The faithful who entered Transfiguration Catholic Church got the first glimpse of an in-person service Wednesday, nearly 10 weeks after Minnesota closed houses of worship to battle the COVID-19 epidemic.
Visitors to the Oakdale church were greeted by volunteers who squirted sanitizer on every set of hands. They followed lines of tape on the floor that kept them socially distanced as they proceeded to the worship area. Inside, they gathered in every third pew.
Standing at the pulpit, the Rev. John Paul Erickson announced there would be no singing in the church known for its choir.
“Things are not quite as they were before,” said Erickson. “But we are together and that is a gift.”
So began one of Minnesota’s first in-person religious services under new state guidelines for houses of worship that took effect Wednesday. Gov. Tim Walz announced the revised restrictions Saturday, following a challenge to his previous, tighter restrictions by Catholic bishops and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
The new rules allow houses of worship — including churches, temples, mosques and synagogues — to hold services at 25% capacity, up to a maximum of 250 people. They also require strong safety protocols for actiivities ranging from communion distribution to restroom use.
While any group could open its doors Wednesday, Catholics had the advantage because they tend to have daily services. Minnesota synagogues and mosques announced they won’t be holding public worship yet in an effort to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Just a fraction of Catholic churches were prepared to invite their congregations back to the pews Wednesday because they didn’t have the required safety protocols in place.
At Transfiguration, about 70 people, including at least 15 ushers and staff, fanned out across its large airy worship space for the 8 a.m. mass. That’s a typical turnout for a daily mass, Erickson said.
Ushers in face masks escorted everyone to a seat and made sure individuals and families were at least 6 feet apart.
Mark Smith of Lake Elmo sat with his four children. His family spent the past two months watching daily masses online in their living room, even dressing up on Sundays to “attend” services, he said.
“It’s a big difference to be physically present,” Smith said. “It’s a wonderful and emotional experience.”
His son Leyton Smith, an altar server and lector, said he was eager to return to his church work. “I didn’t realize how much I missed it [mass] until I came back,” he said.
Safely distributing communion is one of the more challenging aspects of liturgies during the pandemic, and Transfiguration decided to do that by offering the sacrament in a separate area. After Erickson ended mass, he headed to a hall outside the church doors. The faithful were ushered in for communion and then walked out the main door.
Latha Anderson, wearing a long black veil, was among those quietly exiting the church after receiving the host. The Cottage Grove mother was visibly moved.
“I feel like I got my life back,” said Anderson, closing her eyes for a moment. “I have been just waiting, waiting.”
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was not aware of how many of its churches opened Wednesday, or how many would open this weekend. A reporter found few public masses on opening day.
Churches from the Minnesota South District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which joined the archdiocese in a challenge to Walz’s restrictions on houses of worship, have not yet reopened, said Fredric Hinz, the district’s public policy advocate.
Hinz said churches are not required to reopen, but they have the option to do so when their safety procedures are in place — which many are working on. St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda has said the same.
Minnesota Department of Health guidelines state that houses of worship must develop preparedness plans, including detailed cleaning practices, social distancing guidelines and staff training about COVID-19.
That’s precisely what Minnesota faith leaders are doing this week, with many hoping to see their congregations face to face this weekend for the first time in months.
Said Erickson: “It’s beautiful and wonderful to be back together.”