Father Bill Kempf had been celebrating Masses in private at St. Justin Martyr Parish in Sunset Hills for nearly three weeks, when one day he came into church and saw a stunning sight.
Pictures of his parishioners. Everywhere.
The images had been taped to the pews, a surprise from several parishioners. It was a kind gesture to let their priests know that even though their flock could not be there in person, they were there with them in spirit as they celebrate Masses by themselves — the new norm that has emerged from the coronavirus pandemic.
“It really warmed the cockles of my heart,” said Father Kempf. “It’s not the same as seeing the people there, but in some ways I think, ‘these are my people.’ That’s the part that stays with you. These are the folks for whom I am offering this Mass.”
St. Justin is among several parishes in the archdiocese that have included pictures of parishioners in the pews. Some parishes have organized the collection of photos, while in other cases, individual parishioners have done it to surprise the priests. In all cases, priests and parishioners have said it’s been a creative way of remaining connected as a parish community even while they are physically separated.
Immaculate Conception Parish in Dardenne Prairie sent an email to parishioners requesting photos. There was a generous response, with enough images to be placed in the main church building and the chapel, the latter where school Masses are normally celebrated.
“We told the people, we miss you, we look forward to you coming back here, and a good way for us to remember you is to send in those selfies,” said pastor Msgr. Ted Wojcicki.
The chapel, which seats about 250 people, has been entirely filled with photos. Associate pastor Father Christopher Rubie celebrates a livetreamed Mass in the chapel at 10 a.m. on Sundays. Msgr. Wojcicki and associate pastor Father Henry Purcell also celebrate Masses in a smaller side chapel during the week.
The images have elicited mixed feelings, said Msgr. Wojcicki. “It’s comforting that we see them, and it’s also a reminder that they’re not here. We’re trying to find as many ways of connecting as we can with them.”
In addition to communicating through e-newsletter, social media and parish website and bulletin, parish staff also invited parishioners to participate in a drive-through lane on the parish grounds for the distribution of items such as blessed palms, Easter eggs with Bible quotes and Divine Mercy images.
Immaculate Conception’s St. Vincent de Paul food pantry was running low on personal care items, so the parish organized a drive-through donation drop off. Organizers estimated that more than 1,100 pounds of personal products were donated.
“We’re doing our best to keep all of those things going, and the people have been very responsive,” Msgr. Wojcicki said.
A similar effort to place photos in the pews at Holy Spirit Parish in Maryland Heights also has been a success, said pastor Father Robert Evans. He estimated that he has a collection of more than 500 images, with more trickling in. The request was made through an e-newsletter, on social media and in announcements at the end of livestreamed Masses. The church remains open for private prayer during the day.
“People come in and walk around and look at their friends in church,” Father Evans said. “I think it helps them in praying for one another.”
Father Evans has enjoyed seeing everyone’s faces in the pews, but acknowledged it certainly isn’t the same as seeing people in the flesh. “It is so hard right now to celebrate Mass with just the pictures,” he said. “It helps — but it’s difficult to just look at the camera.” He also said that he, like those at other parishes, eagerly awaits when public Masses may be offered in the archdiocese once again. Archbishop Robert J. Carlson has extended the suspension of public Masses through May 15. Father Evans noted that even when that day comes, there will be social distancing measures put in place for the safety of all.
“I am looking forward to getting everybody back together as a community,” he said. “To be there in person and receive Him in person is so much better.”
Jenny Leverich of St. Sabina Parish in Florissant noticed something different about Father Joseph Banden when he began celebrating Masses via livestream in March. “He didn’t seem like himself,” Leverich said. “But who (does) seem like themselves nowadays?”
With just a handful of people on hand to assist with the livestreams, Leverich thought it would be a good idea to do something to keep Father Banden company while he celebrates Mass. She saw a post on Facebook about another church that was placing congregants’ pictures in the pews and thought, “Why can’t we do this at St. Sabina?”
Leverich asked around for photos, and she made stops at church to tape them to the pews. She continues to add photos as she recieves them. She’s been receiving messages on Facebook and friend requests from fellow parishioners who have been grateful for the gesture. “They’re saying ‘thank you for doing this. I don’t feel so lonely and separated from my parish.’ I have prayed every day for God to use me to bring people together in Christ. This is one of the answers, to help people not feel separated from their church.”
Father Banden, too, has appreciated the gesture. “The joke is that we’ve never had so many people in the front pews,” he said in jest. “They’ve certainly helped a bit, but it’s not the same as people being there.”