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One year later, parishes look back on pandemic experience

By Jacqueline Tetrault Pilot Staff
Posted: 3/19/2021

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People gather in prayer outside St. Mary Church in Waltham last year. Pilot video capture/St. Mary Parish

BRAINTREE -- On March 13, 2020, the archdiocese suspended public Masses, and all parish activities as schools and other organizations closed their doors to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. To mark one year since then, The Pilot spoke with several pastors about their experiences throughout that time -- how they held onto hope in the midst of so many challenges, and how they helped the faithful stay connected to God and to each other despite their isolation.

"Not to have Sunday worship was like a shock to my senses," said Father Michael Nolan, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Waltham.

"Our whole goal is always trying to bring people together," since "everything flows (from) and everything leads to Sunday Eucharist," Father Nolan said.

"I personally get such huge strength from the people of God coming together and giving of themselves on that day. So that helps me do that throughout the week here. And to have that removed is like having your heart removed," he said.

On March 15, 2020, the first Sunday after Masses were suspended, Father Nolan led a Eucharistic procession through the streets of Waltham so people could see Jesus despite not being able to attend Mass. They were following the example of St. Charles Borromeo, the namesake of the parish's chapel, who set up altars and celebrated Mass in public spaces during the plague.

Throughout the pandemic, they made phone calls to the homebound and to confirmation students. They partnered with Healthy Waltham, helped feed hundreds of families suffering economic hardship, and delivered food to the homebound. And every day, the church was open for personal prayer.

Father Nolan said their attitude was not to try to just "get through this," but to learn how to better love and understand the faith.

"We're just trying to keep people connected with their faith and with the parish. And not just connected like before, but actually doing things where they can learn something," he said.

To this end, St. Mary Parish created digital catechetical content that could be used for years to come. These included a video series about the artwork and iconography in the church and recordings of parishioners reading books of the Bible out loud.

"We tried to do as many projects as possible with the Internet that we would not just use at that moment, like the Mass of that certain Sunday, but we could use catechetically this year, next year and every year," Father Nolan said.

Father Nolan took comfort in the knowledge that St. Mary Parish, which was founded in 1835, had survived even more difficult times in history, including the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the two World Wars.

"This parish has been through all this and still survived, and so we had a great confidence. Our hope was that we would survive and the faithful would continue based on what we've been through," he said.

An optimistic attitude and a dedication to the sacraments sustained Father Richard Clancy, the pastor of the River of Divine Mercy Collaborative, which includes St. Marguerite d'Youville Parish in Dracut, St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Tyngsboro, and St. Rita Parish in Lowell.

"The way that we've approached things is: Let's not look at things as what we can't do, let's try to find a way to do what we can do," Father Clancy said, adding that "a lot of times it's more than you think."

The way he sees it, he said, "Everything that's difficult is also an invitation."

"We believe in God, and we believe in the goodness of people, so with everything that we tried to anticipate and tried to plan, we did it with the belief that it could work," Father Clancy said.

Father Clancy included a letter to his parishioners in the collaborative's bulletin for the weekend of March 14, 2021, reflecting on how they rose to the challenges presented by the pandemic.

"I feel that it is important to point out some ways that this crisis has built our character and also revealed it," he said.

The first thing he noticed, he said, was the faithfulness of the parishioners, who continued to offer financial support even when many of them suffered from a reduced income.

"We were never able to really launch the Catholic Appeal, and still all three parishes made their goal," Father Clancy said.

He also spoke about their prioritization of making the sacraments available to the people.

"In spite of challenges and limitations we have remained determined to do what the Church is called to do through the Sacramental life of the Church and by extending ourselves in ministry to others," he said.

They have held confessions in their large chapel or in a drive-through setting. Since the churches reopened, they have held anointings after Mass on the first Sunday of each month.

"We've done the best we could. It hasn't been exactly the same, but the best we could provide for the people," Father Clancy told The Pilot.

When it was announced that public Masses could resume the weekend of May 23-24, they decided to open as completely as they could within the requirements and protocols for social distancing. They immediately resumed their schedule of 11 Sunday Masses as well as daily Masses. As soon as it was allowed, they resumed perpetual Adoration, though they moved it to a larger room.

