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The pews are marked off for social distancing and holy water fonts remain empty at St. Cassian Church. KATE ALBRIGHT FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

On Saturday, May 23, Keith Kelly sat in a pew at St. Cassian Catholic Church with his mother and a can of Lysol by his side. It’s the first time in months the pair could get inside their church since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March. 

This week, Catholics started going back to church as the buildings reopened under the direction of the Newark Archdiocese, but for personal prayers only. Some parishes will offer Saturday afternoon confession, as well.

Keith Kelly sits with his mother during private prayer. KATE ALBRIGHT? FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

Since late March, churches have been locked up and church leaders had dispensed with the Catholic obligation to attend Mass on Sunday as well as from “Easter duty,” the obligation to receive Holy Communion during the season of Easter.

Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, Archbishop of Newark Archdiocese, announced last week a three-phase gradual reopening process for churches throughout the Archdiocese that will “ensure the health and well-being of clergy and faithful.”

On Sunday, May 17, Phase One reopened churches in the Archdiocese for private prayer only. As part of Phase One, the Sacrament of Reconciliation or confession also may be celebrated if social distancing can be maintained. Confessions can be held in pews as confessionals are not to be used.

Even with Sunday Mass broadcasts, many parishioners have missed spending time in the space, said Fr. Marc A. Vicar, of St. Cassian in Upper Montclair. 

About 25 to 30 people a day began coming back last week to pray at St. Cassian, he said. The church is now open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m., and on Saturday from 12-4 p.m. Confessions are being heard Saturdays from 2-4 p.m. 

“Some stay for a few minutes, others stay for an hour,” he said.

Kelly joined about three other parishioners on Saturday afternoon. He called the closing of churches “a disgrace” and feels it was politically motivated.

Kelly and his mother wore face coverings, a requirement to enter the church. The pews have been marked to emphasize the six-foot rule for social distancing. Visitors are asked to bring their own hand sanitizer or wipes.

The church also has the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament on the altar, which honours the Holy Eucharist by exposing it to the view of the faithful. Some parishioners have formed a rosary group, keeping a safe distance, Vicar said. 

During opening hours, a parish staff member must be physically present in the church to ensure social distancing and sanitizing. Holy water fonts are empty until further notice.

Pews, door handles and knobs, restrooms, and high traffic areas of the church are wiped down and sanitized at regular intervals, said Vicar. 

“I would ask those who are vulnerable either because of health or because of age to please remain at home if there is even the slightest risk to your health. Parishioners are also asked to take their temperature before they come to church to make sure there is no fever,” Vicar said.

In addition to St. Cassian, Immaculate Conception is now open Monday through Friday, 1-4 p.m.; Saturday, 1-3 p.m.; and Sunday 1-5 p.m. Mt Carmel is open Saturday 2-4 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. Immaculate Conception will be offering confession 10-11 a.m. No one was available at Saint Peter Claver Church and the website had not been updated.

Cardinal Tobin and the Archdiocesan Task Force are still determining the timing for the implementation of the next two phases and are planning for how public worship will be celebrated with respect to any new regulations. Phase Two will incorporate the celebration of weekday Masses and Phase Three will permit Sunday Masses.

But even at Phase 3, church leaders said parishioners should expect a very different worship experience with the obligatory practice of social distancing, use of masks and limited number of people present.

The announcement of the reopening of Catholic Churches comes days before the Centers for Disease control released a report: “High COVID-19 Attack Rate Among Attendees at Events at a Church — Arkansas.”

The CDC report examined the “cascading effect” of two congregants with the virus, who attended gatherings at their church in March. Thirty-five of the 92 attendees acquired COVID-19, resulting in three deaths. Later, through contact tracing, it was discovered that 26 more individuals contacted COVID through the church members, and resulted in one death in the community.

“So just through two individuals spreading the virus, 61 cases of confirmed cases of COVID-19 were found and four deaths resulted. It emphasizes that large gatherings pose a significant risk for the transmission of the virus,”Health Commissioner Judy Perisichilli said on Friday.  

The Newark Archdiocesan Task Force will continue to monitor the guidance of public health officials and federal and state public officials, who have cautioned not to rush into reopening churches to the faithful before manageable safety protocols can be put in place, said Tobin in a release. 

“Faith-based organizations should work with local health officials to determine how to implement the U.S. Government guidelines for modifying activities during the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent transmission of the virus to their members and their communities,” the CDC report concludes.

St. Cassian issued the following advice on what to expect as the churches reopen: 

  • A general dispensation from the Sunday obligation will remain until further notice. 
  • Attendance will be limited. 
  • Social Distancing will be practiced. Expect that your parish will have pews/rows that are taped off, and that households, even of one individual, will be asked to keep six feet of separation from each other. 
  • No one will be admitted without a mask. 
  • Parishioners should take their temperature before coming to Mass. Anyone with any symptoms of sickness must stay home.
  • Liturgical changes will be in place. Temporary adjustments will be made to how Mass is celebrated and communion is received.
  • There still will be a risk for anyone who attends a public Mass. Even with best health practices and strict social distancing, anyone who enters a public space should recognize there is a risk of contracting the coronavirus. Improved cleaning will occur at the churches, but no one should expect that they will be any safer from germs than in other public spaces.