When Father Scott Gratton was asked to make Easter a little more special for members of the Vermont Army and Air National Guard who were working during the COVID-19 pandemic to create and staff an overflow medical facility at the Essex Fairgrounds, he had to think like an Easter Bunny: chocolate, spring plants, gifts.

With ideas and help from Burlington Bishop Christopher Coyne and brother priests, Father Gratton — a Vermont Army National Guard chaplain — coordinated a joint effort of the Catholic community/parishes and local businesses to brighten the celebration of Easter for the troops marking the occasion apart from family and friends.

“Father Scott Gratton, who is one of my priests and a chaplain in the Vermont National Guard, sent out an email asking for help to turn the Easter dinner for the men and women at the Essex Fairgrounds into something festive,” Bishop Coyne said. “I just made a few phone calls to people that I know can get things done and it was all taken care of. We just wanted to show the men and women in the Vermont National Guard who are separate from their families during this time of pandemic how much we appreciate them.”

Bishop Coyne mentioned the project to local businessman Bill Bissonnette, who arranged to get table cloths from Vermont Tent Company and a supply of chocolate from Lake Champlain Chocolate. He also arranged to get gift cards from Al’s French Frys, the Saigon Kitchen Restaurant and Zachary’s Pizza.

“The National Guard supports our state through difficult times,” he commented. “Making their Easter a nicer day is a small token of appreciation for their effort. The St. Francis Catholic Community did most of the work, and I am very pleased to have worked with them.”

Robin McCormick, development director at St. Francis Xavier School and a parishioner of St. Francis Xavier Church, and her husband, Tom, contacted Snowflake Chocolates and Claussen’s Nursery, and those businesses donated more chocolate and dozens of spring plants to use as centerpieces at the Easter dinner.

Burlington-area parishes also helped. Father Dallas St. Peter, pastor of St. Mark Church in Burlington, asked parishioners to help, and they contributed food — including hundreds of homemade pizzelle cookies from one family and hundreds of homemade egg rolls from another. They also provided cards, flowers and other Easter treats.

Parishioners from St. Francis Xavier Church in Winooski donated some 30 pounds of individually wrapped chocolates, and St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Shelburne made a monetary donation to help fill in whatever was needed.

“All the goodies were delivered to Father Gratton who, with the help of an assistant, set up the festive dinner for around 185 Guard members,” Robin McCormick said. “What was especially impressive to me was how generously and quickly the local businesses responded to this even though this is a very tough time for all of them right now. I was so touched by their generosity and the fact they wanted to thank our Guard members.”

Donations were distributed evenly among workers — mostly members of the Guard — working on this Covid-19 response. Flowers were used for centerpieces and for the chapel altar.

“The Guard members have been pulling me aside for the last few days and just thanking me for the wonderful meal and the outpouring of love that they experienced from the local community,” said Father Gratton who also serves as administrator of Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Randolph and of Our Lady of the Valley Parish in Bethel and Rochester and as a chaplain at Norwich University. “They were very moved, and it made this Easter one that I am sure they will never forget.”

He said it is not unusual for Guard members to be deployed during holy times and feasts throughout the year. “To be put on active duty during a pandemic, however, is something that most have not seen in their lifetime. It provides new challenges and there are many unknowns.”

He said it takes special people to accept the call to work on behalf of their country, state and community members during such a time of uncertainty: “It takes a lot of courage to agree to help in something that can seem very dark and confusing at times. Add on to that stress the fact that they are not allowed to even be in close contact with their families, for fear of getting them sick, makes the cross that much heavier. And then add on to that cross the fact that their family members are worried for their soldier/airman because they will be potentially working with the very disease that could hurt their loved ones. A situation like this involves many layers, and there are sacrifices all around.”

He always is honored to be a Catholic priest in the 21st century. “I stand beside countless heroes — priests, sisters and lay faithful —who are willing to risk their popularity, livelihoods, everything for the one that they love: Jesus Christ. All I can say is, my Catholic faith and my ordination to the priesthood have prepared me well for any pandemic that may come my way.”

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