Churches Prepare to Return the Right Way

When Gov. Charlie Baker announced that Houses of Worship would be able to open up this week in Phase 1 of the state’s re-opening plan, it was a ‘Hallelujah!’ moment, and now churches are preparing to open at a variety of speeds.

From the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End to First Lutheran Church in the Back Bay to Lion of Judah Church in Worcester Square – houses of worship are applauding the decision by the governor to let them open in a common sense fashion as early as this Sunday.

Churches had been excluded from many of the discussions about re-opening, to the discontent of a lot of pastors in the area that submitted a letter to Gov. Baker two weeks ago asking for at least a seat at the table. So, with the exclusion in the early discussions, many were surprised that churches were given the leeway to open last Monday along with construction and manufacturing.

Pastor Roberto Miranda was one of the lead pastors on the letter, signed by more than 200 church leaders.

As pastor of Lion of Judah Church in the South End, he said allowing them to open is a matter of “common sense.”

“For many pastors in the state, Governor Baker‘s decision to reopen churches has spiritual as well as legal significance,” he said. “It recognizes the essential nature of the Church, both symbolic and practical. It validates the important role we play in all those other sectors of society that are now beginning to reopen.

“Allowing churches to reopen in the first phase of the governor’s Reopening Plan is not merely an act of grace or a favor to the Church, it is an act of common sense that will strengthen the Commonwealth, and that will help ensure the success of all its other efforts toward a full recovery,” he continued.

Gov. Baker’s order for churches allows them to have 40 percent of their legal occupancy for worship services, and there have to be masks and proper spacing between them. There are no fellowship dinners allowed and none of the other social engagements that are part of normal church times.

The Cathedral of the Holy Cross is planning to have their first Masses on May 31, said spokesman Michael Kieloch, which is the Feast of Pentecost.

He said they will likely have English, Spanish, and Latin Masses on May 31, but the times are still being worked out so there can be adequate cleaning and sanitizing done in between services.

He said there would likely be a pre-ticket type of system required to reserve a spot since they expect a lot of people to return and are very limited in the space they can offer so as to be safe.

“We’ve got to get this right the first time,” he said. “We decided if we have to take an extra week to do it, it’s worth it and then come back on May 31. There is so much to accomplish and a lot of logistics to work out in the next several days.”

The Archdiocese of Boston laid the groundwork for the Cathedral and all other Catholic churches to re-open in a document released Monday. Church leaders have been working with the state for several weeks – along with an internal working committee – to come up with the best practices for safe worship.

“The announcement by the Governor this morning that the Commonwealth was beginning the process of re-opening is welcome news,” read a statement from Cardinal O’Malley on Monday. “The Archdiocese has consistently stated we will work collaboratively with local and state officials during this crisis and we will continue to comply with their guidance and mandates devised to restart community activity while continuing to fight the virus and keep people safe.

“Shortly after the Governor’s announcement we communicated a series of steps to our parishes that they must follow to adhere to both the state and Church requirements to re-open,” read the statement.

While Masses could begin as early as Saturday, May 23, many church leaders in the Archdiocese are shooting to have some sort of re-opening – perhaps using a ticket system if need be – on May 31.

The working committee was made up of priests, deacons, lay leaders and it has come up with an extensive document and checklist for Parishes to consult before scheduling their first services.

“If a parish within the Archdiocese of Boston, after careful and deliberate preparation, considers that they are able to meet all of the State, Municipal, and Archdiocesan guidelines, they may request permission from their Regional Bishop or Episcopal Vicar to begin Masses as early as Saturday evening, May 23,” read a statement from the Cardinal. “Many, or even most, parishes may well need more time to prepare, and may choose Sunday, May 31 (the Feast of Pentecost), as the date for their reopening. Parishes should not resume Masses before they are ready, and the decision to delay the resumption of Masses until May 31 may very well be the best decision for a parish. No matter what the start date, no parish should have Mass unless they can do it safely, and in compliance with the guidelines.”

Even with the re-opening of Catholic churches, there are many guidelines and it is suggested that the elderly and medically vulnerable populations stay home, where online and cable broadcasts will continue as they have since March.

Being ready is going to be a major task at most Catholic churches.

The document from the Archdiocese’s Office of Risk Management calls for a number of measures to be put in place, including a Corps of Volunteers to be formed and trained so as to direct the flow of people safely into and out of church, and to clean up afterward.

Other suggestions include:

•Church deeply cleaned, according to methods outlined.

•Hymnals and missalettes removed.

•Volunteers in place to assist with traffic flow.

•Signs clearly posted, letting people know:

*That they must wear masks.

*A distance of six feet must be maintained.

*No congregational singing.

•Socially distant seating marked out.

•Hand sanitizer available.

•Holy water fonts empty.

•Markers on the floor indicating the direction of traffic flow and spacing off six feet in places where people might be in lines.

•Some method in place to restrict the number of people who enter the church to below 40% capacity, and no more than the number of socially distanced seats available.

•Plan and volunteers and materials in place to clean church between Masses.

•Permission of Regional Bishop or Episcopal Vicar if starting Mass before May 31.

Pastor Miranda said it will be a relief for his congregation in what has been trying times, particularly for members of his congregation on the front lines performing child care and other essential functions.

“Churches minister effectively to business people, childcare providers, construction and salon workers, people in the hospitality industry,” he said. “For many of them, their temple is a place of refuge. The voice and physical presence of their pastor or priest is a source of comfort and encouragement. Being able to worship in the company of other believers prepares them for the tensions and challenges of daily life, especially life in the times of COVID-19.”

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