In what was hailed at one parish as a symbolic rebirth, Roman Catholic churches in Alberta cautiously resumed public masses this week after they were suspended more than 10 weeks ago to protect against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Starting June 1, Mass resumed under conditions which include limiting to 50 the total number of people in church, hand sanitizing and mask wearing. Similar guidelines were developed for Alberta’s Ukrainian Catholic parishes, governed by the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Edmonton.
The resumption of Mass came a day after the feast of Pentecost – often referred to as the birth of the Church. While livestreamed masses continue, many see the resumption of public masses as a metaphor for the rebirth of their own faith after two and half months without.
“Welcome back! Please be seated. You’re not that out of practice, my friends,” joked Rev. Jim Corrigan, the pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Sherwood Park, as he welcomed the congregation.
In his homily, Father Corrigan acknowledged how difficult the past few months have been, and spoke about the measures in place to protect against COVID-19 and the fact that the resumption of Mass came after Pentecost.
“It is just a joy to be standing here at this moment,” Father Corrigan said. “These are small steps but they are necessary steps. We need to take incremental steps and we need to do them well. In a lot of ways this is the birth of the Church once again. It’s the beginning. It won’t be without its challenges or hurt feelings, but the Holy Spirit is in charge. We will prevail, I promise you.”
Father Corrigan described the 40 people who attended the 8:30 a.m. Mass on Monday as a “microcosm” of the larger Catholic community.
“These people have been missing the opportunity to receive Jesus … a big sigh is exactly right. We know now we’re moving forward, and that’s key. Prior to that it was a lot of uncertainty and unknown.”
Paul and Margo Boisvert were the first in line for Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. They have attended adoration each morning, but were grateful that public celebration of mass had resumed.
“We’re overjoyed,” Margo said. “It takes a long time to understand what you’re receiving, and then when you – and you can’t anymore – there is terrible yearning and longing for our Lord. We even felt a little nervous … I don’t even know what the nervousness was. In a sense, it was like getting ready to receive Jesus for the first time again. That was such a fresh understanding, and I really appreciated that.”
“It’s been a tough go,” Paul Boisvert said.
“It’s such a joy. It really is,” added Marissa Woods, also a parishioner at OLPH. “It was a joy jumping out of bed this morning knowing that I was coming to Mass … It’s always a gift to receive Jesus physically in the presence of the Eucharist, and it’s been a gift to receive him throughout these past few months in spiritual communion. It’s a gift to be together with other people.
“I think for young people, especially, community is so valuable,” added Woods, a master’s student in speech language pathology at the University of Alberta. “Being able to have this local community again is such a gift.”
Only a handful of parishes were able to meet all the diocesan guidelines in time to resume public Mass this week.
As of June 1, 34 new cases have been reported for a total of 400 active cases of COVID-19 in Alberta. Over 6,500 people have recovered, and 143 people have died from COVID-19.
While Mass is slowly resuming, it’s not entirely back to normal.
Parishioners are required to sign up for a time slot for Mass to keep with the 50-person limit in their church. They must answer a health questionnaire, sanitize their hands on entry and exit, wear a non-medical mask in order to receive Communion, and provide information for contact tracing in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Inside the church, social distancing is marked on the floor. People are required to sit at opposite ends of the pew unless they are a part of a single cohort couple or family.
Holy Communion is received in the hands only, and not on the tongue. As well, there will be no consumption of the consecrated wine. The Mass is held without music. At OLPH, the only sound was the whirring of the ceiling fans and the occasional sound of parishioners shifting in the pews.
June 1 fell on the feast day of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, and Mass concluded with the recitation of three Hail Marys for her protection and intercession in the time of COVID-19.
After Mass, volunteers were seen scrubbing and disinfecting the pews.
Asked about social distancing measures during Mass, the Boisverts said they were happy to follow them.
“We’re grateful to be here no matter what is going on,” Margo said. “Yes. We say yes for everything. We understand the necessary steps. Just gratitude, that’s what we have.”
The pandemic has also become personal for the couple. They asked for prayers for a 13-year-old family friend who was diagnosed with the virus in Montreal.
Seniors are particularly vulnerable to severe symptoms with COVID-19. Marissa Woods said her grandmother, who turns 91 in a few days, chose to stay home instead of attending Mass in person.
Woods lives with her grandmother and they have participated in daily online masses throughout the world, including a livestream from the Vatican, underscoring the point that the “the Church is universal.”
On the upside, Woods said she considered the past few months ̶ with public Mass, university classes and even her job placement in Canmore cancelled ̶ as a time of growth in faith.
“I think having this time really reminds us that life is such a gift.”
The resumption of Mass presents a unique situation for the St. Anthony’s Parish in Lloydminster, a city that straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan boundary. While the parish is a part of the Edmonton Archdiocese, the city falls under Saskatchewan government health guidelines.
Unlike other parishes in Alberta, Mass at St. Anthony’s resumed this week with a limit of 10 people in the church, increasing to 30 people June 8 but well below the 50-person limit set by Alberta Health.
Whatever the number, priests are also grateful to celebrate Mass with a congregation. Aside from livestreamed masses, Father Corrigan celebrated Mass himself mornings in the sacristy.
“I know that it’s just as efficacious, but I think that the people are part of what gives us life as priests,” he said. “We try to engage them and engage with them. So for me, this morning seeing a bunch of people out there rather than having to stare at a camera was a godsend.”
“The cool part for us, as Catholics, is that we celebrated Pentecost yesterday – the coming of the Holy Spirit, the birth date of the Church – and that’s how our Church began to flourish, people went forth,” Corrigan explained.
“Surreal is a really good word. It has seemed that way in a lot of ways. But today, celebrating Mass with a congregation, was beautiful. I’m really, really grateful for the opportunity.”
Corrigan said he and church volunteers were anxious in the time leading up to Mass because of the COVID-19 precautions, but only because they wanted it proceed without a hitch.
“We want to do it right. We need to do it right. We need to show that we’re being diligent in following the protocols and protecting our faithful,” he said. “My fear is if we ended up with an outbreak coming from one of our parishes because we didn’t do it well, we would be taking two steps backwards.”
At the same time, Father Corrigan noted that the attendance limit is challenging for his parish community, which has roughly 5,000 families. While the system wasn’t perfect – some families double-booked, others didn’t sign up but showed up anyway, and still others arrived after Mass began – it was a good start.
“This is a bit painful. Let’s face it, most people will acknowledge that. But that’s the key thing that’s giving everybody hope today, right? We’ve begun.”