FALL RIVER, Mass. — Following the recommended safety precautions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and under guidelines issued by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Fall River Diocese, churches across the diocese reopened to parishioners on the weekend of May 30-31 — appropriately enough, the feast of Pentecost and the birthday of the Catholic Church.
In preparing for the reopening, Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., held an online Zoom conference on May 28 with about 80 diocesan priests to review the safety protocols and to ensure everyone knew what to expect.
“None of us really knows what the opening is going to look like for the long-term because it’s not normal,’” Bishop da Cunha said. “We all know that we have to adjust and adapt to this new reality. We are going to probably make some mistakes and have to make some adjustments along the way. We’ll learn as we go along and need to be patient with ourselves, with our staff, parishioners, volunteers, and lay ministers.
“At the same time, we also need to be so vigilant and careful. I know you hear from the experts and from health professionals how this could be problematic if we don’t follow all the protocols and all the guidance. Many are saying that the reopening could probably bring a little increase in cases and that is expected. But the fear we all have is that it is going to bring a new wave (of COVID-19 cases) and none of us want that to happen.”
Before the reopening, parishes were supplied with hand sanitizer, masks, and plastic face shields which the priests were required to wear when distributing Holy Communion. Bishop da Cunha also suggested they might opt to distribute Communion at the end of Mass, so that congregants could exit immediately thereafter, thereby reducing the risk of extended exposure.
“You have the option and we encourage you to distribute Communion at the end of Mass, after the final blessing instead of the usual time,” Bishop da Cunha said. “Those who receive Communion can then exit the church.”
The bishop also encouraged celebrants to shorten the Liturgy as much as possible and advised that outdoor Masses could be celebrated, weather-permitting.
“There are ways to reduce the amount of time; maybe by giving a shorter homily,” he said. “We can all work on that and make a very concise and to-the-point homily. We can reduce the amount of music or hymns. The offertory usually takes a little time for taking the collection, bringing up the gifts, and those are going to be eliminated. Communion is probably going to be less people, but it will take a little longer with the new way of doing it.”
During a follow-up Zoom meeting on June 2 with his presbyterate, the bishop was pleased to learn that attendance was good for the reopening weekend Masses and the changes necessitated by the Coronavirus were mostly well-received.
Father German Correa, parochial vicar at Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. James Parish in New Bedford, reported that they had 78 congregants during the 7:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday and another 82 people for the 11:30 a.m. Mass.
Father Craig Pregana, pastor of St. John the Evangelist and St. Vincent de Paul parishes in Attleboro, noted they had two English Masses, with approximately 90 in attendance at each and the Portuguese and Spanish Masses were comparable to each other with approximately 35-40 at each .
“We did pre-registration for all the Masses,” Father Pregana said. “We also had some walk-ins, but it was very positive.”
Like many parishes during the reopening weekend, Our Lady of the Cape Church in Brewster had just two Mass celebrations — one on Saturday and one on Sunday.
“On Saturday, we had 56 people,” said pastor Father William Kaliyadan, M.S. “On Sunday, we had 100 people. We had so many volunteers to help, to clean, and to sanitize. I thought the soft opening of the church was the right thing to do for us here. And around 60 people came to receive Communion in the afternoon after watching the live-streamed Masses, which was very encouraging.”
At St. Pius X Parish in South Yarmouth, pastor Father Paul Caron said that on the first weekend there were 47 in attendance for the Saturday Vigil Mass, 69 at 8 a.m. on Sunday, and 56 at the 10:30 a.m. Mass. At noon on Sunday, they had a Communion service for those who watched the live-streams, with 42 recipients. He told The Anchor that on the following weekend (June 6-7) “the numbers were higher.” There were 69 people at 4 p.m.; 63 at 8 a.m., 99 at 10:30 a.m. and 50 people came for Holy Communion at noon.
Weekday average is 30 people so far.
Father Thomas Washburn, pastor of the Catholic Community of Central Fall River, said he was “very happy with how things went.”
“I was very glad that everybody followed the protocols; so, we had good, obedient Catholics all weekend,” Father Washburn said. “The overwhelming majority of people pre-registered, so we only had a very small handful of people who just showed up without pre-registering. We had 62 people at the 4 p.m. Vigil Mass. We had 20 people at the 8 a.m., we had 45 people at the 10:30, and we had 48 people at the 1 p.m. Portuguese and Spanish Mass, but I’m very happy with how smoothly it went.”
