A facial covering couldn’t mask the joyful expression on Puanani Griffith’s face as she and her husband Ed returned to Mother Cabrini Church in Shamokin on May 17.
The Northumberland County church was one of 13 that re-opened for public Masses that weekend, alongside churches in Montour, Snyder and Union counties. They were deemed by Governor Tom Wolf to be in the “yellow” phase of gradual re-opening.
Puanani clasped her hands across her heart as looked up at the imposing edifice of Mother Cabrini, where she serves as a lector and an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion.
“I’m just so glad to be back,” she sighed, as tears streamed into the top edge of her homemade cotton mask.
The Griffiths had tuned in to the parish’s livestream of Masses for most of the eight weeks that all churches in the Diocese had been closed.
“We’re grateful that we at least had Masses that we could watch on our iPad, but nothing compares to being here,” Puanani said.
The Griffiths were among approximately 25 parishioners who attended Mother Cabrini’s 9 a.m. Mass on May 17, including several ushers who offered hand sanitizer to attendees and helped ensure proper social distancing in the pews.
Such was the scene at three other churches The Catholic Witness visited that day: Holy Angels in Kulpmont, St. Joseph in Danville and St. Monica in Sunbury.
Ribbon was draped across most of the entrances to the pews, leaving every third row open for Mass-goers. Holy water fonts were empty, and missals were absent from pews. Some pews were marked with tape to indicate where parishioners could sit, as the churches are limiting capacity to 1/3 of their usual size.
The Sign of Peace continues to be suspended. So is the passing of the collection basket; instead, parishes are placing baskets at the back of the church for parishioners to place their donations before or after Mass.
Perhaps the biggest change during Mass is the distribution of Holy Communion, which takes place after Mass.
Those who wish to receive Communion approach the altar in a single line, and stand at least six feet apart. A small table with hand sanitizer is available for those who wish to sanitize before receiving Communion.
At Masses May 17, parishioners followed those protocols in an orderly fashion, removing masks only momentarily as they received the Eucharist. Most of them returned to their pew for a brief moment of prayer and thanksgiving before they left the church.
Before and after Masses in Shamokin, Kulpmont, Danville and Sunbury, several volunteers could be seen wiping down pews, railings and other touch points to ensure proper cleaning.
“It takes work and volunteers to cover all the details and protocols for safety and cleaning, and I’m very grateful for our crew and those who are helping,” said Father Martin Kobos, OFM. Conv., pastor of Mother Cabrini.
“I’m excited to just see the parishioners,” he said. “The church is their home, their rock. Some couldn’t wait to come back, and others still just don’t want to take the chance, and that’s OK too.”
For all the efforts, and despite the noticeable changes and limitations, parishioners who returned to their churches the first weekend of re-opening expressed gratitude about being back at Mass.
“It’s overwhelming to finally be back in here,” said Diane, a member of Holy Angels Parish in Kulpmont.
“I was choked up when I first walked in. I almost felt like crying,” she said.
For Diane, it was the first time in eight weeks that she had any connection to the celebration of Mass, as she hadn’t been able to tune into the parish’s livestream of the liturgy.
So when Holy Angels was ready to open its church doors again, Diane made sure she was one of the first parishioners there.
“I was here ahead of time, thinking I might have to wait to get in, but there weren’t too many people here,” she said. “Today really meant a lot to me. It was very important to be here today, and I can’t wait until things get back to normal – missals, kneelers, the Precious Blood.”
“Sitting here during the Mass, it just felt so good!” she exclaimed. “I missed it. I missed being here. There’s nothing like it.”
(The Diocese has released guidelines for parishes in “yellow” counties at www.hbgdiocese.org/coronavirus. Masses will resume the weekend of May 31 at additional counties in the Diocese transitioning to “yellow” on May 22: Adams, Columbia, Cumberland, Juniata, Mifflin, Perry and York.)
(Danville and Sunbury photos by Chris Heisey; Shamokin and Kulpmont photos by Jen Reed.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness