To stay connected to their faith and parish, the Santarsiero family of St. Charles Borromeo, Cinnaminson, attends livestream Masses, reads online updates and visits the parish Rosary gardens and those of nearby parishes. Here, 32-year-old Jillian prays the Rosary in one of those gardens. Courtesy photo
To stay connected to their faith and parish, the Santarsiero family of St. Charles Borromeo, Cinnaminson, attends livestream Masses, reads online updates and visits the parish Rosary gardens and those of nearby parishes. Here, 32-year-old Jillian prays the Rosary in one of those gardens. Courtesy photo
Although churches in the Diocese reopened in June at reduced capacity, for some faithful, the time is still not right to return to in-person Mass. Comorbidities such as advanced age and high-risk health categories have kept many at home up until now, perhaps even until a COVID-19 vaccine is available.

Jacqueline Santarsiero, a lifelong member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Cinnaminson, helps care for her 90-year-old mother, and her 32-year-old daughter, Jillian, has special needs.

“It is terrifying for me to think what would happen if Jillian got COVID and had to be in the hospital without us,” Santarsiero said.

Janice Hutchinson, a member of St. Paul Parish, Princeton, and her family were regular Sunday churchgoers at St. Paul – or St. Denis Parish, Manasquan in the summers – before the pandemic.

“My family has struggled with the decision not to return to Mass,” she said. “Attending in-person Mass was something that we very much enjoyed and looked forward to.”

Janice and her husband, Dan Hillsdon, have two children in St. Paul School – Carter, seventh grade, and Kyleigh, fifth grade, as well as a nine-month old son, Cameron. They have kept themselves close to home as much as possible since schools closed in March.

 “I have an aging father whose health is not the best, and a baby; we do not go anywhere that will expose us to additional germs,” she said. “Not attending in-person Mass has been one of the hardest of these decisions.”

Fortunately, the livestream Masses have provided families like the Santarsieros and Hutchinson-Hillsdons with a spiritual touchstone that buoys their family faith life.

“To me, the livestream is the next best thing to being in church,” Santarsiero said. “It gives me peace of mind that not only is my family safe, but we are continuing to spend time every weekend with the Gospel and attend Mass.”

In addition, Jillian, who is autistic, is falling into a new rhythm of watching Mass on television.

“For those with autism, routine is key,” she explained. “Before COVID, we would always go to 5 p.m. Mass and then out to dinner. That was her routine. The change was very difficult for her.”

Janice’s family is also adapting.

“On most Sunday mornings, my family goes over to my parents’ deck, and we have breakfast before the 10 a.m. Mass,” she explained. “We then pull our computers out and livestream Mass outside together. It is a lovely start to our week; we get to celebrate our faith together as we would normally.”

Janice noted that since the pandemic began, one silver lining is the ability to attend daily Mass online. “Once I have my kids logged onto St. Paul School’s remote learning, I often ‘attend’ the 8:15 Mass. This is something … I could not do in person as frequently [because of] time constraints.”

As an active member of the parish community, Janice tries to keep in touch with her parishioner friends. “We exchange text or emails weekly. I have participated in online classes and hang-outs regularly with my St. Paul’s family.” Several parish organizations, she noted, help make keeping in touch easy – such as the Knights of Columbus’ emailed prayer intentions and the parish bulletin.

“One thing I have enjoyed by attending Mass virtually is the ability to go anywhere in the country,” Janice continued. “We have participated in Mass at Notre Dame University, the Basilica in Newark and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.”

This does not, however, keep the family from missing St. Paul’s. 

“I miss the feeling of peace that I would have when I would enter the doors,” Janice reflected. “Church is a tranquil place, and that feeling cannot be reproduced.  I enjoy the stained-glass windows and the sun coming through. I miss receiving the Eucharist.” She added that she also misses visiting Manasquan and the walks she and her parents and children would take to Our Lady Star of the Sea Beach Chapel, which is part of St. Denis Parish.

“Listening to my kids discuss and ask questions of their grandparents is always so enjoyable. My children are also in the St. Paul children’s choir. I miss the singing and the enjoyment they get from that.”

Janice and her family are looking forward to a return to Mass, especially “the camaraderie of people [and] learning more about Christ. I miss the homily in person because the reactions people have help you appreciate the prayers that much more.”

Santarsiero’s family is looking forward to when they can return to in-person Mass, especially receiving the Eucharist. “We miss not taking part in the Sacrament of Holy Communion every week,” she said. “The other [thing] we miss is that Jillian and I are greeters at church. In addition to getting to see other parishioners, it helps her with social skills, so we are looking forward to getting back to that.”

In the meantime, Santarsiero stays connected to the church community through the parish announcements and visiting the parish website and Facebook page.

Another important connection: utilizing not only the Rosary garden at her parish, but visiting prayer gardens at nearby churches, such as St. Joan of Arc in Marlton and St. John Neumann, Mount Laurel.

“When we go, we are seeing more and more people there, and everyone is being respectful and wearing masks,” she said.

Between the livestreams, parish updates and prayer gardens, Santarsiero is grateful for the many ways she can continue to practice her faith with her parish community.

“I don’t know how I could get through these stressful times without my faith,” she said. “Whatever I can do to reaffirm my faith in a safe way, I’ll do it.”