BAY RIDGE – It was a moment Catholics in the Diocese of Brooklyn have been anticipating for months.
Churches began cautiously opening their doors on Tuesday, May 26 to allow small numbers of people to enter and pray. While there are no Masses just yet, the reopening of churches in Brooklyn and Queens was taken as a welcome sign that things might be getting back to normal for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“I’m feeling grateful and overwhelmed. It feels like it’s been a long time since I’ve been in church,” Barbara Piekarz told the Tablet as she stood outside St. Patrick’s Church in Bay Ridge shortly before the doors opened at noon.
Piekarz, who said she doesn’t mind watching Sunday Mass on NET-TV, is looking forward to a time when Mass resumes at the church where she has been a parishioner for many years.
“If your faith is strong, it’s strong,” she said.
Parishioner Frank Eugenis stopped by to light a candle. “I believe in God and I’m happy the church is open,” he said.
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio announced on May 22 that churches in Brooklyn and Queens could start to reopen on May 26. The churches, which have been closed since March 20, will be open only for private prayer and for baptisms, weddings, and funerals attended by 10 or fewer people.
Pastors who did not believe their parish is ready to reopen are allowed to remain closed.
They were ready at St. Patrick’s Church, where parishioners came to pray and be inside their church once again.
Eddie Connors kneeled in a pew and, with Rosary in hand, prayed. “It feels good,” he said.
Another parishioner, Barbara Slattery, said she was happy to see the churches open but expressed concern about the strict guidelines outlined by the diocese.
“I think it’s wonderful that the churches are opening up again. But 10 people in a large church like ours is too few,” she said, referring to the restrictions in place. “I think the rule is a little too stringent. I would rather they allow 25 percent of the church’s capacity.”
Father Gerard Sauer, pastor of St. Patrick’s Church, said he is grateful and relieved to be opening the church doors again.
“Church is like home for many of us. It’s a place you come to when you’re seeking refuge,” he told The Tablet. “And it’s a place you come to when you’re grateful and want to express it.”
Father Sauer was a young priest at St. Patrick’s Church during the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and helped comfort parishioners who lost friends and loved ones at the World Trade Center.
“Here I am again at St. Patrick’s during another crisis,” he said.
In churches throughout the Brooklyn Diocese, parishioners returned to the pews for prayer while practicing social distancing. (Photos: Jeffrey Bruno)
Opening church doors for private prayer and devotion is the first of a three-step process toward a full reopening in the Diocese of Brooklyn. The second step will allow for daily Mass to be celebrated and the third will come when churches are reopened for Sunday Mass.
The dates for implementation of the second and third steps have not yet been announced and will depend on whether the number of cases of COVID-19 in Brooklyn and Queens decreases.
The diocese has to “work within the society we’re in,” Bishop DiMarzio told the Tablet. “When the metrics tell us we can move to another stage, we will.”
The areas located within the diocese have been at the epicenter of the outbreak.
“Brooklyn and Queens were hard hit. Everybody knows somebody that was affected,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “It has been a challenging few months for Catholics in Brooklyn and Queens. While we cannot celebrate the Mass just yet, it is so important that we can now enter for prayer.”
There will be strict rules applied to the first phase: Churches will only be open for four hours a day, face masks are required, only one door will be used for entering the church (other doors will be available for exit in case of emergencies), and everyone inside the church must maintain social distancing. Ushers or volunteers will be present to assist parishioners with social distancing rules.
In addition, parishioners will not be able to touch any of the statues in the church, there will be no Holy Water in fonts and hymnals will be removed from the pews to prevent people from touching them.
Bishop DiMarzio admitted that it took “a little doing” to ensure that churches could open up, even to a small number of people, but he is eager to move to a stage where churches can accommodate even more.
“Just having 10 people in large churches really doesn’t make much sense,” Bishop DiMarzio said, adding that with social distancing, “we can accommodate more people.”
Some other aspects of life in the diocese are also moving forward. The Mass of Chrism, in which the holy oils that are used throughout the year are blessed, is set to take place in mid- June and four priests are scheduled to be ordained on June 27.
The reopening of churches has been in the works for weeks. In early May, Bishop DiMarzio formed a special committee to help him develop a roadmap.
The bishop asked Joseph Esposito, the former commissioner of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, to chair the panel.
“The risks are great, which is why we have to get things right the first time,” said Esposito, who is also the retired chief of department for the NYPD.
Bishop DiMarzio said he would like to have churches celebrating Sunday Mass by mid-July but cautioned that parishioners will have to get used to changes due to the precautions being taken against the virus.
“It will not be the same,” Bishop DiMarzio admitted.
To read the latest updates regarding coronavirus concerns in the Brooklyn Diocese, go to https://thetablet.org/coronavirus.