Parishes welcome their congregations back to Mass

Father Eric Fowlkes, pastor of Our Lady of the Lake Church in Hendersonville, looked out over the crowd in the church parking lot, sitting in lawn chairs and camping chairs, spread his arms and said, “Welcome home.”

On Sunday, May 24, he celebrated the first public Mass at Our Lady of the Lake in more than two months, after the public celebration of Masses had been suspended to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Bishop Spalding announced on May 7 that the public celebration of Mass could resume in the Diocese of Nashville beginning on May 18. While some churches began offering public Masses on the first day they were able to, others took more time planning for the return of their congregations.

“I think it was a great beginning,” Father Fowlkes said after the Sunday Mass. “It’s very much appreciated by people to start coming back.”

In Bishop Spalding’s letter to the faithful announcing the resumption of public celebrations of Mass, he said not all of the 58 churches in the diocese would start offering Masses on the same day.

“Some pastors may prudently decide to wait a few more weeks,” he wrote. “We especially do not want to put anyone at undue risk from a hasty or ill-prepared reopening.”

The diocese has asked that all people attending Mass wear a mask and maintain a social distance of at least 6 feet from others.

The bishop’s dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days will remain in effect through June 30, and he encouraged people who are not feeling well, are in vulnerable groups, or are concerned about joining public gatherings to stay home. Parishes also will continue to livestream their Masses for people to watch at home.

Our Lady of the Lake decided to celebrate its Sunday Masses outdoors in the church parking lot, which would allow more room for people to maintain the proper social distancing. To keep attendance to below 50 percent of capacity while also maintaining the proper social distancing would have meant only 200 people could be in the church, Father Fowlkes told the congregation.

It’s also difficult for the parish to disinfect the church between Masses because the pews have fabric-covered cushions rather than hard surfaces, Father Fowlkes explained.

Parishioners were asked to bring their own chairs, wear masks and keep at least six feet from non-family members. Hand sanitizer was also available for people.

“I was very appreciative of how thoughtful everyone was,” Father Fowlkes said of the parishioners’ efforts to follow all the recommendations. “Providing a good explanation of all those things is the key to success.”

St. Stephen Catholic Community in Old Hickory also resumed the public celebrations of Mass on Sunday, May 24. Parishioners were prepared for the changes awaiting them. “We sent out information on Facebook, and letters to parishioners to prep people,” said head sacristan Maria Montini.

Parish volunteers had marked off sections of seating inside the church to keep parishioners adequately spaced out in the pews; face masks and packets of hand sanitizer were distributed to all Mass-goers before entering the church. “A lot of work has gone into this,” said Montini.

As soon as the congregation of about 90 people exited the church after the 8:30 a.m. Mass, ushers quickly wiped down the pews so they could be sanitized for those coming in for the 11 a.m. Mass.

Far fewer parishioners were present for Mass than typically come, and St. Stephen is continuing to live stream its 8:30 a.m. Sunday Mass for parishioners at home.

For those who did return for the first public Masses, “you can tell people are grateful to be back,” Montini said. “You can’t see their smiles because of the masks, but you can see the sparkle in their eye.”

“It was really powerful this morning,” to celebrate Mass once again with a live congregation, said St. Stephen Associate Pastor Father Emmanuel Dirichukwu, who celebrated the first Sunday Mass back after the two-month break. “The Holy Spirit was here.” He said he could feel the “blessed assurance that better things are ahead.”

‘It was wonderful’

Vickie Joubert was among the nearly 125 parishioners who attended the 8:30 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of the Lake, a Mass that typically draws 600 to 700 people.

“I was skeptical, but it was very lovely,” Joubert said. “I was skeptical if it could feel like Mass, but it did feel like Mass.”

During the pandemic, Our Lady of the Lake, like most churches in the Diocese of Nashville, has been livestreaming Masses with only the clergy present.

“Seeing the empty church was really hard,” said Joubert, who was grateful to rejoin the community for the celebration of Mass.

“I thought it was wonderful,” said Deacon Mike Rector, who assisted at the Mass. “It was so wonderful to see faces again. I missed that terribly.”

The Body of Christ is truly seen when the faithful gather together, Deacon Rector said. “I learned that lesson” in the last few months, he said.

Our Lady of the Lake resumed public daily Masses on Wednesday, May 27, and will continue to hold Sunday Masses outdoors, Father Fowlkes said.

“We will continue to monitor this weekly and make all needed and possible changes moving forward,” he said.

‘We’re ready for it’

St. Ann Church in Nashville was one of the churches that resumed public Masses on Monday, May 18, the first day they were allowed.

“You can’t see my smile because of this mask,” Father Michael Fye, St. Ann’s pastor, said as he welcomed 15 worshipers to the Mass.

“Thank you to the bishop,” Sarah McLeod, one of those attending the first Mass at St. Ann, said of Bishop Spalding’s decision to resume public Masses. “We’re ready for it.”

About 20 people attended the 7 a.m. Mass at St. Patrick Church in downtown Nashville on Monday morning, May 18.

“We give thanks to God that we are able to gather again,” said Father John Hammond, a Vicar General of the diocese and the pastor of St. Patrick Church in downtown Nashville, where he celebrated Mass at 7 a.m. Monday.

He noted that he doesn’t normally preach at daily Mass, “but I couldn’t resist today.”

As he spoke, he pointed toward the pascal candle, shining in the dimly lit church. “There’s always the light shining in the darkness,” Father Hammond said. “In the darkness, His light shines more brightly. We have nothing to fear if we cling to Him.”

Sarah McLeod, her husband Jim, who attended Mass at St. Ann with her, and their family have been watching the livestreamed Masses. “But it’s just not the same,” she said.

“It’s great to be back and be back at Mass,” said Mark Robinson, who was at Mass at St. Ann with his wife Jeanne. “It’s great to have things opening back up.”

The Robinsons, who are parishioners at St. Mary’s Church in Downtown Nashville and whose son Reed is a seminarian for the diocese, usually attend daily Mass at St. Ann or St. Henry Church, both of which are near their home. “We’ve been missing Communion,” Jeanne Robinson said.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been this long without receiving Communion,” Mrs. McLeod said. Receiving it for the first time in weeks “was a little emotional.”

“I just thought it was amazing to be able to receive the Eucharist. That’s the main thing,” said Jack Rebarchak, who attended the Mass at St. Ann with his fiancé Ashley Summerford. “To physically receive him makes your day like 10 times better.”

“The desire of my heart is that people come to Jesus, especially in the sacraments,” said Father Fye. “To see people make the effort to come this morning does make me happy.”

After Mass at St. Patrick, parishioners greeted friends outside the church. “We’re pretty excited to be here,” said Rhonda Lawrence, who attended the early morning Mass. Even though most in attendance were wearing masks, and spread out in the church, “it felt nice and normal,” she said.

While public Masses were on hiatus in the diocese since mid-March, Lawrence had been watching Bishop Spalding’s Masses online, but was more than ready to come to Mass in person. “It’s time we get started with things again,” she said.

The number of people attending the first Mass St. Ann was typical for the attendance at daily Mass, Father Fye said, although it wasn’t all the usual people who are at that Mass.

“It’s an experiment,” Father Fye said of resuming public Masses. “We’ll see what happens.”

Theresa Laurence contributed to this report.