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Parishes cautiously resume public Masses

  • The family of Todd and Marley Farrell of Medfield attend a Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert Reed at Blessed Sacrament Church in Walpole May 24. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy
  • A sign outside Blessed Sacrament Church in Walpole reminds parishioners to maintain social distance as Masses resume May 24. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy
  • Blue tape marks off seating inside St. John the Baptist Church. Pilot photo/ Jacqueline Tetrault
  • Parishioners fill a parking lot outside Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted Church in Waltham for an outdoor Mass May 24. Pilot photo/ courtesy Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted Parish
  • Communion is distributed at Blessed Sacrament Church May 24. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy
  • Thomas Benoit, facilities manager at Blessed Sacrament, Walpole, sprays disinfectant on pews following Mass. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy

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BRAINTREE -- After two months without in-person religious gatherings, parish staffs had to work cooperatively and creatively to resume public Masses during the weekend of May 23-24 while following the archdiocese's guidelines to ensure people's health and safety.

On May 18, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that houses of worship would be included in Phase 1 of reopening the state. The archdiocese then released guidelines to help parishes plan how to reopen their churches and celebrate public Mass while adhering to the state's requirements in order to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

According to these directives, everyone would need to wear masks, except in the sanctuary; members of different households would need to sit at least six feet apart; there could be no hymnals or shared books or passing of offertory baskets; and Communion could only be offered under one species. Churches would also need clear signage with instructions for the new protocols. The number of people present could not exceed 40 percent of the building's capacity, so parishes were encouraged to use a sign-up system to reserve seats ahead of time.

A great deal of teamwork went into organizing public Masses for the weekend of May 23-24, the earliest date they could be held. Volunteers were needed to help with setup, directing Mass attendees, and cleaning before and after each Mass.

At St. John the Baptist Church in Quincy, Mass attendees were asked to remain in their cars in the parking lot until a volunteer directed them to wait in line outside the church. Tape marked where they could stand, six feet apart, until a volunteer called for them to enter.

Inside the church, pews were blocked with tape to enforce social distancing. Color-coded sticky notes marked spaces reserved for single people, couples, trios, and families. The volunteers tried to organize seating by working their way from the front of the church to the back, so that unregistered or late Mass attendees could reach available seating easily.

Francesca Alberti, the youth minister and one of the volunteers, described the process of seating congregants as "kind of like playing Tetris."

In Waltham, Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted Parish took a different approach to accommodate its parishioners: instead of celebrating Mass with a limited number of people in the church, they organized an outdoor Mass on May 24 in one of two large parking lots adjacent to the church.

A letter dated May 20 was sent to parishioners to inform them of this opportunity, along with a map of the parish grounds. The pastor, Father James DiPerri, also shared details in his weekly livestream a few days prior to the event.

"We hope to start slowly in offering various public celebrations of Mass and will make adjustments accordingly," Father DiPerri said in the letter.

He explained that holding an outdoor Mass "will enable us to better follow the required social distancing and allows us time to prepare for eventual indoor weekend Masses."

In an email to The Pilot, Father DiPerri said that two months earlier, "figuring people would be cautious gathering inside," they had ordered outdoor speakers, which were connected to the indoor sound system. This allowed them to be clearly heard from a few hundred feet away.

Two police officers helped direct traffic, and between 40 and 50 volunteers helped set up. One parking lot was used for parking while the other was used for the Mass itself. Father DiPerri reported that 450 people attended in person and almost 2,000 watched the livestream on the parish's Facebook page and website.

Like those attending Mass indoors, the people who came to Our Lady's outdoor Mass had to wear face masks and were encouraged to bring hand sanitizer. They stood or brought lawn chairs to sit in.

Father DiPerri said they were "very prudent in respecting the necessary social distancing."

While some parishes resumed public Masses on the weekend of May 23-24, some opted to wait until the following weekend to allow themselves more time to prepare. Some parishes or collaboratives with multiple buildings decided to open only one church at a time.

The Walpole Catholic Collaborative, where Bishop Robert Reed serves as pastor, decided to have weekend Masses in only one of its two churches, Blessed Sacrament Church. However, they added two extra Masses to their usual four, and subsequently began holding daily Mass at St. Mary Church. Parishioners used SignUpGenius to register for the weekend Masses, most of which reached their maximum number of attendees.

"It went very well. And it would not have gone that well had we not had very clear guidelines provided by Father Paul Soper and his group that gave us direction, and if we had not had solid and well-trained and generous volunteers at each one of the Masses," Bishop Reed said May 26.

He said that people were "thrilled to be back." At each Mass he celebrated, everyone waved when he entered to make sure everything was set up correctly, and everyone applauded after the final prayer.

Bishop Reed said the experience was "an eye-opener" and "quite emotional."

"I've been able to celebrate Mass every day and receive Holy Communion, and I knew intellectually that the people in my parishes could not. But when I looked out at them, it all of a sudden hit me how much of a sacrifice people have had to make for the sake of their own safety, their families, and other people in our society, that they sacrificed this ability to gather, to hear the Word of God and to receive Holy Communion," he said.

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