'When Calls the Heart' Addresses Lori Loughlin's Absence in Season 6 Return: 'We Must Soldier On'

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When Calls the Heart wasted no time addressing the elephant in the room.

Hallmark Channel's original drama resumed its sixth season on Sunday after being taken off the air in March, following star and executive producer Lori Loughlin's involvement in a massive, nationwide college bribery scandal. Shortly after, the network cut ties with Loughlin, leaving many to question how they would handle her absence on the popular series. Now, that question has been answered.

When Calls the Heart, which opted to edit Loughlin out of all her scenes, opened its return episode with Erin Krakow's Elizabeth Thatcher writing a letter to a friend detailing the changes that have taken place in Hope Valley since the last aired episode in March.

A week has passed and Loughlin's character, Abigail Stanton, who owns a local cafe and is also mayor of Hope Valley, made the abrupt decision to travel to the East Coast -- with her adopted son, Cody -- to care for her ill mother. The mood Elizabeth conveys through her letter is of hope and of moving on, one that could be taken as a direct message to fans of the show.

“We never know how life will turn," Elizabeth writes. "It’s been a week since Abigail got word that her mother had taken ill back east. True to her nature, Abigail wasted no time in rushing off to take care of her. Abigail is much more than a friend. She’s family and I will miss her and Cody deeply. We all will. But we must get by as best we can.”

“We all keep Abigail and her family in our prayers and wish her godspeed," she continues, revealing that members of the community, notably Bill (Jack Wagner) and Clara (Eva Bourne), have taken over responsibilities at the cafe in Abigail's place. "In her absence, we must soldier on and we will. We are a community. We are strong. We are Hope Valley.”

The decision to keep Loughlin's character alive in the world of When Calls the Heart keeps in line with the family-friendly programming Hallmark prides itself on. It also leaves the door slightly ajar for a slim chance at a Loughlin return should that opportunity arise down the line.

Lori Loughlin in When Calls the Heart

Lori Loughlin appears in an early season six episode of 'When Calls the Heart.'

Eike Schroter/Crown Media

In addition to Loughlin being taken off all promotional materials for When Calls the Heart, which was recently renewed for a seventh season, the 54-year-old actress is no longer part of the show's opening credits.

ET was with Wagner in April, where he compared Loughlin's When Calls the Heart firing to "the five stages of grief." "I can't describe it any better than that," he said. "When you lose something or someone, I would describe it that way."

Wagner, who has been with the show since its first season, credited the rejiggering of the six remaining season six episodes "a real group effort," praising the cast's resilience as they begin to "lovingly [move] ahead" without Loughlin.

"When a show ... loses a character or something that is just such a key component to the show ... you really have to regroup and restructure," he explained. "Ultimately it's about how you're going to write the show and what the attitude is going to be amongst the actors as professionals, so that's been tested again and we all showed up, we hit our marks and we're trying to do our best."

Loughlin was taken into custody by FBI agents in Los Angeles on March 13 after being one of 50 people -- including her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli -- charged in a college admissions cheating scam. They are accused of paying $500,000 in bribes to get their daughters, Olivia Jade and Isabella Rose, admitted to the University of Southern California as recruits for the crew team, even though neither of them participated in the sport. 

On April 13, Loughlin and Giannulli were indicted on an additional charge. They formally submitted not guilty pleas on April 29.

When Calls the Heart continues its two-night return Monday, May 6 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Hallmark Channel, before resuming the rest of season six Sundays at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

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