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Places of worship prepare to reopen in ‘a new reality’

By Gayla Cawley and Thor Jourgensen | May 21, 2020

Although places of worship are permitted to reopen their doors this weekend with heavy restrictions, many local faith leaders are choosing to wait it out for a little while longer. 

Gov. Charlie Baker announced Monday that places of worship are included in Phase One of his four-phased approach to reopening the economy, which took some local pastors by surprise. 

“I was shocked that we’re in Phase One,” said Rev. Ronald D. Coyne, pastor of Our Lady, Star of the Sea in Marblehead. “Since we are now, we’re all forced to make decisions quickly, more quickly than we thought. I figured (it would be) after July 4. I’m so blown away by it. I thought we’d be in Phase Three or Four.”    

Following the governor’s announcement, the Archdiocese of Boston told local parishes that they could resume masses this weekend, but cautioned that many may need to wait until Sunday, May 31 to safely reopen. 

Coyne, like a number of other local pastors, said he’s planning to take the more cautious approach and wait at least another week before resuming church services. 

He’s hoping to reopen Star of the Sea for weekend masses on May 30 and 31, but said there’s a lot of preparation and oversight that has to be dealt with first. 

Rev. Brian L. Flynn, pastor of the Lynn Catholic Collaborative, said he’s planning to reopen his parish, which includes Sacred Heart and St. Mary’s churches, on Sunday, May 31.

“(The Archdiocese was) really advising us to take it slowly,” said Flynn. “What we’re working with is to make sure we’re able to open safely so people can come here and be in a safe environment so the virus doesn’t spread.” 

Flynn said he’s confident the parish will be prepared to adhere to state restrictions imposed on churches in Phase One, such as socially distancing churchgoers, operating at 40 percent capacity and modifying Communion rituals. 

Although the parish has two churches, Flynn said the diocese  recommended that they only reopen one of the spaces for masses in the beginning stages of their reopening, which he has chosen to do. 

“I’m just opening St. Mary’s to begin with,” said Flynn. “It’s easier to make one place safe and accessible and to get the protocols going right as opposed to opening another one also at the moment.” 

The parish typically runs seven weekend masses between the two churches, which draw between 80-300 people depending on what time the services are held. 

But to start, Flynn said only five masses will run at St. Mary’s — there will be one on Saturdays and four on Sundays. 

“We’re very happy to be reopening,” said Flynn. “We obviously have missed Eucharist but we’ve also greatly missed just seeing one another and gathering together.” 

On Tuesday, Flynn was planning to reopen church doors this weekend, but changed his mind after getting input from parishioners during a Zoom call later that afternoon.

The new date is fitting, he said, as it will align with Pentecost, a Christian holiday that marks the birthday of the universal church. 

“An appropriate way to celebrate that is to open the church on Pentecost Sunday,” he said.  

Rev. Paul Ritt, of Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Lynnfield, said he’s planning to reopen their doors on May 30 and 31, with a limited number of masses in the beginning stages. 

At least through the month of June, there will be two masses each weekend, which is pared down from the seven that is typically offered between the two parishes, Ritt said. 

People will have to register for the mass they plan to attend, wear masks in church and follow social distancing policies, he said.  

Ritt said he was “somewhat surprised” that churches were allowed to open in Phase One of the governor’s plan, but characterized it as a pleasant surprise.

“It will be wonderful welcoming back our parishioners for the first time in two and a half months,” said Ritt. “This will certainly be a different experience of worship for our people. 

“I think the main thing for us is to prepare as well as we can. This is all very new for us. My concern is we provide the best experience of worship under these conditions (and) we keep people safe as well.” 

Many other worship places, including Cliftondale Church of the Nazarene in Saugus, are also choosing to wait. 

“We are taking it very, very slowly,” said Church of the Nazarene Pastor Frank Lowe in describing how the church’s board is proceeding with plans to re-enter the church it shares with two other congregations.

Lowe is consulting other pastors to discuss the safest ways to resume worship in a building. He said the hand sanitizer, soap, and other items the board decided it needs won’t arrive until June. He said online worship launched in March and efforts to financially sustain the church without people meeting face to face have been successful.

“We’re in no hurry to go back,” he said.

Father George Tsoukalas said St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Lynn is aimed for a June 7 opening to celebrate Pentecost Sunday in the South Common Street church.

Resuming worship in church potentially means blocking off every other pew in the church and reducing worship space from 500-person capacity to half that number. 

A major question requiring answers is how will worshippers take communion and participate in a vital faith exercise. Greek Orthodox protocol requires the communion host to be dispensed on a spoon. 

“This has to be discussed at length by the hierarchy of the church,” Tsoukalas said.

First Church, Swampscott Pastor Ian Holland is meeting with the church council on reopening. Singing and communal meals are an essential part of the church’s faith practices. How these group activities can safely be conducted while minimizing coronavirus exposure remains a challenge.

“Many aspects of our communal life we love now represent danger. It’s intense but it’s inspirational: It’s a new reality.”

Holland speculated that worship could become a “hybrid” exercise combining online worship and faith practiced in church. 

Rabbi David Meyer, of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, said the temple, much like the rest of the state, would open in phases, but does not have an exact date planned.

Meyer said the temple’s reentry task force met on Tuesday night and has started to plan ways to safely allow its staff, members and community to be present together.

“It’s not a quick fix,” said Meyer. “It’s going to take some time, but I think it’s fair to say that for the last three months, we were strategizing as a synagogue (that’s been closed) down and now we are strategizing how to be a synagogue (that allows) for some amount of reopening. 

“We are not jumping into anything, but we are pursuing the best course of action as advised by state and local officials, by our own medical team and by the needs for the wellbeing of a diverse congregation.” 

Meyer said the temple will continue to livestream services, which has taken on a unique twist in the past several weeks. 

About three weeks ago, pictures of congregation members were placed in the pews of the temple, which Meyer said has been an uplifting experience. Before that, he had been preaching to empty pews. 

“It’s easier to conduct a service when you see smiling faces staring back at you,” said Meyer. 

Eid, the climactic end of Ramadan celebrated by Muslims with a festive gathering including food and gifts, will be different this Sunday for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Boston.

Community members, including the faithful in Lynn and other North Shore communities, will celebrate Eid in their homes, but not gather in the Sharon mission house, said member Nasir M. Rana. The change means families must learn the Eid prayers traditionally recited in a group setting.

“Everyone will learn to do them from their house,” he said, adding Ahmadiyya hopes to resume Friday prayer gatherings within a week in compliance with the state’s worship reopening guidelines.

Although worship places will soon open their doors, what remains unknown is how many people will choose to come back to church in the early stages.

Some pastors, such as Flynn and Ritt, will continue to stream their masses online to give people the option of continuing to watch from home.

Both cautioned that it may be unwise for people who are susceptible to severe COVID-19 illness, such as the elderly or people with underlying medical conditions, to return to church. 

Some people may be “dying to come back to church,” but others may have become accustomed to watching mass from the comfort of their homes, Coyne added. 

“Anybody who goes to church by choice, they can’t wait to come back,” said Coyne. “But if people are in the habit of going to church out of a tradition, they may think twice about it because now they’re out of the habit.”