WHEELING, West Virginia — The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston’s Catholic schools are closed and public celebration of Mass in the diocese is suspended until further notice due to the coronavirus pandemic.
All nonessential meetings, gatherings and parish events are to be postponed or canceled as well.
Bishop Mark E. Brennan made the announcement March 13 in a video and written message to the faithful. The bishop has emphasized that all Catholics in the statewide diocese are dispensed from the obligation to attend Mass. He also has closed all diocesan services offices in the state. This does not affect Catholic Charities West Virginia.
Until late evening March 17, when one case of the coronavirus was confirmed, West Virginia had been the only state without a confirmed case.
Even so, state health officials for weeks anticipated the disease would be coming to the state soon, according to a March 13 news release from the governor’s office. At that time, West Virginia, through its public health lab, had tested 21 residents for COVID-19, with 17 results coming back negative and four pending.
West Virginia’s neighboring states have numerous confirmed cases of the coronavirus: Kentucky has at least 22; Maryland, at least 57; Ohio, at least 50; Pennsylvania, at least 77; and Virginia, at least 67.
In closing schools and diocesan services, suspending public Masses and canceling all nonessential meetings, Brennan has joined a number of U.S. prelates taking the same or similar actions in their dioceses to stop the spread of the virus.
“While I do not want to contribute to panic reactions,” the bishop said in his March 13 message, “I think it wise to listen to our public health officials when they recommend certain steps to keep our people safe and healthy.”
Earlier that day, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced he was closing the state’s public schools. “This was a very difficult decision, but I know in my heart that closing our schools in an effort to protect our kids, our teachers, and all those they come in contact with is the right thing to do,” the governor said.
Because the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston relies on the same public health information that the governor is relying on, the diocesan Catholic schools and child care facilities associated with them followed suit.
“The governor has strongly urged that people avoid congregating in large numbers as a way to prevent the spread of disease,” Brennan said.
Meanwhile, Wheeling Hospital, operated by the diocese and managed by WVU Medicine, announced March 17 it was opening its off-site symptomatic testing center for COVID-19. The regional center will handle patients from all of the area’s hospitals in the WVU Medicine System, including Harrison Community, Reynolds Memorial, and Barnesville in Ohio and Wetzel Community in New Martinsville, West Virginia.
The drive-through swab tests will be conducted in emergency medical tents set up in the Wheeling Park parking lot in Wheeling. Nurses and lab personnel from Wheeling Hospital will be onsite, assisted by staff from Barnesville and Reynolds Memorial hospitals.
“In our state today, we have been really blessed and sheltered, but — without alarming everyone — we all need to know the seriousness of this continues to be real,” the governor said in a March 16 statement. “We’re still trying to do every single thing we can do to be proactive in a state that doesn’t have one positive confirmed person yet. We’re trying to be ready in every way we can possibly be.”
The Wheeling-Charleston Diocese is providing a livestream of the Mass on its website on Saturdays at 6 p.m. and Monday through Friday at noon. Mass also will continue to be televised in the Wheeling and Clarksburg areas.
A number of priests in the diocese are livestreaming or posting to YouTube and Facebook pages their private celebrations of Mass.
Brennan celebrated the first livestreamed Saturday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling March 14. For this private Mass, the cameras were unmanned and the bishop and the concelebrant, Msgr. Joseph Peterson, rector of the cathedral, were the only ones in attendance.
“It is unusual to celebrate Mass without a congregation, but these are unusual times,” the bishop said before Mass began. “It is a hardship for Catholic people who love the Mass not to be able to go. I hope that the situation may soon end and our people be healthy and able once again to go to Mass in their parishes.
“As our country and our world deals with the effects of this new disease, which can cause severe health problems and death, we rely on God for strength,” he continued. “We commend to the Lord those who are sick and those who care for them, especially our medical personnel, that the Lord look upon them kindly and show us his mercy.”
Rowan is executive editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.