Churches prepare to reopen under new restrictions

Churches prepare to reopen under new restrictions

The Rev. Daniel Sweet, left, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish, and Arnaldo Vega, a volunteer, survey their work after roping off pews to enforce social distancing when the church reopens for in-person services this weekend. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

As churches and other houses of worship get ready to return to in-person services in Rhode Island this weekend, faith leaders are finding they have much to prepare.

At Holy Trinity Parish in Woonsocket, the Rev. Daniel Sweet spent much of last weekend figuring out how to enforce social distancing within the confines of the former Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church. With the help of volunteers, he used ribbon to section off pews, leaving every third pew open for parishioners to sit at a safe distance.

“The most important thing, of course, is to figure out what 25 percent of fire capacity of the church is and go from there,” he said. “Of course we’ve been getting materials together for sanitizing, getting materials together for sectioning off pews. We also have been looking into electronic ticketing reservations.”

Under guidelines developed by the Rhode Island Department of Health, worship spaces may reopen for in-person services this weekend on a limited basis, defined as 25 percent of normal fire capacity. For churches such as Holy Trinity, that could pose a challenge. Sweet said the parish is using Eventbrite, an online ticketing platform, for parishioners to make reservations to attend Mass in advance in order to avoid turning visitors away when the church reaches its new, limited capacity.

“I don’t want to turn anyone away, but again, if it comes down to safety, I will,” he said.

Other churches have developed their own ways of limiting capacity. At Saint Joseph Church, the Rev. Ryan Simas told parishioners volunteers will count the number of individuals planning to attend as cars pull into the church’s driveway on Mendon Road.

Churches that have announced plans to reopen under the RIDOH guidelines this weekend include Vida Church on Prospect Street and Our Saviour Parish Polish National Catholic Church on Smithfield Road.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence has released a series of guidelines for Catholic churches that Sweet said he plans to incorporate into the weekend services. These include sanitizing the church between services, removing hymn books, limiting singing, avoiding physical contact and receiving communion in the hand rather than by mouth.

In a release issued earlier this month, Bishop Thomas Tobin encouraged the elderly or those with underlying health conditions to continue to remain home and said Catholics are not obligated to attend Mass.

Sweet said he plans to continue to offer online services via Facebook and is having a camera system installed in the church in order to make the technology less obtrusive once people return to Mass. Other area churches have stated they plan to continue offering online services for those who don’t feel comfortable attending in-person or are not able to with limited capacity.

As far as capacity restrictions, Holy Trinity Parish has one advantage. Though it’s been nearly a year since the former Holy Family Church on South Main Street has hosted regular services, Sweet said he plans to reopen the church building in order create additional worship space. With the assistance of retired priests, he said, the parish will offer Masses at both church buildings for the time being.


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Though many churches plan to reopen under similar measures this weekend, others are taking a more cautious approach. At Slatersville Congregational Church, UCC, in North Smithfield, the Rev. Eileen Morris said the church council opted not to resume in-person services and continue online services after reopenings of churches prompted a spike in cases in some parts of the country.

“Almost everyone we spoke to in our congregation was pleased that we were moving slowly,” she said. “There have been some churches that have had services that have not been successful.”

Morris said the church has many older members and also many families with young children and did not want those individuals to feel obligated to attend church. She also brought up the dangers of group singing, which officials believe could contribute to spreading coronavirus through the air.

“I think if our doors are closed for a little bit and people are worshipping with us online – and a lot of folks are – that’s how we can deal with it for now,” she said.

Saint James Episcopal Church in Woonsocket is taking a similar approach. In a message to members, the Rev. Peter Tierney said this week that live-streamed worship is still preferable and the church will consider returning to in-person services during phase three of the state’s staged reopening.

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Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;