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Parishes' plans vary as public Masses resume

Parochial vicar Father Andrea Povero celebrates Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Jamaica Plain June 7. The parish is part of the Catholic Parishes of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury collaborative. Pilot photo/Jacqueline Tetrault

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BRAINTREE -- Every parish in the archdiocese has had to contemplate how to resume a public life of worship as pandemic restrictions are lifted, but their timing and methods for doing so have varied.

Public Masses were suspended beginning March 14 in keeping with state restrictions intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. When Gov. Charlie Baker announced May 18 that houses of worship would be allowed to hold services in Phase One of reopening the economy, the archdiocese said public Masses could resume as early as May 23, so long as state directives and archdiocesan guidelines were observed. These included wearing masks, limiting the number of people allowed in buildings to 40 percent of their capacity, maintaining six feet of distance between members of different households, disinfecting before and after each Mass and providing hand sanitizer and handwashing facilities.

Some communities began holding Masses that same weekend. Others waited another week or two. Some parishes or collaboratives with multiple churches opened only one site, while others took measures to open multiple venues simultaneously. But whenever Masses resumed, they had to be organized and celebrated in new ways in order to follow all the necessary requirements.

The St. John the Baptist and St. Joseph Collaborative of Quincy opened both of its churches on May 23. Father Matt Williams, the pastor of the collaborative, said they used a modified Mass schedule for the first few weekends so the staff could be present and train volunteers to help with ushering attendees and cleaning the buildings.

"I'd love to get back to the schedule we had before, or maybe even more (Masses) because of the capacity restrictions," Father Williams said in a June 4 interview.

The 4 p.m. Saturday vigil Masses have been designated for seniors. Father Williams has sent out automated calls for seniors who do not use email or the Internet, to remind them of the schedule and let them know when they can call to pre-register and reserve a seat.

"We figured, if the supermarkets can do it, why not us?" Father Williams said.

He said the volunteers have been "superb," and that the second week of holding Masses went more smoothly than the first, now that they had a system in place.

"People have been so excited. The joy and the gratitude from our parishioners about how hard the team worked to open that very first weekend it was made possible, and their appreciation and their hunger for the Eucharist, (is) totally inspiring. We've been so blessed by their response," Father Williams said.

Father Daniel Hennessey, who became the pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Middleton and St. Rose of Lima Parish in Topsfield six months ago, has seen similar joy in his parishioners returning to in-person Masses after weeks of watching services at home.

"It's hard to tell people's facial expressions because they're all wearing masks, but they're coming and it's obvious that they have such a love for the Eucharist. That's the big thing. People have been yearning to receive the Eucharist. And I think the fact that so many people volunteered to help is a real indication that they're very happy to be coming back to public worship," he said on June 3.

He began by having one Sunday Mass in each of his churches starting May 24. Daily Masses and funeral Masses began the following day. During the pandemic, he had livestreamed a 10 a.m. Mass from St. Rose of Lima Church every Sunday, using a livestreaming system installed by his predecessor. He decided to stick with that schedule while making the Mass public.

A team of about 20 volunteers served as greeters and ushers. Additional seats, spread out to allow social distancing, were set up in each church's hall. Loudspeakers were installed outside the church so people who did not feel comfortable entering the building could listen from the parking lot. When it was time for Communion, Father Hennessey brought the Blessed Sacrament to those who preferred to stay outside.

Father Hennessey said that the number of people attending Mass outside increased over the first few weeks. Meanwhile, he has continued livestreaming Masses, which have consistently had between 300 and 500 views every Sunday. He said that number has not decreased since reopening for public Masses.

"We can set the camera angle so that people at home can see the way that Communion is being done. And I think that it has encouraged people to feel comfortable to come back, because they see, at daily Mass or Sunday Mass, the way that Communion is distributed is reverent and peaceful and without anxiety on the part of the parishioners, and that people do feel safe," Father Hennessey said.

Out of an abundance of caution, some parishes and collaboratives opted not to reopen immediately, or chose only one location on which to initially concentrate their efforts.

In the Beverly Catholic Collaborative, which consists of three churches, only St. John the Evangelist Church has opened so far. Sunday Masses resumed on May 31, the feast of Pentecost. The following weekend they added a 4 p.m. vigil Mass.

"It was easier for us to offer it in one church and see how that went before we expanded," said Father David Michael, who was installed as the pastor of the Beverly collaborative in January.

He said cleaning the churches before and after each Mass is "an onerous responsibility" if there are several Masses in a weekend as well as daily and funeral Masses during the week. The entire parish staff and many volunteers helped to prepare the building.

"We decided we would wait until we felt we were really ready, which was last weekend. Then we would assess what had taken place there and see what our next step would be. We're trying to assess and take a step, assess and take a step," Father Michael said, speaking to The Pilot on June 6.

He said he was "very proud and very pleased with the way our weekend worked out."

He acknowledged that it can be "daunting" to go to public places at this time, and said they made it clear that people who do not feel ready do not need to come, since the cardinal has dispensed Catholics in the archdiocese from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass. Like many other communities, the Beverly collaborative is continuing its livestreamed Masses for people who need or prefer to stay at home.

The St. John-St. Paul Catholic Collaborative in Wellesley has been "proceeding with extreme caution," in the words of pastor Father James Laughlin. Its pastoral council includes two doctors, one of them an infectious disease specialist. They decided to resume Masses later and at a slower rate than many other parishes.

On the weekend of June 6-7, they began holding outdoor Masses on the front lawns of the churches: a Saturday vigil Mass at St. Paul Church and two Sunday Masses at St. John the Evangelist Church. Like many other churches, people pre-registered to attend, and spaces were marked with flags to follow the state's requirement for social distancing. Father Laughlin said they will adjust the schedule depending on the demand.

The Catholic Parishes of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury had a more ambitious goal: opening all three of its churches -- St. Mary of the Angels, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Our Lady of Lourdes -- the first weekend they were allowed to hold Masses.

Their pastor, Father Carlos Flor, said he felt it was important to reopen all three churches, rather than just one at a time, because "the bond that exists between us when we celebrate together the Eucharist is an essential part of our lives."

He said the key to their successful reopening was their "very supportive" parish council, whom he immediately contacted after the governor's announcement.

One obstacle the collaborative faced was obtaining enough hand sanitizer for the three parishes. During his usual livestreamed Mass, Father Flor asked parishioners for donations of hand sanitizer. The next day, he said, they had "an overflow" of donations, enough to last many weeks.

Each weekend they hold four Masses in English and four in Spanish. So far, they have not needed to have people register ahead of time for Mass because the numbers of attendees have been small relative to the buildings' capacities.

"Through my priesthood I have witnessed the power of the sacraments and the healing and the strength they provide ... and I am happy that we can offer this to our parishioners in this particular time," Father Flor said in a June 6 interview.

He said he thinks attending Mass will help the many people that have felt hurt and frightened during the pandemic.

"This pandemic has left many people alone, without a job, scared, with fears. And I think to gather and to express faith together and to receive the Eucharist gives us confidence, gives us strength in this difficult time," he said.

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