A parishioner kneels in prayer in St. Mary of the Lakes Church, Medford, May 13, the day when churches throughout the Diocese were permitted to open for private prayer, after having been closed nearly two months. Courtesy photo
A parishioner kneels in prayer in St. Mary of the Lakes Church, Medford, May 13, the day when churches throughout the Diocese were permitted to open for private prayer, after having been closed nearly two months. Courtesy photo
Suzy Colon woke up the morning of May 13 grateful in knowing she had somewhere special to be that day.

“I felt like I was back home again,” said Colon, who visited Corpus Christi Church, Willingboro, one of many churches across the Diocese to reopen its doors for private prayer on the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima.

She said she was delighted to see her parish pastor, Father John Testa, and two fellow parishioners upon her arrival. A slow stream of returning parishioners was reported across the Diocese as well.

It’s been almost two months since Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., suspended public Masses, which was soon followed by the closing of churches to private prayer, over COVID-19 concerns. Since that time, Bishop O’Connell and parish priests across the Diocese have made it their mission to reach the faithful through livestreamed Masses and various technology such as podcasts, social media, YouTube and more.

On May 8, Bishop O’Connell, announced that all churches in Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties could begin to reopen May 13 for private prayer only. Social distancing and other safety measures must be taken, and churches can reopen only once pastors determine they can safely do so. Following the advice of experienced public health officials, the Bishop said the celebration of Mass and bringing together of large gatherings on parish premises are still not permitted.

He added, however, that reopening churches for private prayer is only the first part of a phased approach that will move the Diocese “to the gradual restoration of our full Catholic and sacramental life.” To assist in this gradual reopening, the Bishop has created a task force of pastors.

Reopening churches in the Diocese for Mass and prayer is “not just a matter of opening the door and ‘flipping the switch,’” he said. “Simply reopening churches for private prayer — even without Mass, Sacraments, group prayer— must continue to incorporate some of the restrictions that we have become used to by now: no more than 10 people in a given space at the same time, wearing of masks in public, social distancing, etc.”

Father Testa said just reopening churches for private prayer gives the faithful a sign of hope.

“This pandemic has placed a great deal of uncertainty on everyone. We are committed to meet people spiritually, and reopening our churches for private prayer, even for just a couple of hours each week, offers spiritual relief for those who seek it,” he said.

Reunited

For Msgr. Edward Arnister, 9 a.m. May 13 could not come fast enough. First, however, he had a most-welcome task to complete before he could open St. Rose Church, Belmar. 

“I had to remove the signs from the doors saying the church was closed,” the pastor said with a smile, noting that he was quickly joined by a couple of parishioners.

Msgr. Arnister said he found it moving to see parishioners in prayer. He saw one woman, who was obviously upset, light a candle for her daughter who is hospitalized with the coronavirus. “She told me how grateful she was she could come to church to pray,” he said.

Similarly, Father James Grogan, pastor of Nativity Parish, Fair Haven, said parishioners were thankful and thrilled to return to church.

In all, about 20 parishioners visited the church throughout the day, he said, then noted the many safety logistics that had to be considered to get the church ready. For example, staff had to designate usable pews, rope off sections of the church that were off limits and lock restrooms.

The decision to open the church on weekday afternoons from 12:15 to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday, he said, was based on other scheduled parish activities including the livestream Mass that Father Grogan celebrates each morning at 8 a.m., the online Lectio Divina sessions he leads at 10 a.m. as well as the availability of volunteers to sanitize the church twice during the afternoon.

“It touched my heart to see parishioners follow the instructions, such as wearing face masks and keeping a social distance, as they knelt before the Blessed Sacrament in private prayer,” he said.

A Safe Return

Father Daniel Swift, pastor of St. Mary of the Lakes Church, Medford, said he couldn’t help but get emotional  to see the church reopened.

He said his eyes filled with tears when one parishioner thanked him for how the parish had taken measures to ensure everyone’s safety. “I just told her our efforts were our privilege.”

He continued, “It has been difficult to offer Mass to an empty church since March 17. To see just three persons spending time in prayer before the tabernacle [May 13] did my heart good.”

Father John Bambrick, pastor of St. Aloysius Parish, Jackson, said that being able to open the church on the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima was special to his parish because before every livestream Mass that is celebrated in the church, “We pray to Mary under her title Health of the Sick.”

The pastor explained that the parish has taken all necessary precautions, including having only every third pew open to ensure six feet between each person; blocking off access to candles and statues; removing all paper goods; locking the restrooms, and removing the holy water. Volunteers have also stepped forward to sanitize the church premises each day.

Father Bambrick added, “We are being as innovative and creative as the law allows. Opening the church for private prayer marks a moment of return to some sense of normal. For those who want to come and offer private prayer, the church is ready.”