Bishop da Cunha said he also celebrated Mass during reopening weekend for the Brazilian and Cape Verdean community at Holy Rosary Chapel in Taunton.
“My experience was very positive, too,” the bishop said. “There are no priests for the community — so the laypeople are the ones who really managed the church. They took the leadership on in such an impressive way and everything was so organized. They had done a complete cleaning of the church, washing the rugs and everything, even repainted the church. They had all the signs in place, they had people signed up before, and they had people taking count at the door, they marked the pews, and had signs on the floor for people to stand. They did all the things that we were hoping and expecting, and I was proud of them and happy to celebrate with them. So, I think people are getting the message.”
A few priests took advantage of the nice weekend weather to hold the Liturgy outside.
Among those with outdoor celebrations: the Hispanic community at Holy Family Parish in East Taunton, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Seekonk, and Transfiguration of the Lord Parish in North Attleboro.
“We actually had very good attendance and it was very orderly and I think really beneficial — people felt safe,” said Father Rodney Thibault, pastor of Transfiguration of the Lord Parish. “There was also less apprehension to come forward to receive Holy Communion.”
Father Thibault and parochial vicar Father Jack Schrader celebrated two outdoor Masses on Saturday and Sunday in the parking lot of St. Mary’s Church on Park Street. With an altar set up on an elevated platform and shaded by a pop-up canopy, the two priests celebrated Mass while congregants remained inside their vehicles and listened to audio that was transmitted to their cars.
“On Saturday evening we had about 45 cars, which translated into about 155 people in the parking lot,” Father Thibault said. “At Communion time everyone was just very, very respectful and orderly and came out of their cars. We had painted lines in the parking lot for six-feet distancing. The nice thing is at St. Mary’s there’s a bit of an incline, so people were able to really see us. We were elevated quite a bit, so it made an un-ideal situation sort of ideal.”
Msgr. Stephen Avila, pastor of the Catholic Community of Falmouth, said he did a “sort of hybrid of ideas, having Mass indoors but also installing an FM transmitter for those who are still not comfortable coming in,” Msgr. Avila said. “You could just listen to the Mass in your car and then come receive Communion at the end.”
A majority of priests adopted Bishop da Cunha’s recommendation to administer Holy Communion at the end of the Liturgy, so people could simply exit right after.
“I know I encouraged it last week when we talked,” the bishop said. “I did it myself at the end of Mass and it worked out really well in my view. I’d say the majority here did distribute Communion at the end of Mass.”
Most parishes also used some type of pre-registration tool — either online, email or via phone — to make sure the church didn’t exceed its 40 percent maximum capacity limit. While others just had people at the entrance taking a head count.
Father John Murray, pastor of St. Ann Parish in Raynham, used the Eventbrite online portal to pre-register parishioners for Masses.
“I found that to be very, very helpful,” Father Murray said. “It’s easy to print up lists in anticipation of the weekend. It’s also flexible enough that if people don’t have access to a computer to do that, they can call the office and my secretary takes their information and adds it for them. It’s really quite simple.”
“I think it depends on situation,” Bishop da Cunha said. “I mean, some parishes really didn’t expect that many people to come out, and that turned out to be the case. Just be careful as the weeks go by that maybe more people want to come and you may end up with more people than you expected.”
While things seemed to go off without a hitch during this first-phase reopening, Father Washburn voiced his concern over being able to continue what he deemed “a monumental logistical project” every weekend.
“Between all of the greeters that we needed at the doors, people helping to seat, crews for cleaning, and all that, I just wonder how long this is sustainable,” he said. “Right now, everybody’s very excited to come back and, luckily, I’ve gotten people to agree that they’ll do this through the month of June, and then we’ll look at it again as we head into July. But how long will we be able to (continue) when people start to get a little tired of doing all this?”
“I understand that it really is going to be difficult to sustain if we need to keep it going for the long haul,” Bishop da Cunha agreed. “My hope is that things begin to improve, and we don’t have to keep the same protocols in place. My fear is that with all these protests that people are having (over) the last few days — many people without masks and yelling and screaming in the middle of a huge crowd — that it might cause another wave of the virus that would delay our progress and further openings. I hope that doesn’t happen, so let’s keep our fingers crossed and keep praying for it.”
The bishop said he was grateful to all the priests, parish staff and volunteers who were instrumental in getting churches reopened and ready to resume Mass celebrations.
“I know it’s the result of all of the hard work and all the efforts and the collaboration of our people,” Bishop da Cunha said.