Posted Monday, May 18, 2020 9:36 pm
By Dick Lindsay, The Berkshire Eagle
Several Berkshire clergy say they are in no rush to welcome back congregants for in-person religious services under the state’s road map to a new normal.
However, the local Catholic faithful could return to their weekend Masses as soon as this weekend.
Gov. Charlie Baker announced Monday that churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship can reopen, provided they adhere to 21 conditions outlined in the administration’s master plan for reopening the commonwealth.
However, local religious leaders say these conditions don’t minimize the risk of catching the coronavirus during services, at least for now. The measures include no more than a 40 percent occupancy of the sanctuary during services, observing social distancing and wearing a mask.
Forty percent attendance at Christ Trinity Church in Sheffield is roughly 40 people, which still too crowded for safety sake, said the Rev. Erik Karas.
“I really don’t think we should be pushing this,” said the Episcopal priest. “We don’t have all measures in place to do testing. The last thing I want to do is open up too soon.”
Karas echoed the sentiment of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, which recently directed all of its parishes to continue holding online services through June.
The Rev. Mary Frances Curns, pastor of the All Saints Berkshire Episcopal church in North Adams, said more time is needed to ensure church members and nonreligious activities are in a safe environment.
“We have a lot of social groups, recovery groups who meet here. We have to let them know it will be a slow process to reopen,” Curns said.
For local churches belonging to the Southern New England Conference United Church of Christ, in-person worship is suspended through the summer, according its website.
The religious organization believes the unpredictability of the disease and new information emerging daily about how it spreads, among other factors, warrants closed sanctuaries.
The Rev. Joel Huntington, pastor at South Congregational Church in Pittsfield, agrees that it’s too early to resume regular Sunday service.
“No matter how big the sanctuary, it’s an enclosed box. It raises the risk of getting [the coronavirus,]” he said. “As shepherds of our flock, we don’t want to lead the sheep off a cliff.”
Huntington said he will continue with online services which, despite the occasional glitch, have been well viewed.
Meanwhile, Most Rev. Mitchell Rozanski, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, will allow parishes in Berkshire, Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties to reopen in time for the Saturday vigil Mass.
“Only if they have provided the Office of the Bishop written assurance that they have met all the state, municipal and diocesan guidelines, and received a response giving permission to resume,” Rozanski announced late Monday afternoon. “It is not unreasonable that some parishes may require additional time and therefore not open until the following weekend.
The previous diocesan restrictions and state guidelines will continue including:
- Omission of the Sign of Peace.
- No communion by the cup.
- Communion in the hand only.
- Holy Water fonts to remain empty and covered.
- Social distancing (6 feet minimum) to be abided by at all times.
- Masks will be required.
The bishop’s directive came after hours of uncertainty following the governor’s announcement.
The Rev. Brian McGrath was swamped with inquiries from his parishioners at St. Mary’s Church in Lee.
“My cellphone is blowing up right now with people asking when are we opening; others are reticent about coming back,” the pastor of St. Mary’s said.
McGrath will send a letter of guidelines to all of St. Mary’s Parish, that includes St. Mary of the Lake in Otis and St. Joseph in Stockbridge, based on the bishop’s forthcoming directive. Ultimately, he says each parishioner must decide when they feel safe enough to attend Mass again.
Several clergy say the return of in-person worship will likely be a lot quieter before the pandemic hit the Berkshires nearly three months ago. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams said the threat of COVID-19 will mute the congregants singing.
“Several studies suggest that the aerosolized particles released when we sing are significantly more than when we talk and cannot safely be contained with a cloth mask. This may mean that until we have a widespread vaccine, we will not be able to sing when a group is gathered,” she wrote in an email to The Eagle.
Barenblat said the synagogue is currently working on a slow three-stage phase in for reopening, but for now online gatherings will have to suffice.