Slovak priests help out on wards as Covid deaths spike

Prešov (Slovakia) (AFP) –


In a hospital with broken windows and peeling paint in a poor part of Slovakia, Father Martin helps overworked medical staff battling the world's highest Covid mortality rate.

Clothed in full protective gear with his name scribbled on it in red marker, the priest helps move, feed and clean patients, as well as praying with them and cracking the occasional joke.

He is one of dozens of Catholic priests who have volunteered in eastern Slovakia since January to provide hands-on, as well as spiritual, assistance on particularly busy Covid wards.

"They make our days brighter," Eva, a 66-year-old patient, said in between drags of oxygen from a plastic mask at a hospital in the city of Presov.

In the corridor lay a body wrapped in foil.

Duing his eight-hour shifts, Father Martin Miskuf, 32, said he sees death on a daily basis.

"Watching people die is difficult but it is also an encouragement in my faith," he told AFP.

"For me these people are also human souls that the Lord is awaiting," the priest continued.

The EU country of 5.4 million currently has the world's highest rate of 24 Covid deaths per 100,000 inhabitants ahead of Portugal with 22 and Czech Republic with 18, according to an AFP tally.

Throughout the post-communist country, there are currently 3,900 Covid patients in hospital.

The total number of deaths currently stands at 6,350.

- 'We feel more needed' -

With churches closed, a total of 77 Catholic priests have volunteered to help out in hospitals in eastern Slovakia.

It is a region where per capita GDP is three times lower than in the capital Bratislava.

"Because of the lockdown, we have had no direct contact with people and thus felt useless," said Father Jozef Kmec, who is helping out with registrations at a nearby vaccination centre.

"The initiative was born in our Facebook group in early January, and quickly spread throughout the region," said Kmec, who is also personal secretary to the local archbishop.

"We feel more needed and useful here," Kmec said.

"Our priests try to relieve medical staff who do not have time to talk to patients. They bring reassurance to patients. And the medical staff is cursing less because they have a spiritual person there," he said.

Lenka Molcsanyiova, a doctor working at the vaccination centre, said the priests were a "true blessing".

"Some of our patients turn to the priests as some kind of counseling service, consult their problems. Sometimes it is like a small confession for them," she said.

Her words are echoed by head nurse Monika Kummerova.

"They are our angels," Kummerova said.

– 'Make our days pass quickly' –

In another part of the ward in Presov, Father Dusan Nemec was comforting a newly arrived Covid-19 patient, Jan Cuchran.

"He has encouraged and uplifted me. I rarely went to church for a bad leg," Cuchran said.

Daniela Semencikova, a mother of four, said she contracted the virus at the local hospital when her daughter broke her arm.

"These nice young men really make our days pass quickly," the 37-year-old said.

"The priests cheer us up, help us spiritually, pray with us and they offer us Holy Communion."

Amid the grimness, there is even some humour.

Father Martin chuckles to himself as he remembers the time that an elderly lady said she had had enough of water and asked for a shot of rum.

"I told her we do not serve rum here but offered her some 'wine' instead. She gladly downed a glass of water believing I gave her wine. It was a merciful lie," the young priest said.

"Every now and then I have to control myself not to do or say anything funny because some of the patients may choke themselves if I make them laugh during a meal."