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A prudent reevaluation of precautions at Mass

Parishioners are excited to attend Mass, see activities return

For current COVID-19 guidelines and policies in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, see archstl.org/coronavirus.


Cathy and Matt Gross prayed at Mass at Assumption Church in St. Louis County on May 23. A year after public Masses resumed with restrictions including face-covering requirements, some parishes have begun allowing worshipers to attend without wearing the coverings.
Photo Credits: Lisa Johnston
The announcement that their parish no longer is requiring masks for people who are fully vaccinated is just fine with Ed and Georgene Winkelmann, parishioners of Assumption in Mattese for 49 years.

“We have a personal identity back,” Ed said. His wife agreed, “You can see a smile on faces.”

The Winkelmanns have been back to attending Mass ever since a temporary ban on public Masses one year ago. They appreciated the subsequent social distancing and mask rules but now are excited the parish is gradually opening up for more events. “It’s an answer to our prayers,” Georgene said.

The Vautrains are among the families who centered their lives around the parish and its fellowship pre-COVID. They felt lost after most in-person activities were halted. “There’s no replacement for being here with our brothers and sisters,” Joshua Vautrain said. “We’re so excited for the summer and to be with the rest of the body.”

Vautrain said it was good to see that scientists came through with a vaccination. “To have a choice to not wear a mask and know we are safe is amazing. We’re so excited to come back and see everybody.”

Assumption offered donuts after Mass on May 23 in an outdoor space, a way of gradually but safely engaging Massgoers, “something to get people accustomed to doing stuff together again,” as parish pastor Father Thomas Keller described it. Paul Hesse helped with the donut setup and distribution. He attended Mass sans mask since he has been vaccinated and said he’s glad for a return to more activities.

It’s appropriate on Pentecost for “things to begin to ignite again,” Hesse said.

Father Keller said the parish is following Centers for Disease Control guidelines as in the past. Social distancing continues to be the norm, though that is expected to ease. Most people at the 10:30 a.m. Mass went without masks, but several parishioners wore them.

The parish pastor said there could be some people with vulnerable health attending Mass.

“There’s no rush, but we’re excited we’re headed in the right direction,” Father Keller said. “We have to take it each week at a time, you really can’t predict this impact on society. If we go to far too fast, we might make a mistake, if we take too long we can always catch up. Throughout this pandemic the operative word is prudence.”

He’s looking forward to the parish’s outdoor Mass and barbeque on June 5. There’s plenty of room on the grounds to spread out, he said.

St. Michael Parish in Shrewsbury posted updated Mass guidelines on its website, explaining that the mask mandate now only applies to the parish faithful who have not received full vaccination against the COVID-19 virus.

The parish asked parishioners to continue social distancing. At more crowded liturgies, particularly the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass or in groups where social distancing is not as possible, masks are encouraged for people.

In addition, as was the case at Assumption on May 23, some pews will continue to be closed off to encourage social distancing and the priest and deacon will continue to wear masks while distributing Holy Communion.

Father Mi­chael Grosch, pastor of St. Michael, said the Centers for Disease Control recommendation on mask-wearing and the subsequent guidelines from the archdiocese felt like a sudden change because the mask requirement had been in place so long. “Some people are really excited about that or seeing this as ‘Finally it’s time for us to start moving back toward normal to some degree.’ But there are many too who are very concerned about the overall health and safety.”

He is seeking a balance. “That’s where it’s difficult. Obviously, we still have to be aware the virus is still out there and treat it with the caution it deserves. At the same time, at least for me, I am trusting the judgment of the archbishop and those who have been advising him.”

He’s cautiously optimistic, he said. “We’re all hoping to move past the virus at some point. But there’s a prudence of asking when is the right time to take the various measures. That’s why my approach was of still practicing social distancing and encouraging masks in a more crowded setting. People have responded pretty well and pretty respectfully.”

Leaving mitigation strategies in place

With the archdiocese leaving the decision to individual pastors regarding COVID-related policies at Masses, some parishes have chosen to keep their guidelines in place for the time being.

