Liturgical musician Jim Nailon leads a children’s choir from St. Thomas More School in Omaha in a pre-recorded hymn as part of the Archdiocese of Omaha’s Mass for Shut-Ins on Omaha television station WOWT-Channel 6 on March 22. CATHOLIC VOICE SCREEN CAPTURE

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Locally televised Mass fills vital need during pandemic

By JOE FOREMAN

Renee Kalkowski’s serious health issues have prevented her and her husband, Ken, members of Our Lady of Lourdes/St. Adalbert Parish in Omaha, from attending Mass on a regular basis.

But they’ve still managed to stay connected to their church and their local Catholic community. That’s because they tune into the local Sunday morning broadcasts of Mass for Shut-Ins on Omaha television station WOWT-Channel 6.

“My wife has been severely ill – she’s had two heart attacks and two strokes,” Ken Kalkowski said. “Lately, because of her weakness and the COVID-19, we watch the Mass together. It gives us great satisfaction knowing that although we can’t receive Jesus physically, we can receive him spiritually.”

Mass for Shut-Ins, sponsored from its inception by the Serra Club of Omaha, has been airing on WOWT since 1964, and is a vital ministry to homebound Catholics in the Archdiocese of Omaha and surrounding communities.

The half-hour Mass, which airs every Sunday at 10:30 a.m., has taken on added significance in the past month since Archbishop George J. Lucas announced the suspension of all public Masses to prevent the potential spread of the coronavirus.

“Right now, with people not being able to celebrate (at their church), it’s critical to have it,” said Father Michael Eckley, executive director of Catholic Charities of Omaha and servant minister for the archdiocese. “There’s that sense of community there that you’re not alone because you’re viewing it with so many others in the Omaha archdiocese.”

Father Eckley is among numerous archdiocesan priests who have been celebrants for the Mass.

“I know it’s had an impact for a long time for people who are ill,” he said. “Even when I’d go celebrate at the nursing home – Immanuel Fontenelle – people mentioned they had watched Mass for Shut-Ins earlier in the day. Some watch it just to hear another homily or preparation for going to Mass.”

Father John Pietramale, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes/St. Adalbert Parish in Omaha and a regular celebrant of the Mass, said he’s received similar feedback about the broadcast from Catholics residing at skilled care and assisted living facilities.

“It was comforting to them that they were still connected somehow to the Catholic Church,” Father Pietramale said. “We’ve also had Eucharistic ministers say, ‘Oh, they were watching Mass for Shut-Ins when I arrived at their house to give them Holy Communion.’”

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Father Pietramale has heard from parishioners who are watching the Mass for the first time.

“I’ve heard from many of our families who still feel connected as they sit down in their living rooms during this virus to view Mass for Shut-Ins,” he said. “Even though we’re not able to celebrate Mass together because of the virus, together we’re remembering the Mass as the highest form of prayer and praise unto God.”

The program is believed to be the longest-running televised Mass of its kind and one of the few locally-produced Mass broadcasts in the country, according to Serra Club spokesperson Kevin Cooper, a member of St. Leo the Great Parish in Omaha and coordinator of the program that’s usually taped on Tuesday nights at the WOWT studio.

Msgr. William Whelan, former Serra Club of Omaha chaplain, was one of the first Mass for Shut-Ins celebrants in 1964, while serving as pastor at then-Assumption Parish in Omaha. His father, Edward Whelan, was the first president of the club.

“My dad talked to me about starting a Mass on television for those who can’t get to Sunday church,” Msgr. Whelan recalled. “In the early days of Mass for Shut-Ins, Archbishop (Daniel E.) Sheehan was the chaplain for Serra and he used to say the Mass every week when they filmed it. I had the privilege of being invited to take Archbishop Sheehan’s place when he couldn’t do the Mass.”

Although other Mass broadcasts are available on national television and radio networks, Cooper stressed that Mass for Shut-Ins remains popular because it provides familiarity and “that local connection” for Catholics across the archdiocese.

Since Masses were suspended because of COVID-19, Cooper said viewership numbers have nearly quadrupled to almost 30,000 a week. He added that the Mass is also streamed every Sunday on the archdiocese’s website at archomaha.org/mass-for-shut-ins.

Cooper said the Mass has also provided a tool for the archdiocese to remind Catholics of the importance of offertory gifts to local parishes.

“We’re encouraging people to remember to support their own parish at this time. We are so lucky to be able to do that,” he said. “Yes, a lot of people are doing online giving, but so many parishes rely on support from people in the pews and nobody is in the pews right now.”