"We've tried to be as open as possible, within the constraints," Father Clancy said.

He said that many people have "a very emotional time" when they first return to Mass, "because they realize how much their faith means to them."

Father Clancy praised all those who volunteered for the many tasks necessary to hold Mass when the churches reopened. For every celebration, volunteers were needed for taking temperatures, ushering, contact tracing, and cleaning.

"It's a big operation every Mass. And people volunteered to do it," he said.

When the pandemic began, Father Phil McGaugh was the pastor of both St. Mary's and St. Bernadette's in Randolph. The collaborative split just before Christmas in 2020.

"One of the things we were all conscious about throughout the whole thing was offering hope to the people," Father McGaugh said in a March 15 interview.

When it was possible, his churches reopened slowly. They held Adoration once a week and organized drive-up confessions, though Father McGaugh would also receive calls and meet people at the church to hear their confession.

Although he does not know the exact number of coronavirus-related deaths in his community, Father McGaugh said, "it's a big loss, in both parishes."

"A lot of wonderful people have died, not necessarily from the virus, but a lot of wonderful people have died during this past year," he said.

Father Clancy said there have been deaths in his collaborative throughout the pandemic, but there seemed to be many in the spring of 2020.

"At the time, especially, when we weren't able to have funerals in the church, that was very difficult, because you had some of your most faithful people, and you weren't able to have a funeral Mass for them," he said.

All three pastors talked about how their parishes, like many others, began live streaming or pre recording their Masses and sharing them online, and why this mattered to those within and beyond their communities.

Initially, Father Nolan did not plan to record or livestream any Masses, but after the first weekend it became clear that they had to do so. They created a Facebook page and began recording the celebration of the Mass in the three languages of the parish.

Father Nolan said they were not trying to duplicate the work of EWTN or CatholicTV, which also televise Masses. The point, rather, was to let parishioners see and hear their own priests, so they could feel connected to their church. This was also why Father Nolan recorded videos on various topics -- so people would hear his voice.

He pointed to Jesus' words in the Gospel of John, about how the sheep follow the shepherd because they heard his voice.

"The key is to hear the familiar voice, and that will keep people away from the wolf," Father Nolan said.

Father Clancy's collaborative looked into recording Masses the same day that public celebrations were suspended.

"I think that the technology has its advantages, but it certainly also has its limitations in terms of personal contact and relationship. But you try to maximize the positives as you're able," he said.

One positive aspect was that many people who watched the collaborative's Mass were those who might not typically attend in person, but found watching the livestream "less intimidating." Father Clancy said he has heard from people all over the country and even outside the U.S. who have watched his community's Mass and said they enjoyed it.

"There's an element of evangelization that the technology gives you. You lose something and you gain something," he said.

Father McGaugh's community began livestreaming Masses "fairly quickly," offering one in English at St. Mary's and another in Vietnamese at St. Bernadette's. Father McGaugh said he heard comments from people in both parishes expressing "how much the livestreamed Masses meant to them," and he also knows people from outside Massachusetts have been watching them.

"Maybe the pandemic, in a way, is going to bring the world closer," he said.

Father McGaugh said that although it is necessary to examine everything that "went wrong" during the pandemic, there is also a need to look at everything that "went right."

"The goodness of so many people came out so powerfully. And we need to offer a prayer of thanks. We need to say thank you to all the first responders and all the people who have tried to maintain hope for us all along," he said.

In closing his letter to his collaborative community, Father Clancy acknowledged that although a year has gone by, "we cannot yet declare the COVID challenges over. We have great hope, but we must continue to be careful to follow the protocols and keep each other safe."

"This longest of Lents points us toward Easter. As Christians, we always point toward Easter," Father Clancy said.

Father McGaugh spoke similarly, acknowledging that Holy Week and the Easter Triduum will be limited this year but will culminate in celebrating the Resurrection.

"There will be new hope. There will be new life. And people will see, I pray, a reason to come back, and we go from there," he said.