MANHATTAN — For many Catholics, making the transition from in-person to livestreamed Mass during the pandemic has been a sobering experience. It has meant not being able to receive the Eucharist and participate in Mass with the rest of the faithful.
That’s not Debbie Starkman-Zdyrko’s experience. She feels closer to her community and the Catholic faith now than she did before quarantine began.
“It isn’t different,” she told The Tablet. “Even prior to this, knowing I was Jewish going to church, my neighbors and friends were very happy to see me there.”
Originally from Sheepshead Bay, Starkman-Zdyrko has been living in Belle Harbor, Queens, for 20 years. She began occasionally going to Mass at St. Francis de Sales Church in 2014 when her husband John was hospitalized following a near-fatal accident.
“I was born in 1955 as a Jew. I was not brought up in a particularly religious household,” she told The Tablet. Seeking community and support, she turned to her neighborhood church.
“I just found, especially in this community, how the church really reached out to people and brought people closer together,” Starkman-Zdyrko said, “and it just clicked in me.”
At that time, her neighbor, Sister Ellen Patricia Finn, O.P., former deputy executive director of Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens, offered daily prayers for Starkman-Zdyrko’s family that extended from the Dominican sisterhood to the local parish community.
“It just seemed like all the prayers were always being answered,” she recalled. “I really realized the importance of prayer and how really valuable it is … it’s something that you need in your life.”
Regularly attending Mass has since become a staple of Starkman-Zdyrko’s life, thanks in part to technology’s role during the pandemic. Despite the distance COVID-19 has created, she’s closer to the church now more than ever and is preparing to join the Catholic faith.
According to Starkman-Zdyrko, neighbors, family, and friends have been “a little surprised, but as a whole, very supportive” of her choice to become a Catholic.
“Basically, through the pandemic, and especially when everyone was quarantined, I did start to watch the Masses online,” Starkman-Zdyrko explained. “In a nutshell, it brings me great comfort, the church itself, and especially St. Francis de Sales.”
“I know the online Masses just gave her a great sense of strength and consolation,” Father James Cunningham, the parochial vicar for the parish, told The Tablet.
He says hearing testimony like Starkman-Zdyrko’s is encouraging at a time when technology’s place in daily life is met with some criticism.
“But then we see the blessings of technology, that people who are so disconnected, who maybe felt alone and abandoned could participate in the celebration of the Eucharist,” he said. “Even though they weren’t able to receive Holy Communion, they made a spiritual communion.”
Father Cunningham describes the number of people who watch the livestreamed Mass as “almost like having an auxiliary parish.” St. Francis de Sales livestreams Mass six days a week. Monday through Friday, nearly 400 viewers tune in to daily Mass and a Sunday Mass can bring in as many as 800 viewers.
“It means that we went in the right direction,” he explained. “Not everybody livestreamed right away, not everybody jumped on that bandwagon, and we did. So we feel like we did the right thing. … This is a great way to evangelize.”
“You try to regain a bit of normalcy, it’s not the same, but it’s all helpful. Whether it be online or in-person,” Starkman-Zdyrko explained.
In terms of her next steps, she is preparing to receive the sacraments of initiation of the Catholic Church: baptism, communion, and confirmation. And while her faith life is seeing a huge shift, Starkman-Zdyrko says it’s something that can’t be limited by a label.
“I don’t think that one’s faith could be defined by being a Jew or a Catholic or a Muslim, or whatever your faith may be,” she said. “One’s faith comes from their heart, and that’s what it’s all about.”