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During Virus Outbreak, Safe, Municipal Water Keeps Flowing As Holy Water Disappears

Ben Meyer/WXPR

At Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church in Rhinelander last Sunday, pianos and voices paired for the song “Down to the River to Pray.”

It was the final hymn at Mass, and songs about prayers at the river were just one of the many references to faith and water at Catholic Masses across the country.

The Sunday Gospel, taken from John, Chapter 4, told of Jesus and a woman at a well.

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty,” Jesus said to the woman in the story.  “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’”

But while congregations sang and readers spoke of water, a familiar source of water was absent at Catholic churches in our area.

No Catholics touched the Holy Water as they entered the sanctuary.  There was none in the font.

All churches in northern Wisconsin’s Diocese of Superior drained the Holy Water from fonts as one step to try and slow the spread of coronavirus.  The move was directed by Bishop James Powers.

Credit Holy Rosary Parish
Father Patrick McConnell.

But Mass without Holy Water felt a bit odd to Father Patrick McConnell, the pastor at Holy Rosary Parish in Medford.

“Water is such a major part of our identity, even as human beings,” said McConnell, who used to serve at St. Peter the Fisherman in Eagle River.  “I find it beautiful that even in the faith, water is such an integral part of what we do.”

The tie between water and the faith goes back to Jewish traditions thousands of years ago, as told in Sunday’s Old Testament reading about Moses, the thirsty Israelites, and direction from God.

“Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink,” God told Moses in the story from Exodus.

For Biblical Jews, and today’s Catholics, water was and is also tied to the creation story and the parting of the Red Sea.

It’s a symbol of cleansing and purification, said McConnell.

“The same purpose of the water used in baptism is the same reason why we use Holy Water.  That Holy Water is always set in place to remind ourselves that we’re set apart for God.  For Jesus,” he said.

Like other priests, McConnell blesses and performs the sign of the cross over water to make it Holy Water.

But no Holy Water will be in northern Wisconsin fonts for the foreseeable future, and, in fact, there will be no Mass at all.  Bishop Powers called off the gatherings in a letter Tuesday.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Daryl Rutkowski, the lead water operator for the City of Eagle River.

One kind of water, however, will most definitely keep flowing.

Municipal water serves hundreds of thousands of customers across northern Wisconsin.

The Centers for Disease Control says COVID-19 has not been detected in drinking water, and the disinfecting treatment used by most municipal systems should take care of the virus.

Daryl Rutkowski, the lead water operator for the city of Eagle River, demonstrated that disinfectant system at the city’s Well 3.

“Here’s our chlorine, which is the disinfectant.  These are just three 55-gallon pails that are full.  That’s 

Credit ben meyer/wxpr
Fifty-five gallon barrels of chlorine are used as disinfectant in Eagle River's water.

probably, depending on time of the year, that’s probably a two-month supply,” he said.

In Eagle River, like many places in the Northwoods, a small amount of chlorine is added to the water supply as it leaves the pumphouse.

The DNR requires municipal water systems like Eagle River to do frequent testing.  But Rutkowski is glad to know state and federal water experts don’t think coronavirus spreading through drinking water is a major threat.

“I’ve heard very little on the water side, which is very fortunate,” he said.

In cities, villages, and towns, that essential water will keep flowing during the COVID-19 outbreak.  Last week, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers put a ban on utility disconnections during the virus outbreak.  That means even if a municipal water customer falls behind on their bills, their water won’t be shut off.

Meanwhile, a different kind of water, so essential in religious life, is no longer around.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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