COLUMBIA—Ushers wearing face masks welcomed people entering the Basilica of St. Peter for midday Mass on May 11.
They directed each person to a table and asked them to use hand sanitizer, then escorted them down a center aisle marked with blue tape at six-foot intervals. Every other pew was blocked off with white tape to keep people from sitting there. One usher kept a strict count of how many people entered.
These were the first signs of the new normal for worship in the Diocese of Charleston as public Masses resumed around the state on May 11 after an eight-week hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, parishioners tuned in to Mass via livestreaming.
Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone announced that public worship could resume in a letter on May 2, while still allowing a dispensation from attending Sunday Mass for the elderly, the medically compromised or anyone who does not feel comfortable being in crowds because of the coronavirus.
Parishes scrambled to form plans for worship that complied with diocesan guidelines. These include limits on how many people can attend at one time, social distancing practices, and heightened cleaning and sanitation practices in every church.
Beginning an era of worship in uncharted territory was a challenge, but clergy and lay people welcomed the chance.
“What a joy it is to be celebrating a live Mass, and how nice it is to be looking at actual people instead of talking to a camera,” said Father Gary Linsky, pastor at the Basilica. His parish, like many others, has been live streaming Masses so people can watch from home. Bishop Guglielmone requested that this practice continues at least until Pentecost on May 31.
Father Richard Wilson, pastor at St. Mary Our Lady of Ransom Church in Georgetown, said attendance at their daily liturgies doubled when Mass resumed, averaging between 25 and 30 people a day.
“It’s a great joy to see the people again and those I have spoken with are joyful to be back,” Father Wilson said. “As a priest, at least I have been able to celebrate Mass every day. I have told everyone how sorry I was that they had to go through such a long fast from receiving the Eucharist, which is the source and summit of our faith.”
Many parishes are strongly suggesting that people wear face masks to liturgies, and some, such as St. Joseph Church in Columbia, require them. St. Anne & St. Jude Church in Sumter is providing disposable masks for those who don’t already have one.
Corpus Christi Church in Lexington has gone one step further. The parish not only requires masks but also is conducting temperature checks at the entrance. Families are asked to go home if any one of them has a temperature of 100 or higher.
Staff members at St. John of the Cross Church in Batesburg-Leesville spent much of the week rearranging the parish life building before Mass resumed there on May 16, said Janet Hayden, coordinator of religious education. They replaced the normal seating with folding chairs, which are easier to move to allow for social distancing. Volunteers also made handmade masks to hand out and called every family on the parish roster to see which Mass they prefer to attend to make sure they don’t exceed the guidelines.
St. Joseph Church in Columbia established one of the most elaborate plans for reopening public worship. Because of the limited seating capacity, parishioners were assigned a time slot for weekend Masses in the parish gym. Communion was moved to the end of Mass, and parish priests wear face masks while distributing it from behind special Plexiglass shields.
Members of St. Anne & St. Jude attended their Mass outdoors May 16 and 17. Settled in their cars, they listened to the service on their radios, and were allowed to leave their vehicles to receive communion at five stations set up on the grounds.
Because of renovations going on at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Charleston, Mass there is being held in the lower chapel, which only holds 35 people. Msgr. Steven Brovey, rector, encouraged people who could not fit into the chapel for Sunday Mass to watch the livestream on their smartphones while sitting outside, and then to enter the chapel to receive Communion at the end of the liturgy.
Many people said the new rules and restrictions didn’t bother them; they were simply happy to be back in the pews.
“I’m a retired health care worker with a husband who is medically vulnerable, so I would not have felt safe coming back without the changes,” said Susan Luberoff, who attended the first Mass at the Basilica. “It’s very uplifting and fulfilling to be back here again.”
Mike Padua, a member of St. Joseph Church and an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, said the time away from the sacraments was hard for him.
“They are doing their best to keep us safe and I also know my safety is in God’s hands,” Padua said. “Most important, I’m just glad to be able to receive Jesus again!”