Seminarian Jacob Connealy wears a mask as he distributes holy Communion May 7 at St. Bernadette Church in Bellevue, while communicants maintain proper distancing. Remaining on the altar is Father Harry Buse, pastor, and seminarian Will Targy. In the front row pew is longtime parishioner Margaret McCoy, who was grateful to return to daily Mass once public liturgies resumed in the archdiocese May 4. JOE MIXAN

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Parishes observe safety guidelines as public liturgies resume

Margaret McCoy has been to Mass nearly every day of her life.

So it was only natural that she was back at her church, St. Bernadette in Bellevue, when public Masses and other liturgies resumed in the archdiocese May 4.

The church appeared different, though. Tape marked off entire rows of pews, including the second row, where McCoy typically sits for 8 a.m. weekday Mass. Instead she found a front row seat.

She was barely able to recognize some of her friends and fellow church-goers, who wore masks and “looked like robbers,” McCoy said with a laugh. The masks were one of the parish’s requirements to keep people safe from the coronavirus.

Similarly, across the archdiocese, other parishes such as St. Charles Borromeo in Gretna were following precautions and reopening, while others such as All Saints and Holy Family parishes in Cedar County and St. Rose of Lima in Crofton delayed their reopenings until they could safely accommodate parishioners.

Some of the largest parishes in the archdiocese have yet to reopen.

About half of the archdiocese’s approximately 140 parishes were able to resume public liturgies on May 4, said Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor. And at many, attendance was lighter than expected.

The dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days, granted by Archbishop George J. Lucas on March 13, remains in effect. The archdiocese and its parishes are still encouraging those who are elderly or have underlying health risks to stay home, as well as those who live with or care for those most vulnerable to the coronavirus. And parishes continue to livestream Masses for those who can’t go.

At St. Bernadette, the reopening went smoothly, McCoy and her pastor, Father Harry Buse, said in separate telephone interviews.

At the first weekday morning Mass, he welcomed back the 20 or so people in attendance.

A total of 90 to 100 showed up for the three Sunday Masses on the following weekend, Father Buse said. But the parish had encouraged only half of the families to attend, alternating weekends based on whether their names were in the first or last half of the alphabet.

Many of the parishioners are elderly and likely chose to stay home, he said. “I think people are being very cautious.”

The weekend Masses were kept simple, with no music, and everyone observed the rules about distancing and masks, he said. People seemed happy to be at church following a long absence, but “the mood was still kind of somber.”

WELL PLANNED REOPENING

St. Charles Borromeo resumed public Masses on May 5, following the parish’s normal Tuesday-through-Friday schedule for noon weekday Masses.

Father Jeffery Loseke, pastor, said he and parish staff had planned for the reopening for weeks.

“We thought and prayed a lot,” he said.

They carefully measured pew distances and determined that seating people in every other pew would keep them safely apart. Aisles were marked with tape to show proper distancing for Communion lines.

For Sunday Masses, parishioners were asked to sign up online to reserve a space. But the turnout ended up low, with a total of about 150 people at four Masses, Father Loseke said. Under normal conditions, St. Charles Borromeo usually has 1,200 for Mass each weekend.

Some of the new procedures seemed “a little clunky,” as parishioners learned new ways of lining up for Communion and entering and exiting the church.

Overall, though, “it was a very successful weekend,” Father Loseke said.

SAFETY MEASURES

Ushers and greeters kept things organized. Greeters checked off the names of those who had signed up for Mass, and ushers guided mask-wearing parishioners to their seats. Some walk-ins were allowed because space was available.

Everyone was required to arrive at least five minutes before Mass. After that, doors were locked to avoid last-minute commotion, Father Loseke said.

People left Mass row by row, using several exits to keep them apart. Pews, door handles and other items of contact were then disinfected.

People from other parishes that were not yet open were discouraged from “parish hopping” to avoid overcrowding at the ones where public Masses had resumed, he said.

“It sounds like draconian measures,” Father Loseke said. “But we want to keep people as safe as possible.”

He said he’s been taking guidance from public health officials, Archbishop Lucas and even St. Charles Borromeo, who was archbishop of Milan during a plague and told priests that they must risk their own lives to care for the bodies and souls of their flocks.

The parish will continue learning how to best operate during a pandemic, Father Loseke said. “We’ll take it week by week, adjusting as we go, hammering out the bumps along the way.”

RESUMPTION DELAYED

At other parishes, trying to resume public liturgies was more complicated, including the three where Father James Keiter is pastor: All Saints and Holy Family in Cedar County and St. Rose of Lima in Crofton.

Father Keiter’s parishes initially had decided to reopen on May 4, after Gov. Pete Ricketts and Archbishop Lucas had given parishes a go-ahead as long as they followed guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But regional health officials urged the parishes to hold off a while longer because of an outbreak in a neighboring county, he said. Father Keiter and a leadership team unanimously agreed to comply.

Now, nearly two weeks later, they have been given the go ahead and will resume public liturgies beginning May 18. They have coordinated that effort with other surrounding parishes in the archdiocese and in the neighboring Diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Father Keiter’s parishes, which have a total of 3,000 members who normally worship in seven different churches, will meet for Mass in the parishes’ three largest churches to allow safe distancing. They will hold weekday Masses at 7 a.m., noon and 7 p.m. and include as many people as possible. Eight Sunday Masses will be available.

KEYS TO SUCCESS

Creativity, planning and communication have been key in minimizing problems at reopened parishes, Deacon McNeil said. That might involve changing Mass schedules, illustrating new ways of operating with online videos, and in some cases, trusting parishioners’ own discretion.

Catholics have responded to the new measures and reopenings in a variety of ways. Some have been grateful and overjoyed, while others have worried that it’s not yet time, Deacon McNeil said.

He said he would advise people to use their best judgment on whether they should be at Mass with the safety precautions in place.

Father Loseke agreed.

“We still encourage people to do what’s best for themselves,” he said. “They know their health. They have to take that responsibility.”

GLAD TO BE BACK

Luana Campos and her husband, Aramis Pereira, students and researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said they were happy to be back at Mass on May 10 at St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha.

“It’s so good to receive holy Communion,” Campos said. “It’s not the same as watching Mass on the internet.”

At St. Bernadette, the adjustments that were made were “fairly simple,” Father Buse said.

McCoy – who is 85 and a member of St. Bernadette since its founding in 1963 – said she felt safe because of the parish’s safety measures and because she is healthy and active, still holding a part-time job.

Daily Mass has been an important part of her life, she said. Even when she couldn’t be in church because of the pandemic, she watched it every day, sometimes finding online Masses aired from beautiful churches and cathedrals in Denver, Boston, Chicago and Canada.

Nothing replaces being at Mass in person, though.

“I was glad to be back,” she said.