ST. PAUL, Minnesota — From St. Henry in Monticello to St. Michael in Pine Island, Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis adjusted to a new, temporary reality the weekend of March 14-15.

Out of caution amid concerns about spreading the coronavirus — later reinforced by advice from Minnesota health officials to limit the size of crowds — Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda granted dispensation March 12 from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass.

As a result, public Masses were celebrated March 14-15, but many congregations were smaller by half or even by two-thirds.

“It’s a wise decision that Mass is an option,” said Paula Perzichilli, 75, after 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass at Transfiguration Church in Oakdale, which saw about 300 people in the pews, compared with the usual 450 to 600.

“You can make your own decision based on your health and your (health) history,” Perzichilli told The Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper. “And our church is big enough to leave space in the pews between families.”

About 80 people — one-third of the usual congregation — attended the 12:30 p.m. Sunday Mass at the Church of St. Louis, King of France in downtown St. Paul.

Many pews were empty at the 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Alphonsus Church in Brooklyn Center, with less than half the usual congregation.

“Normally, it’s filled to the rafters,” said Jamie Burg, a regular at the Mass who said it was odd to see no one else in her pew, and no one behind her, either. “Today, I thought it was a little sad to see the empty pews, but totally understandable.”

That was the view of many who attended Mass despite the dispensation. They wanted to be there, but they understood why others would not attend. They also wanted to do their part in not spreading the virus, so they avoided physical contact during the sign of peace, adjusted to not receiving Communion from the chalice, not having a choir as social distancing became more of a norm, and not dipping their hands into now-empty holy water fonts.

At St. Louis, King of France, Marist Father Joseph Hurtuk told the congregation that all pews had been sanitized and hymnals removed. Daily Mass will be held in the church instead of the chapel to allow people more space to spread out, he said.

“Archbishop Hebda has asked parishes and schools to not overreact and not underreact,” Hurtuk said.

After Mass at Transfiguration, Father John Paul Erickson told The Catholic Spirit that he appreciated the archbishop giving parishes leeway to celebrate Masses or not celebrate them, to add Masses or cut the number of Masses, depending on the local need.

Regardless of how people feel about measures being taken to curb spread of the virus and the illness it causes, COVID-19, Erickson said, “it is a time to recommit to things that don’t change: prayer, love of neighbor, understanding, compassion, the sacraments, penance.”

The Catholic Spirit asked its Facebook followers what they planned to do in light of Archbishop Hebda dispensing the obligation to attend Sunday Mass. Among the 121 respondents was Jean Blageo, who attended Mass at her parish church, St. Bernard in St. Paul. Afterward, she and three others cleaned pews with Pine-Sol, something parishioners will be doing after every Mass “until we hear a(n) all clear,” she wrote in a follow-up message to The Catholic Spirit.

Because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation at that time was to avoid gatherings of over 250, she felt comfortable going to her church, she said. (The CDC has since recommended crowd size be limited to 50.)

“Our Mass isn’t that big, and our church also took out all the books and are doing extra hand-washing,” she said. “It is wonderful how people have step(ped) up to keep our church clean and safe.”

Fellow St. Bernard parishioner Jackie Casey, who attended the parish’s 4 p.m. Saturday Mass, said she went because she wanted to be with the congregation and did not want “fear to rule my life.”

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m concerned about this, but it’s not going to make me run and hide and keep me from doing my normal activities and routines, like going to church, and work,” said Casey, 45. “I have been going to church since I was born, and will continue to do so during this time.”

Leslie Clark, a parishioner of All Saints in Lakeville, decided not to attend Mass on Sunday.

“My dad lives in an independent living facility apartment in Apple Valley. They’re closed to all but essential visitors. If I were to get sick, I would not be able to help him maintain his home — bills, pill management, groceries, etc.,” said Clark, 51. “We are faithful Mass attendees, so this decision was something we tossed back and forth.”

She added: “Ultimately, I believe that if Archbishop Hebda sees the need to lift the obligation, we should stay home, for the good of all. In this way, I see missing Mass as a sacrifice in keeping with the Lenten season. I participated in an online Mass, and will spend more time later today in prayer.”

On The Catholic Spirit‘s Facebook page, Liz Pedersen Reinertson posted, “We’re staying home. The data shows that social distancing right now will make a big difference in how bad things get. We are our brothers’ keeper. Take care of the sick and elderly in your parish (and your priest). Hopefully we can get through this soon and resume our normal worship schedules.”

Ruff is news editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Maria Wiering, Barb Umberger and Dave Hrbacek of The Catholic Spirit contributed to this report.

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