WINDSOR TERRACE — No kneelers extend from the backs of chairs set up for the Spanish Mass “overflow” at the Basilica of Regina Pacis.
Instead, the parish has provided small gray pads for congregants in the basilica’s downstairs Chapel of St. Joseph. But many people didn’t bother with them on Palm Sunday, March 28.
They went straight to the floor, seemingly unconcerned about impact stress to kneecaps. However, starting a year ago, they could not attend Mass in person because of COVID-19 lockdowns.
Now, parishes allow 50 percent capacity for Mass. But a few weeks ago, clergy noticed a consistent surge at the 9 a.m. Spanish Mass in the basilica’s main church.
Although the downstairs chapel has handled the overflow, the staff saw an opportunity to expand opportunities for parishioners and newcomers.
“Another Mass is in order to give people a chance to attend the Mass upstairs in the basilica,” said Father Gesson Agenis, parochial vicar assigned to the parish’s Spanish-speaking community. “That’s why we decided to have a new Mass, beginning on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 11.”
The new schedule will include Spanish Mass at 7:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Sundays.
Msgr. Ronald T. Marino, the pastor, said the recent rollout of COVID-19 vaccines could have spurred confidence among parishioners and, thus, the growing attendance.
He said word is getting out that people can finally feed their spirituality with in-person Mass attendance.
“I’m sure it’s not 100 percent back to normal,” Msgr. Marino added. “But it’s very impressive to see this place on Sunday. When the Mass ends, and you go outside, you are seeing hundreds of people leaving the church.
“I think it includes a lot of new people.”
Msgr. Marino said the upper church can hold about 500 people, with social distancing, while the chapel can take at least another 250, also with pandemic precautions.
“It’s a very big church,” the pastor said. “It has the upper basilica and the lower, which is what we call the Chapel of St. Joseph. A lot of churches have upper and lower gathering spaces.
“The trick we have here is that we live stream from upstairs to downstairs.”
Msgr. Marino described how the overflowing community watches the feed on two TVs and a projector screen.
“They see it downstairs live as if they were upstairs,” he said. “They sit and stand when the people are doing it upstairs. They hear the music.”
People also receive the Eucharist in the chapel.
Other parishes also seek ways to accommodate people who hunger for the in-person Mass. For example, Our Lady of Sorrows in Corona, Queens, has broadcast the Mass on loudspeakers to people outside who could not enter because the social-distancing capacity was reached.
Like the stalwarts at the Basilica of Regina Pacis, the overflow group at Our Lady of Sorrows knelt without padding, this time on the church’s stone steps.
Msgr. Marino expressed admiration for Catholics returning to Mass while the pandemic persists.
“The people know what to do,” he said. “Everyone has a mask on. Everyone sanitizes their hands when they walk in. There’s social distancing.
“But I said I’m not going to turn people away who come to Mass. They want to take the risk. Good for them. Our Lord and our lady protect them.”
Father Agenis praised parishioners for helping to make crowd arrangements work.
“It’s always a privilege for me to work with the Spanish community,” he said. “They’re always responding when you need them. They never say ‘no.’”
Father Agenis is from Haiti, so he knows French and Creole. But he learned and practiced Spanish in the Dominican Republic and Colombia as part of his training for the priesthood.
Parishioners at Regina Pacis help him improve his Spanish, sharing the differences in how the language is spoken in their various homelands south of the U.S. border. Still, they all share a love of God and the Roman Catholic Church.
“Everyone comes with a different devotion, culture, and customs,” he said. “And they did not leave those things behind. So when all those things mix together, it makes it more beautiful with unity and diversity.
“I learned a lot from them. And they inspire you as well.”
Carlos and Rosario Cortes joined the Palm Sunday congregation in the chapel with their four children: Brandon, 15; Carlos Jr., 11; Sara, 10; and Daniela, 1.
The family has belonged to Regina Pacis Parish for about five years, the dad said. He added that it is great to attend Mass in person again, whether it’s upstairs or downstairs.
Both, he said, are the church.
“That’s what’s important,” he said.