To borrow a phrase from TV, Donna Zeilmann knows a thing or two about disaster response because she’s seen a thing or two.
That’s why Father Daniel Merz, current pastor of St. George parish in Linn and Our Lady Help of Christians parish in Frankenstein, asked her to coordinate St. George parish’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on the greater Linn community.
For nearly a quarter-century, Mrs. Zeilmann and her late husband Richard served as American Red Cross disaster responders during numerous catastrophes, including Hurricane Katrina.
“What’s going on now is different but it isn’t,” she said of the pandemic and its associated difficulties. “You’re helping God’s people, regardless of where you are or who you’re helping.”
As chair of St. George parish’s Disaster Response Team, she worked with a core group of parishioners to assess people’s needs, take inventory of available resources and put together a plan.
“A lot of what we’ve done could be classified as mental-health-type work,” she said. “Our biggest concern was making sure people were not getting totally depressed because of their inability to get out and see other people.”
This especially applies to those who are over 60 or are otherwise at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and are sheltering-in-place.
About 70 St. George parishioners volunteered to help, using the online portal the diocese set up in March when the state’s pandemic measures kicked in.
“Each volunteer on the team got a list of six or seven names, and those were the people you were to stay in contact with,” said Mrs. Zeilmann. “You were to call them at least once a week. And if you determined that you needed to contact them more often, then that’s what you did.”
The callers offered help with such things as running errands or picking up groceries or medication.
“Some of them we didn’t need to call for long, because they said they have family members looking out for them,” said Mrs. Zeilmann. “But there are some that we’re still calling.”
She continues to check in with a handful of people on her own list.
“The people are very, very appreciative for this,” she said. “And several of our callers say they’ve made some wonderful friends in the process.”
The parish coordinated its response with the First Baptist Church in Linn.
“Their pastor brought a list of names to our rectory, and we included them on the lists we gave out to callers,” said Mrs. Zeilmann. “It was neat because we weren’t just calling to help the people of St. George. We got to give and receive the love of Christ with other Christians.”
Just being able to talk to someone who’s concerned about them meant a lot to many people on the contact list.
“That moral support is lifesaving,” Mrs. Zeilmann noted. “If you don’t have that kind of support, the isolation and depression can absolutely destroy you.”
“Beauty in everything”
Mr. and Mrs. Zeilmann had finished raising their family in the St. Louis area when they moved to Bonnots Mill 27 years ago and joined St. Louis of France parish.
The epic Flood of ’93 took hold a few months later.
The couple went to Jefferson City to look for a squeegee and were referred to the Red Cross disaster responders from the United States and Canada. The Red Cross offered to come to Bonnots Mill to distribute food to people displaced by the biblically invasive floodwaters.
“Every day at noon, we helped a group of Canadian Red Crossers serve meals and put supplies out,” said Mrs. Zeilmann. “They said, ‘You’re really good at this. You ought to join us.’”
The couple wound up taking classes and becoming certified Red Cross disaster responders.
“When things started to dry out, we started going out on assignment,” she said.
They would go on three-week-long deployments to places devastated by natural disasters.
“You’d go out and work 14-, 15- and 16-hour days,” Mrs. Zeilmann recalled. “Then, you’d go lay down somewhere — sometimes in a car or on a cot. Sometimes you’d get really lucky and stay in a hotel or a motel.”
They were usually too exhausted to care.
“But your heart felt so full and you knew you had done something good for God’s people that day,” she said. “That’s where you learn to see the beauty in everything, just doing that type of work.”
Those shared experiences deeply enriched the Zeilmanns’ marriage.
“We worked side-by-side,” said Mrs. Zeilmann. “I was usually in charge of logistics, and he was head of transportation and was working under me most of the time.”
They could talk privately, vent to each other after a bad day and simply encourage each other.
“He was my support,” said Mrs. Zeilmann. “I’ve often referred to him as my knight in shining armor.”
She lost track of how many hurricanes they endured together.
“We were in some very scary situations,” she said. “But we trusted that the Lord was going to take care of us. And He did.”
The only serious thing that happened to either of them while they were serving was in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated huge swaths of the Gulf Coast.
“I found out that Mississippi mud is very slippery,” she said. “I was out walking and I fell and broke my ankle.”
She remained on the job for the next five months, working in a wheelchair, and came home with a walking cast on.
“And never a moment’s regret!” she said. “Those were some of the best years of our marriage. We made some great friends, and God used it to bless us and help us grow closer and closer.”
She remains in touch with friends from the Red Cross, who she said are like extended family.
From death to resurrection
Mr. Zeilmann was diagnosed with dementia about five years ago.
As his health deteriorated, the couple decided to buy a house in the neighborhood he had grown up in in Linn.
He died in December 2018, before they could move in.
Mrs. Zeilmann fell into a serious depression that almost claimed her life.
Fr. Merz ministered to her and helped her connect with fellow parishioners.
She returned to being a parish religious education teacher, which she and Mr. Zeilmann had done together when their children were young.
She became an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and began visiting and praying with people in local nursing homes and helping prepare for daily Mass at church.
Encouraged by Fr. Merz, she went on a weeklong silent retreat in Indiana.
“I spent each day, just me and God,” she said. “I was trying to figure out, ‘What am I supposed to be for the rest of my life? Where does God want me to be?’”
She came home convinced that God was calling her to make a commitment of lifelong devotion to Him.
She looked into various communities of lay associates of religious orders before discovering the Benedictine Oblates.
Oblates are Christian individuals who associate themselves with a Benedictine community in order to enrich their Christian way of life. By integrating their prayer and work, they seek God by striving to become holy in their chosen way of life.
“It’s first and foremost a means of growing in your love for God and in your devotion to Him,” said Mrs. Zeilmann.
She spoke to the Benedictine priest in charge of the Oblate community at Conception Abbey in northwestern Missouri.
“And the rest is history,” she said.
As a novice, she began studying the rule of St. Benedict and learning how to live according to it, including praying the Liturgy of the Hours at various times of the day.
“I periodically go up to Conception and visit with my spiritual advisor there,” she said. “Fr. Merz is my spiritual advisor here.”
She made her first promises to God as a Benedictine Oblate during a Mass in St. George Church. Family members, friends, and students from St. George School attended.
“I can’t tell you how pleased I am with what’s transpired since then!” she said. “I’ve learned so much about obedience, about humility. The depth of my feeling of love for our Lord is so much different from what it was.”
She will continue her studies and formation and hopes to make a final profession before the end of this year.
After that, she will persist in cultivating a life of prayer, service and intense gratitude.
“It certainly makes you appreciate all that God does for you,” she stated.