”I ask that for the time being that we continue to practice social distancing and wearing masks while inside (St. Francis Xavier) College Church,” pastor Father Dan White, SJ, wrote in Facebook post May 18. In consultation with several health care professionals in the parish, Father White examined current full vaccination rates, which are 34.9% in St. Louis County and 31.5% in St. Louis City.

“A significant portion of the population is still not fully vaccinated,” Father White wrote. “It seems prudent to ease our way into what we all desire: a return to normal.”

Another concern was for young people, especially those under the age of 12, who do not yet have a vaccine available to them. “Our trajectory was to not do anything until they at least have had the time to be vaccinated fully,” he said of those 12 and older. “We will be re-evaluating as time goes on.”

Father White said he appreciated that Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski left the decision to each parish as to how to implement the new guidance. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all” situation, he said. “What works in one place is not necessarily going to work in another place.”

At Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood of St. Louis, Massgoers who have been vaccinated are no longer required to wear masks at church anymore. But pastor Father Scott Jones said that despite the CDC’s new guidance, he suspects the majority of people will continue to wear masks out of concern for one another.

“People have been wonderful about all of the safety precautions — not a person has objected to wearing a mask,” he said. “It’s not just about them, but the people around them. We have to keep each other safe.”

Some parishioners also are involved in active ministry to the homeless, Father Jones said, and have been sensitive to homeless individuals who have not yet been able to access the vaccine.

“Even though I am fully vaccinated and already had COVID, I intend to continue to wear my mask until further notice,” Father Jones wrote in a recent parish bulletin. “It is a small gesture that protects others.” Other practices, such as spacing between pews, have been left in place for now.

Sts. Teresa and Bridget has seen an increase in the number of people returning to Mass for the first time since the pandemic began. After Communion, visitors or those returning are asked to identify themselves and are given a welcome from parishioners. “Once we see that most of our parishioners are back at Mass and it’s safe, we’re going to have a big welcome-back gathering,” Father Jones said. “But we are waiting until it’s safe to do that.”

Our Lady of Providence Parish in Crestwood also looked at current vaccination rates, and parishioners have been asked to consider wearing masks for the time being. Other mitigation strategies, such as social distancing, limited use of choirs, servers, ushers and other ministers, and a contactless sign of peace, remain in place.

“The criteria is that we pastors are to provide the safest environment possible,” wrote Father Rick Schilli, pastor.

The parish also has seen an increase in attendance in the last month. “As attendance grows, church will inevitably become more crowded — social distancing will be more of a challenge,” Father Schilli wrote. “The archbishop is looking to make a decision on restoring the Sunday obligation in the near future — perhaps over the summer. … I ask that you consider carefully your attendance and mask when you think necessary when attending Mass.”


>> Donut heaven

Emily Vautrain hugged her father Joshua Vautrain as they as they talked with Ben Thomas, Ron Sherman, Cheryl Vautrain and Meghan Vautrain at an outside donut social after Mass at Assumption Parish in Mattese. The social was “something to get people accustomed to doing stuff together again,” as parish pastor Father Thomas Keller described it.
Photo Credits: Lisa Johnston
What a difference some donuts make.

Assumption Parish, just as many parishes in the archdiocese, regularly schedules a Donut Sunday with free donuts and fellowship after Mass. Parishes cancelled that due to COVID-19 restrictions.

On May 23, donuts were offered outside at Assumption. Krista and Tom Buck attended with their children, Lucas, 2, Celia, 4, and Cora, 6. They wore face masks in church since the children are unvaccinated and still wear masks at school. Outside, when they could stay away from the crowd, they munched on the sweet goodies, without wearing masks. “It’s good to see people again and have that community,” Krista said.

They spent some Sundays attending Mass virtually as a caution against COVID-19 and had to get the children readjusted to in-person Masses, reminding them silence is golden.

Dan Dorsey and his children, Kevin, 10, and Erin, 11, also enjoyed the treats. It was a good idea to have that sense of community outdoors, he said. “Our pastor and parish leadership are willing to think outside the box, be creative in looking for opportunities while maintaining safety,” Dan Dorsey said.

A sense of normalcy is important, said Bill Gacioch, who helped with the donut setup and distribution. He’ll be happy to see efforts to encourage more people return to activities and Mass. “You feel more blessed that way — to share it with more people.”

