborhoods with high rates of COVID-19.
Kendrick Curry, senior pastor of Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church, told The Washington Post that the vaccine clinic was just part of what the church is doing to help the surrounding community through the pandemic along with its food pantry and COVID-19 testing.
"I believe this is the call of the church," he said. "It's not just to be a place where we gather for worship. It's a place where we witness the change in people's lives."
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Contributing to this report was SueAnn Howell, a senior reporter at the Catholic News Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Charlotte; and Rocio Madera, communications specialist for the Denver Catholic, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Denver.
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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim