St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold.  Craig Pittelli file photo
St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold. Craig Pittelli file photo
Editor’s Note: While the name of the St. Robert Bellarmine parishioner referenced in this news report was released to the parish community with the family’s permission, The Monitor and the Diocese of Trenton are not including the name of the deceased or her family. 

All Masses and religious and social events scheduled in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral Parish, Freehold, have been canceled from March 15 through March 28, following news that a parishioner who recently died had tested positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19). 

Msgr. Sam Sirianni, pastor, first announced the cancellations March 14, and followed up the next day with an advisory sent electronically to all parishioners and posted to the parish’s website and social media.  The advisory reported that on March 15 the parish was given permission from the family to share the name of the parishioner and her involvement in both the parish choir and religious education program.

The St. Robert parishioner is believed to be the second COVID-19 related death in New Jersey, according to recent media reports.  The parish’s advisory reported that the last time she was believed to be in attendance in church-related activities was in late February, as well as the parish involvement of close family members who are currently asymptomatic and self-quarantined.

According to the advisory, there is “an open line of communication with the Freehold Township Department of Health,” and the parish administration will continue to monitor the situation and keep the St. Robert Bellarmine community apprised.  

Anyone who believes that they may have been in close contact with the parishioner in the weeks before her death is referred to the Monmouth County Health Department, the message stated.   

The parish administration also called the community to prayer for the family who suffered this loss, and “for all who have been impacted by COVID-19 here in the parish and throughout the nation.”

Masses celebrated, dispensation observed

Across the Diocese of Trenton, Masses were celebrated as scheduled, but attendance was light.  On March 12, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., had issued a dispensation from the obligation of attending Mass, but opted to keep churches open for Masses and Confessions. 

He wrote: “I am granting a DISPENSATION from the OBLIGATION to attend weekend/Sunday Mass to all the Catholic faithful until further notice. Mass will still be offered in parishes for those who choose or who are able to attend. Otherwise, I recommend that the faithful pray and take advantage of/participate in Holy Mass that is broadcast on television."

Recognizing changing developments and the need for ongoing vigilance, Bishop O’Connell wrote,  “I simply instruct pastors and priests to use the very best judgment possible and to keep informed of any developments as they arise.”

Cancellations and closures

In his March 12 statement, Bishop O’Connell also asked that pastors “consider canceling other large gatherings of the faithful in parish churches or venues out of an abundance of caution. Families should be asked to limit attendance at other sacramental celebrations to immediate family only.”

On March 15 in a memo to pastors, Bishop O’Connell announced that “parish confirmations are temporarily postponed at least until after Easter.”  He will work with the parishes on setting up a revised schedule at a later date.

The Bishop also announced March 13 that all Catholic schools and religious education programs in the Diocese will shut down from March 16 through 27 to prevent the spread of the virus among the students and teachers, and to allow for a cleaning and disinfecting process to be conducted in all facilities. This will impact 35 Catholic schools and nearly 100 religious education programs, who together serve some 56,000 children and engage 4,700 paid and volunteer staff. 

The Diocese also announced March 13 that the Chancery will suspend normal operations in its Lawrenceville site, migrating most of its 85 staff members to a work-from-home status from March 16 to 20.  

In a March 13 letter to parents, JoAnn Tier, superintendent of Catholic schools, wrote, “Our schools have developed plans for the continuity of instruction in the event of a prolonged closure. Your school's principal and teachers will keep you informed of specific plans for your school.”

Tier also advised that all school-related extracurricular activities and community gatherings are canceled or postponed until further notice. This includes athletic practices and competitions. Events scheduled for later this year will be evaluated based on the most current information available.

(For a list of parish websites and other resources where the Sunday Mass is streamed or televised, go to