The volunteer welcomed the previous requirement to wear masks in church. “It was protection for myself and also others. You couldn’t gauge the risk. It was the Christian thing to do,” Dorsey said.


>> Livestream impact

Assumption Parish in Mattese had already been livestreaming Masses prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on gatherings that followed.

An Eagle Scout’s project setting up video helped start the livestreaming of Mass for parishioners who are homebound. When public Masses were suspended for a while last year, “we were having sometimes thousands of people watching. We were reaching people all across the country,” said Father Thomas Keller, pastor of Assumption Parish.

It helped that listings of livestreamed Masses were in alphabetical order, with Assumption one of the first in line.

“We received letters from people stating that they’ve returned to the Church simply because they had a positive experience with livestreaming,” Father Keller said. “We’ve had people register from Arizona as a parishioner.”

Some convents appreciated that the parish livestreamed its early Mass each day. Assumption didn’t alter its Mass schedule, even when public Masses were cancelled for a time.



Some parishes leave mitigation strategies unchanged

Julie Connors prayed at Mass at Assumption Parish in St. Louis County on May 23. Pastors at parishes in the archdiocese began re-examining face-covering requirements and other pandemic mitigation measures, with some parishes permitting vaccinated Massgoers to attend without a face covering.
Photo Credits: Lisa Johnston
With the archdiocese leaving the decision to individual pastors regarding COVID-related policies at Masses, some parishes have chosen to keep their guidelines in place for the time being.

I ask that for the time being that we continue to practice social distancing and wearing masks while inside (St. Francis Xavier) College Church,” pastor Father Dan White, SJ, wrote in Facebook post May 18. In consultation with several health care professionals in the parish, Father White examined current full vaccination rates, which are 34.9% in St. Louis County and 31.5% in St. Louis City.

“A significant portion of the population is still not fully vaccinated,” Father White wrote. “It seems prudent to ease our way into what we all desire: a return to normal.”

Another concern was for young people, especially those under the age of 12, who do not yet have a vaccine available to them. “Our trajectory was to not do anything until they at least have had the time to be vaccinated fully,” he said of those 12 and older. “We will be re-evaluating as time goes on.”

Father White said he appreciated that Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski left the decision to each parish as to how to implement the new guidance. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all” situation, he said. “What works in one place is not necessarily going to work in another place.”

At Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish in the Jeff-Vander-Louis neighborhood of St. Louis, Massgoers who have been vaccinated are no longer required to wear masks at church anymore. But pastor Father Scott Jones said that despite the CDC’s new guidance, he suspects the majority of people will continue to wear masks out of concern for one another.

“People have been wonderful about all of the safety precautions — not a person has objected to wearing a mask,” he said. “It’s not just about them, but the people around them. We have to keep each other safe.”

Some parishioners also are involved in active ministry to the homeless, Father Jones said, and have been sensitive to homeless individuals who have not yet been able to access the vaccine.

“Even though I am fully vaccinated and already had COVID, I intend to continue to wear my mask until further notice,” Father Jones wrote in a recent parish bulletin. “It is a small gesture that protects others.” Other practices, such as spacing between pews, have been left in place for now.

Sts. Teresa and Bridget has seen an increase in the number of people returning to Mass for the first time since the pandemic began. After Communion, visitors or those returning are asked to identify themselves and are given a welcome from parishioners. “Once we see that most of our parishioners are back at Mass and it’s safe, we’re going to have a big welcome-back gathering,” Father Jones said. “But we are waiting until it’s safe to do that.”

Our Lady of Providence Parish in Crestwood also looked at current vaccination rates, and parishioners have been asked to consider wearing masks for the time being. Other mitigation strategies, such as social distancing, limited use of choirs, servers, ushers and other ministers, and a contactless sign of peace, remain in place.

“The criteria is that we pastors are to provide the safest environment possible,” wrote Father Rick Schilli, pastor.

The parish also has seen an increase in attendance in the last month. “As attendance grows, church will inevitably become more crowded — social distancing will be more of a challenge,” Father Schilli wrote. “The Archbishop is looking to make a decision on restoring the Sunday obligation in the near future — perhaps over the summer. … I ask that you consider carefully your attendance and mask when you think necessary when attending Mass.”

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