1 year after St. Cloud area's first COVID-19 death, a community gathers to remember
ST. CLOUD — Around 100 people gathered at Lake George Saturday morning to memorialize the almost 400 area residents who have died from COVID-19 in the past year, and to share messages of resilience and hope for the future.
The event, which began at 10 a.m. Saturday, was organized by St. Cloud Times journalists Nora Hertel and Sarah Kocher.
"I had the idea to do something like this in January," Hertel said after the memorial. "I just thought, how are we honoring these people?"
Each death has added to a "huge community loss," Hertel said. "I just felt like we needed to reckon with it."
The memorial took place on the deck on the east side of Lake George. Guests were invited to tie strips of cloth, donated by Gruber's Quilt Shop in Waite Park, to the railing, where they will remain until Friday.
Those ribbons fluttered in the breeze behind each speaker during the event.
Rev. James Alberts, of the Higher Ground Church of God in Christ, was the first guest to speak. He opted to use his "pastor voice" instead of a microphone.
"It's good to see your faces, in a shared space, and to be able to do this together," Alberts said, before leading the assembled group in prayer.
Mayor Dave Kleis was the second to speak. "It's so important that we recognize the loss of nearly 400 people in our area," he said. "I hope there's a day not too distant in the future where we will celebrate the last case of COVID."
"This is an example, because it's 80 some degrees on the first of May," he quipped. "It's fitting that we've gathered together, because things are getting better.
After Kleis spoke, St. Cloud singer James Calacsan sang "You Raise Me Up," to applause from the crowd. Calacsan, as the city's official Singer Laureate has performed at dozens of sporting events and city festivals.
Over 3,600 healthcare workers have died nationwide during the pandemic. Mahado Ali, CentraCare Health System's supervisor of cultural competency and health equity, shared her own experience of losing her father to COVID-19.
While she and other health care workers were fighting to slow the pandemic, she learned that her father was dying from COVID-19. She was unable to travel overseas to see him.
"Like many of you, I felt hopeless, and powerless," she said. "We've been fighting this pandemic for so long, we're becoming numb to the sorrow... as a country, we are grieving."
"I'm truly grateful to everyone who came here today," Ali said. "To everyone who's listening, and everyone who's going through this pain you're not alone. And we are in this together."
At the start of the day, there were 398 deaths to COVID-19 in the tri-county area since the first in Benton County was announced May 1, 2020. An hour after the memorial began, a daily pandemic report from the Minnesota Department of Health reported No. 399.
One of those people was 36-year-old Jennifer Wenning. Her family attended the memorial with shirts in her memory.
"She would give you the shirt off her back," said her sister Roxanne Roth.
"She was always a shoulder to cry on," said her sister Chrystal Wenning.
Michael Wenning, Jennifer's father, said the event was a good way to remember not only Jennifer, but everyone who has lost their lives to the pandemic.
At the memorial, Wenning's family stood with the rest of the people gathered around Lake George for four minutes of silence, followed by taps played by St. Cloud State University student Ryan Walz.
"I was thinking that four minutes was going to take a long time," said Father Scott Pogatchnik, a priest at St. Mary's Cathedral. "In fact, it didn't take long enough." The silence was an opportunity for deep breaths, he said.
"This virus has attacked the respiratory system in a powerful way," Pogatchnik said before leading the memorial in a final prayer. "As a society, as a community, to be able to take a deep breath is so important."
At the end of the memorial, Hertel thanked attendees for coming to the memorial.
"We know it's hard," she said. "But it's easier together, I think."
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