COVID-19Sunday Assembly

Parishes resume Masses, ministries with precautions in place

By Dan Russo

Witness Editor

DUBUQUE — As public Masses and other ministries resumed at parishes across the Archdiocese of Dubuque May 30-31, clergy, staff and parishioners made a concerted effort to implement safety measures to combat the coronavirus.

At the Cathedral of St. Raphael in Dubuque, a mural depicting the first Pentecost above the main altar provided an appropriate image to compliment Father Greg Bahl’s homily at the 5:30 p.m. liturgy on the feast day commemorating the Holy Spirit’s visit to a small group hidden in an upper room.

“Pentecost unites and binds us, even when we have to be separated,” said the priest to a similar small group spread throughout the worship space.

Wearing a mask, Father Greg Bahl distributes holy Communion May 31 at the Cathedral of St. Raphael. The Eucharist was brought directly to people in the pews as part of the COVID-19 safety measures. (Witness Photo by Dan Russo)

About 20 people wearing masks gathered in the church built to hold hundreds. Signs indicated where to sit and where not to. A pair of volunteers, wearing masks and gloves, helped guide attendees to their pews and handed out pamphlets explaining the new procedures in both English and Spanish.

When it came time to receive holy Communion, Father Bahl or a single eucharistic minister brought the consecrated hosts directly to people in the pews. With a choir and musical instruments absent from the celebration, the priest sang the only hymn at the Mass, “Come Holy Spirit,” by himself from the pulpit. His voice echoed to the high ceiling. Despite an air of caution he exuded, there was also a hint of joy evident in Greg LeBlanc’s face as he walked out of the building and onto the sidewalk.

“I’ve been watching Masses online,” said LeBlanc, a member of the linked parishes of St. Raphael and St. Patrick for about a decade. “I really wanted to go in the church.”

LeBlanc, a eucharistic minister, is among parish volunteers who is receiving training based on the new guidelines, although he did not serve that day.

Based on information from the Archdiocese of Dubuque and public health officials, parishes are implementing a variety of measures to decrease the chance of spreading the virus. They include spacing out seating and limiting capacity, using hand sanitizer and masks, refraining from distributing the Precious Blood and the Eucharist on the tongue, limiting or eliminating singing and cleaning the church before and after Masses.

Holy Spirit Parish in Dubuque recently held a training session for staff and volunteers on how to implement the safety measures. Video of the event was posted on the parish’s Facebook Page May 31. Father Steve Garner, Holy Spirit’s Pastor, acknowledged that there would be challenges.

“This is going to look a lot different,” said Father Garner, wearing a mask as he spoke. “There are going to be some uncomfortable moments, but we do have to stick with the program … Once we reach capacity, we do have to turn them away.”

Similar safety measures went in place across the archdiocese, with each parish making its own unique adjustments.

Father Philip Thompson, pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Cedar Rapids told the Cedar Rapids Gazette in a recent article for that newspaper that every other pew has been marked off and people who do not live in the same household are being asked to keep six feet of distance between themselves and others. Everyone at Saint Pius two years and older is required to wear a mask. According to the report, Father Thompson said the church, which is able to seat 850, will seat only about 400 for now with social distancing. If the church is at capacity, greeters will turn people away at the door.

St. Columbkille Parish in Dubuque explained that it would take many of the same precautions in a letter to parishioners sent ahead of the reopening.

“We look forward to having you in church again, but please understand that attending Mass increases your risk of contracting COVID-19,” read the letter.

Archbishop Michael Jackels’ dispensation of the obligation to attend weekly Mass and holy days remains in effect.

“Missing Mass is not a sin,” read St. Columbkille’s letter, which encouraged people who are exhibiting symptoms, are frail due to age, live with people at greater risk or have underlying health conditions to stay home. People were encouraged to watch Masses online or through other means.

LeBlanc said he understands why many people are staying away from public Masses for now and hopes numbers will increase again as the coronavirus risk decreases.

“It’s a start,” said LeBlanc.

Cover photo: Father Greg Bahl celebrates Mass at the Cathedral of St. Raphael May 31. (Witness Photo by Dan Russo)