Magazine: How COF Endured the COVID-19 Pandemic & Other World Events
Over 100 years have passed since the 1918 flu pandemic and World War I, and Catholic Order of Foresters (COF) is once again responding to the needs of the moment. In March, President and CEO Greg Temple asked most of the Home Office team to work remotely. “The governor deemed us an essential business, so we could have had our full staff,” said Greg. “I tried to approach balancing our team, health concerns, our families, and the business.” While there were challenges to going remote for two months, Greg said he knew “people would go above and beyond to respond.” Subsequently, COF “was able to do some things that we wouldn’t have done naturally,” including testing Home Office systems and tools for work-at-home capability.
Fortunately, COF has the tools to continue normal operation. “We prepare for pandemics all the time,” said Greg. “We want to make sure we have the assets to cover it.” Unlike the 1918 flu, when death claims tripled during the H1N1 virus apex, COF does not anticipate the same kind of financial strain. Even if COF paid out death claims of more than $18 million, a figure equivalent to the $1.1 million paid out by COF in 1918, the Order would still be on solid financial footing, according to Mike Deering, Vice President of Investments at COF.
As COVID-19 slowed in many places, offices around the country reopened, and the COF Home Office team returned on June 1 with safety measures in place. “We’re a team,” said Greg. “I wanted our team to be together.”
Like many organizations in 2020, COF was forced to consider how it would hold a large gathering like the 2020 National Convention. With restrictions on large crowds, an in-person convention was not feasible, yet the Illinois Department of Insurance requires COF to hold its convention every four years, so COF decided to hold the National Convention online on August 15.
Though an online convention is a novelty, the question of whether to hold the convention at all is not. The First World War influenced 1918 COF convention consideration. One member, E.D. Walsh of Waukesha, Wisconsin, argued against holding conventions that year, and wrote a letter to the editor of Catholic Forester citing what he thought were patriotic reasons to postpone the convention. “There are so many contributions and investments to be made all over the country to successfully terminate this terrible World War,” said Walsh, “that I believe it policy, if possible, to put off holding the convention.”
G.A. Henderson, of St. Benedict 1792, disagreed. He argued, though not directly with Walsh, that it was more patriotic to hold the convention. In his view, society was fragile, and it was better to continue an event to promote fraternity. “Postponing the conventions may be for economy, but far from patriotic,” said Lentz. “Society, at its best, is a fragile fabrication, easily broken down and hard to rebuild. We must not permit a link in the chain of social orders to be broken.” In the end, COF continued with its obligations and held what is today known as COF’s National Convention.
As some members debated holding the convention, others took action to support soldiers. More than 5,000 COF members served in World War I and over 9,800 served in World War II. According to a 1918 issue of Catholic Forester, St. Peter 1774 established a war fund which paid the premiums of the soldiers who were serving the country. A.M. Lentz, then Chief Ranger of St. Peter 1774, wrote to the editor of Catholic Forester saying the court paid for the war fund “by giving entertainments in a hall.” Lentz anticipated the fund would be a substantial burden on the court because they had several soldiers serving in various branches and expected more to be called upon. The gesture had a ripple effect as several other fraternal societies started similar funds.
While the First World War was coming to an end, the H1N1 virus was spreading fast around the globe. During the deadliest wave of the pandemic from October to December 1918, COF deaths tripled, and the Order paid out more than $1.1 million in claims. In 1918, the U.S. dollar went a lot further. According to data from the American Statistical Association, a loaf of bread cost 10 cents, a dozen eggs cost 53 cents, and a quart of milk cost 13 cents. Families were making less money, too; the median annual household income was just $678. Even though $1.1 million financially impacted COF, the Order’s mission prevailed. And it is that same mission, fulfilled in-person or online, which continues today.
Article by Nick Sentovich and Connor McEleney