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History repeats itself with pew reservations


Tolga Akmen | AFP

Philip Kosloski - published on 06/06/20

During the 19th and early 20th centuries many Catholics in English-speaking countries reserved their pew ahead of time to ensure their spot at Mass.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries many Catholic and Protestant churches in English-speaking countries had policies where parishioners needed to reserve their spot at Sunday services.

Does this sound familiar?

Many churches that are beginning to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic, can only do so by establishing a system where parishioners reserve their spot at Mass ahead of time!

Currently churches are enacting such policies because they are restricted in the number of people allowed in a building, such as 25% of the church’s capacity. Furthermore, churches are required by social distancing to place family groups together, while keeping them separate from other parishioners.

In some places tickets are being issued for Mass where seating assignments are clearly indicated.

Interestingly, this is not the first time churches reserved pews for families on a regular basis, though for much different reasons.

Beginning in the early 19th century, churches needed additional funds to install pews for their parishioners. In order to pay for these pews, they enacted “pew rental” fees.

According to the Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, “the first rental of pews [in Philadelphia] took place on April 1, 1827, the charge for the choice locations being five dollars per quarter … In addition to the five dollars for pew rent, the Catholic pew-holders were charged seventy-five cents per quarter, and collected with the pew rent, to furnish wine, candles, fuel and other needed supplies for church uses.”

Linda Zahorik further explains in her article for The Compass, “Third Council of Baltimore (1884) encouraged Catholic churches to charge ‘pew rent’ as a means to raise revenue for church maintenance and support of the clergy. By renting a pew, a person was assured of their specific place for any Mass they attended. Those unable to pay pew rent where relegated to any of the unassigned seats in the church. If you attend a church that was built prior to the 1950s, look at the pew ends. There you might still find a number or a bracket were a name could have been inserted. These are remnants for recording pew rent.”

It’s possible that some of these churches that still retain pew numbers or brackets could use them again as they take reservations for Sunday Mass during this time of re-opening.

While pew reservations are not ideal, as Mass is not intended to be celebrated for only a select few, it is the current state of affairs in the world and will likely last throughout the summer of 2020.


Read more:
This is why church pews were invented


Read more:
An easy guide to standing, sitting, and kneeling during Mass

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