All it takes is a decent parking lot or green space, some creativity, and a few dedicated volunteers.
As churches around the United States prepare to welcome congregations back after two or three months of coronavirus precautions, many are finding a “halfway” solution by holding services outdoors.
This Sunday, which is Pentecost, the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland, is having Catholic Mass outside, permitting up to 250 people to be present. Confession will also be available.
In Ridgefield, Connecticut, the Parish of St. Mary began holding Mass in its parking lot on May 24 and plans to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. About 120 people attended the first liturgy, sitting in cars spaced out in the church parking area.
“The spirit of those who came, from the emails I got and from what I could just tell looking through the car windows, the spirit was just beautiful,” said Msgr. Kevin T. Royal, pastor. “A number of people mentioned how powerful and touching it was to see the reverence with which people got out of their cars to come up to receive Communion.”
Asked if he was happy to have a congregation again after the pandemic lockdown led to suspension of public Mass throughout the country, Msgr. Royal exclaimed, “Oh Lord! I keep thinking of the phrase of St. Paul in Philippians, ‘As God is my witness, how I long for you with the affection of Christ.’ I think it’s all of us: we want to be together, to worship, to pray, to receive the Lord.”
So all the preparations to hold Mass outdoors were well worth it, he said. Those preparations included decorating a flatbed truck that a local car company lent the parish for use as a sanctuary area; determining where cars could park; painting lines on the pavement to direct people coming forward to receive Communion, and setting up the technology for transmission of the audio of the Mass to car radios.
“We had a number of parishioners volunteer to drive their cars into the lot a couple of days before in order to see how we were going to space out the cars,” the pastor said. “One purpose was for visuals, to make sure people could see the altar, and secondly, so we knew people would be spaced far enough apart so people could get out of their cars and receive Communion in a safe way.”
A parishioner named Steven Y. Lee, who recently started a local Catholic radio station, Veritas Catholic Radio, arranged for the audio of the Mass to be broadcast to people’s car radios, though people could also tune into that on their phones, as the Mass was also being streamed live on Facebook.
St. Mary’s is among several parishes in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, to hold outdoor Masses, after Bishop Frank Caggiano urged pastors to do so if possible. The diocese offered to get FM transmitters for each parish. But, according to Msgr. Royal, the devices were coming from China and were delayed.
Meanwhile, in Milton, Florida, the Parish of St. Rose of Lima held Mass outside for three weeks in a row, beginning on Mother’s Day, May 10.
“So people could get back to the sacraments, we decided that this was the best way we could do it here, because we have all this property that we use for our annual festival,” said Msgr. Michael V. Reed, pastor.
Between 150 and 200 people came out for each of the three weekend English Masses, in addition to a few dozen who attended the Spanish Mass, which was by then being allowed back into the church itself.
“They were very happy, thrilled, to have Mass again,” said Msgr. Reed, who doubles as chancellor of the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese.
The priests of the parish celebrated Mass on a permanent stage that is used for the parish’s annual festival. Rather than cars, St. Rose invited parishioners to bring lawn chairs and sit in spots that were marked off so that they could maintain a safe distance. The parish rented portable toilets and set up a hand-wash station, in addition to having volunteers offer hand sanitizer at the designated entrances to the fair grounds. It printed disposable song sheets to reduce the risk of virus transmission from multiple people handling books.
“We encouraged people to wear masks; we didn’t require them,” Msgr. Reed said.
But for Pentecost, all the Masses will be going back into the church, as the weather on Florida’s panhandle is getting hot and muggy, and gnats and No-See-Ums are making it “a little bothersome and unpleasant,” Msgr. Reed said.
The church recently got a new air conditioning system, and it comes with an automatic filtration system that will purify the air of any particles that could be hazardous, he added.
With the move indoors, the parish is doubling the number of Masses so that the parish can abide by a current 50% capacity rule and people can maintain the social distancing protocol.
Mother’s Day was also the occasion for outdoor Mass at at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Metairie, Louisiana. A total of 1,300 people filled out the parking lot for three liturgies, celebrated by Fr. Timothy D. Hedrick, pastor. Along with Deacon Don Richard, he presented yellow carnations to mothers in attendance.
But now Mass congregations at St. Catherine’s are back inside again, and since Phase 1 of the local reopening plan allows for 25% occupancy in churches, there can be no more than 250 people at each Mass. So the parish website has a new feature: an RSVP button for those planning to attend one of the six weekend Masses at the Metairie church.