Parishioners adjust to coronavirus precautions at Sunday Mass

| March 16, 2020 | 0 Comments

A normally packed 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Alphonsus in Brooklyn Center is sparsely attended March 15 due to concerns about spreading the coronavirus, which prompted Archbishop Bernard Hebda to suspend the Sunday Mass obligation. “Today, I thought it was a little sad to see the empty pews, but totally understandable,” said Jamie Burg, 30, who comes to the 10:30 Mass regularly and doesn’t plan to change her routine. “I still want to come to Mass. I still want to be in the house of the Lord. I still want to get the Eucharist. … For me, it’s very important. So, I want to continue to be able to accept the Eucharist as long as they’ll offer it to me.” DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

From St. Henry in Monticello to St. Michael in Pine Island, Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis adjusted to a new, temporary reality last weekend.

Out of caution amid concerns about spreading the coronavirus — later reinforced by advice from Minnesota health officials to limit the size of crowds — Archbishop Bernard Hebda granted dispensation March 12 from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass.

As a result, public Masses were celebrated March 15-16, but many congregations were smaller by half or even by two-thirds.

“It’s a wise decision that Mass is an option,” said Paula Perzichilli, 75, after 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass at Transfiguration in Oakdale, which saw about 300 people in the pews, compared with the usual 450 to 600.

“You can make your own decision based on your health and your (health) history,” Perzichilli said. “And our church is big enough to leave space in the pews between families.”

About 80 people — one-third of the usual congregation — attended the 12:30 p.m. Sunday Mass at the Church of St. Louis, King of France in downtown St. Paul.

Many pews were empty at the 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Alphonsus in Brooklyn Center, with less than half the usual congregation.

“Normally, it’s filled to the rafters,” said Jamie Burg, a regular at the Mass who said it was odd to see no one else in her pew, and no one behind her, either. “Today, I thought it was a little sad to see the empty pews, but totally understandable.”

That was the view of many who attended Mass despite the dispensation. They wanted to be there, but they understood why others would not attend. They also wanted to do their part in not spreading the virus, so they avoided physical contact during the sign of peace, adjusted to not receiving Communion from the chalice, not having a choir as social distancing became more of a norm, and not dipping their hands into now-empty holy water fonts.

At St. Louis, King of France, Marist Father Joseph Hurtuk told the congregation that all pews had been sanitized and hymnals removed. Daily Mass will be held in the church instead of the chapel to allow people more space to spread out, he said.

“Archbishop Hebda has asked parishes and schools to not overreact and not underreact,” Father Hurtuk said.

After Mass at Transfiguration, Father John Paul Erickson told The Catholic Spirit that he appreciated the archbishop giving parishes leeway to celebrate Masses or not celebrate them, to add Masses or cut the number of Masses, depending on the local need.

Regardless of how people feel about measures being taken to curb spread of the virus and the illness it causes, COVID-19, Father Erickson said, “it is a time to recommit to things that don’t change: prayer, love of neighbor, understanding, compassion, the sacraments, penance.”

The Catholic Spirit asked its Facebook followers what they planned to do in light of Archbishop Hebda dispensing the obligation to attend Sunday Mass. Among the 121 respondents was Jean Blageo, who attended Mass at her parish, St. Bernard in St. Paul. Afterward, she and three others cleaned pews with Pine-Sol, something parishioners will be doing after every Mass “until we hear a(n) all clear,” she wrote in a follow-up message to The Catholic Spirit.

Because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation at that time was to avoid gatherings of more than 250, she felt comfortable going to her church, she said.

“Our Mass isn’t that big, and our church also took out all the books and are doing extra handwashing,” she said. “It is wonderful how people have step(ped) up to keep our church clean and safe.”

Fellow St. Bernard parishioner Jackie Casey attended the parish’s 4 p.m. Saturday Mass and noted that she could tell the parish “had been really cleaned” because “it smelled really fresh and clean.” She went because she wanted to be with the congregation and did not want “fear to rule my life,” she said.

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m concerned about this, but it’s not going to make me run and hide and keep me from doing my normal activities and routines, like going to church and work,” said Casey, 45. “I have been going to church since I was born, and will continue to do so during this time.”

In Bloomington, Tammy Arndorfer and her husband went to Mass at their parish, St. Bonaventure. They’ve decided to attend Mass until they can’t or are told not to.

“It is so important to receive the Eucharist,” she said. “It not only heals our sins, it heals our bodies and gives us strength from the Lord. It fills me with hope, comfort, strength and faith to be in the presence of our Lord.”

Arndorfer, 48, said she also needed her church community, even though there were no physical exchanges, such as the sign of peace.

“We are healthy. We are abiding by the safety rules set in place,” she added.

However, she noted, “It was definitely quiet and sparse at Mass today. It was sad not to be able to receive the chalice and our Lord’s blood.”

Leslie Clark, a parishioner of All Saints in Lakeville, decided not to attend Mass on Sunday.

“My dad lives in an independent living facility apartment in Apple Valley. They’re closed to all but essential visitors. If I were to get sick, I would not be able to help him maintain his home — bills, pill management, groceries, etc.,” said Clark, 51. “We are faithful Mass attendees, so this decision was something we tossed back and forth.”

She added: “Ultimately, I believe that if Archbishop Hebda sees the need to lift the obligation, we should stay home, for the good of all. In this way, I see missing Mass as a sacrifice in keeping with the Lenten season. I participated in an online Mass, and will spend more time later today in prayer.”

On The Catholic Spirit’s Facebook page, Liz Pedersen Reinertson posted, “We’re staying home. The data shows that social distancing right now will make a big difference in how bad things get. We are our brothers’ keeper. Take care of the sick and elderly in your parish (and your priest). Hopefully we can get through this soon and resume our normal worship schedules.”

At St. Alphonsus, Chiomi Nnadi said she was glad to be able to come to Mass “and praise the Lord together. There is so much fear out there. We’re scared. But, being scared doesn’t answer the problem, doesn’t solve the problem.” She added: “The Mass should continue. We want to have the Mass. If you feel good, come. If you think you’re not good, please stay home. … Fear should not stop us.”

Nnadi is part of the African community that worships at St. Alphonsus. Another African parishioner, Grace Etafo, said she has confidence that she will be safe from harm inside the church.

“With Christ, we can overcome,” she said. “It’s not only washing our hands. We should wash our heart. We have to run to Christ when something like this is going on. We have to not run away from the house of God. … We just have to go to Jesus because Jesus said, ‘When trouble comes, call upon me. You shall be safe.’ That is the answer. Jesus is the answer.”

Maria Wiering, Barb Umberger and Dave Hrbacek of The Catholic Spirit contributed to this report

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