By Paula Katinas and Alexandra Moyen
EAST NEW YORK — Now that churches in the Diocese of Brooklyn are open every Sunday for Mass, will parishioners return to the pews after they’ve spent the last four months watching masses on NET-TV and online?
That’s the big question as churches emerge from the coronavirus lockdown.
Attendance figures were lower than expected at some parishes as churches in the diocese opened their doors for the first time to celebrate Sunday Masses on the weekend of July 4-5, according to pastors who spoke to The Tablet.
But church leaders said the numbers were to be expected, given the fact that it was the Fourth of July Holiday Weekend — when many parishioners are away — and the fact that the pandemic might have left churchgoers feeling uneasy about participating in public gatherings.
“It was a small gathering,” said Father José Herrera, pastor of St. Fortunata, East New York. “We had 239 people. We normally have 600,” he said, referring to the total number of people attending all of the Sunday Masses.
Still, Father Herrera said he was pleased. “It was very positive. Everyone in the congregation had a feeling of belonging,” he said.
Father Bill Smith, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo, Brooklyn Heights, expressed concern about the numbers in his church and said parishioners might have grown accustomed to viewing the Mass remotely. “I think people came to like the Mass on Zoom a little too much,” he said.
The first Sunday Mass at St. Charles Borromeo took place at 11:15 a.m. “We had a reopening committee that worked hard. We were well prepared for Sunday. We had all of 23 people in church,” the disappointed pastor said.
Meanwhile, the Mass that was shown on YouTube drew hundreds of views, Father Smith said.
The diocese closed all of its churches in mid-March. The churches remained closed until May 26, when Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio allowed them to reopen for private prayer and small ceremonies attended by 10 or fewer people. On June 29, churches were reopened for weekday Masses.
Under the current regulations, churches can operate at only 25 percent capacity and social distancing rules are strictly enforced.
“Attendance was below average,” said Msgr. Jamie Gigantiello, pastor of the Shrine Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Williamsburg. “But I thought it was a decent crowd. I think as the summer goes on, people will become more comfortable with the idea of coming back to church.”
Father Frank L. Schwarz, pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Church, Forest Hills, said roughly 900 people would normally show for Sunday Masses, but roughly 125 were in attendance on July 5.
He attributed it to people being “a bit wary” and cautious.
“Hopefully as time goes on, they’ll be able to come and see if we take the proper precautions — there’s really nothing that we have to be worried about,” he said. “We are sanitizing the church and we are asking people to do the things they need to do.”
Father Schwarz said he also believes he may have to turn people away if the crowd becomes too big and people become more “confident” to come back to church.
“I don’t want to be turning people away from coming to mass but if it becomes a situation where there are too many people, we may actually have to do that,” he said. “An alternative, this is just as good as watching the Mass at home on TV, is possibly having the Mass shown in the auditorium downstairs. That’s been discussed but we’re not there yet.”
A total of 400 people attended the various Masses at St. Patrick Church, Bay Ridge, according to the pastor, Father Gerard Sauer.
Parishioners had no trouble adhering to the social distancing rules. “The level of cooperation matched the level of gratitude they had for being able to come back to church for Mass,” he said.
Attendance rates sometimes varied within the same parish, depending on the Mass.
At St. Finbar, Bath Beach, for instance, the 9 a.m. Mass on July 5 drew far less than the 25 percent capacity allowed by the regulations but the 10:30 a.m. Spanish Mass attracted a large crowd, according to Eileen LaRuffa, a parish trustee.
Father José Henríquez, the parish administrator, has decided to add a second Spanish Mass at 1:30 p.m. on Sundays to help alleviate the crunch.
LaRuffa, who attended the noon Mass on July 5, said she was happy to be back in church. “It felt great to receive Communion again,” she said.
To read the latest updates regarding coronavirus concerns in the Brooklyn Diocese, go to https://thetablet.org/coronavirus.