Pastors plan for parishioners’ return to church

Kelley Tansey
Father Paul Connolly, pastor of St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant, shows off a freestanding plexiglass barrier his parish will use during the distribution of Communion once the celebration of public Masses resumes in the Diocese of Davenport.

By Lindsay Steele and Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger

Father Rich Adam is praying plenty of prayers and encourages others to pray as parishes prepare to resume celebrating Mass in the future. “Very interesting times we’re in right now,” said Father Adam, the pastor and rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. “This whole process is evolving and we’re evolving with it.”

Pastors received permission to open churches for private prayer for up to 10 people (beginning May 25), if proper sanitation and social distancing protocols were in place. Some parishes opened that day, while others opened later. Parishes are also planning for a potential move to Step 2 of the Diocese of Davenport’s reopening plan, which would allow for public Masses at reduced capacity.

St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant opened for prayer May 26, said its pastor, Father Paul Connolly. The community is home to a meatpacking facility, an industry hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. When visitors arrive for prayer, they receive a slip of paper to mark their place upon leaving so the maintenance staff knows where to focus on cleanup. All visitors must be symptom-free for at least three full days and sit more than six feet away from a paper marker left by a previous visitor.


Father Connolly said the expertise and guidance of the diocese’s COVID-19 team, which spoke to pastors on May 22 via video conference, has been helpful. For example, he would not have thought to wait 90 minutes after Mass to sanitize pews and other areas where parishioners have been so that airborne droplets have a chance to fall. Other tips he found helpful to avoid transmission of the coronavirus: a ban on singing “because even with masks on it can project airborne particles;” starting Mass with the covered host on the altar; and shortening homilies to reduce the time people are together.

To protect communicants and people distributing Communion when Masses resume, volunteers are building freestanding, wood-frame Plexiglass shields. Father Connolly said he got the idea from Father Paul Kelly, a priest of the Diocese of Sioux City who was a classmate in seminary.

Father Connolly expects one of the biggest challenges when Mass resumes will be “telling the people that they need to leave the church and gathering space after Mass — they cannot gather and visit.”

Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish in Muscatine had a personal experience with COVID-19 in April, when music and liturgy director, Annie Thompson-Almeida, became ill with the virus. She had been helping with livestreamed Masses before her diagnosis. She self-quarantined and has since recovered.

“I’ve done Masses for the last three weeks, but worked my way up to singing everything — finally sang everything this past weekend. I was feeling better symptom-wise but my breathing and endurance isn’t all there yet, so I get lightheaded when I sing sometimes,” she said.

The pastor, Father Troy Richmond, said some people are anxious to get back to Mass while others are hesitant because of age or a compromised im­mune system. He thinks everyone wants “to get back to some sense of normal.”

The parish opened its doors for private prayer May 28, with plans to be open for three hours in the evening, four days a week. “We are scheduling an usher to be present just inside the side-chapel entry to ensure that each visitor has a face mask and to give them instructions on properly sanitizing the area where they are seated.”

The parish is working on a plan to ensure that people follow proper sanitation guidelines when Masses resume. “We are hoping that parishioners, especially our youth, will step up to help with cleaning and disinfecting the church between Masses.”

Father Richmond hopes that even with social distancing guidelines, the parish will maintain its sense of intentional hospitality when people gather.

St. Mary of the Visitation Parish in Ottumwa is another faith community affected by COVID-19. Wapello County has experienced a steady increase of COVID-19 cases in the past month, according to state data. English-speaking and Spanish-speaking Catholic parishioners have been affected, said the pastor, Father Jim Betzen, C.PP.S.

The parish opened for private prayer on June 1 and is preparing for the eventual return of public Masses. “I want to be well prepared with signs on the doors before we resume public Masses. There will be teams of four people who will be trained by our custodian to sanitize the pews.” The parish will continue livestreaming Masses after people return to the pews. Volunteer Juan de la Torre “has worked out a plan to record the Mass from the sanctuary without obstructing the view of the participants,” Father Betzen said.

The most difficult task in reopening may be “getting parishioners to wear masks.” He hopes they appreciate that the requirement is intended to help curb the spread of the virus.

Father Adam and his staff at Sacred Heart Cathedral are working to make the necessary changes to welcome back parishioners. Several parishioners have offered to come to the church to clean and sanitize surfaces. “We will also have several people designated, most likely, at each of the Masses to stay after and wipe down as much as we can before another group of people come in.” He hopes to have on hand enough cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer and antibacterial soap.

Father Adam is also exploring options such as taping off pews when people return for Mass, as suggested by diocesan guidelines. “One advantage Sacred Heart has is a wonderful diocesan hall with plenty of room for social distancing, a large screen and audio from the church so the faithful can watch and pray there.” The gathering space also has a monitor and audio, so chairs could be set up there, he said.

At 50 percent capacity, the cathedral could accommodate 400 people, but with social distancing guidelines, “I’m thinking perhaps 200 people in the church, 100 in the hall plus more in the gathering space. I’m sure we’ll be tweaking the procedures as we move along.”

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