Fr. Edwin Sánchez elevates the Eucharist during a livestreamed Mass at St. Mary, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Albany. The church now can welcome congregations as large as 70 under Linn County coronavirus regulations.
Fr. Edwin Sánchez elevates the Eucharist during a livestreamed Mass at St. Mary, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Albany. The church now can welcome congregations as large as 70 under Linn County coronavirus regulations.

As Oregon emerges from the pandemic lockdown, counties are operating under a variety of health directives. That means Catholic parishes are reopening in many ways.

Because of the patchwork of recovery phases, the Archdiocese of Portland has no blanket guidance on numbers, other than to abide by local law.

“It’s up to the pastors to stay within their county’s guidelines,” said David Renshaw, communications director of the archdiocese.

The archdiocese’s chief church, St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Northwest Portland, has just entered phase 1 of the recovery scheme, along with the rest of Multnomah County. Twenty-five is still the maximum number of worshippers allowed in the building. The parish will continue to keep a list of names from each Mass in case contact tracing is necessary.

Msgr. Patrick Brennan, pastor of Cathedral Parish, has considered opening a satellite location on campus with livestreaming of Masses, but would need a second set of volunteers to sign in guests, maintain social spacing and clean the site thoroughly. The 11 a.m. Mass, with Archbishop Alexander Sample presiding, will continue to be livestreamed.

One parish that has embraced satellite locations is Visitation in Verboort. Washington County is still in phase 1, so groups of no more than 25 can worship in Visitation Church while three other pods of 25 watch a livestream in the school cafeteria, the parish center and the gym. As many as 100 can attend Mass that way.

It had gone well until someone with a possible case of COVID-19 attended Mass in mid-June. Masses were canceled for June 20-21.

“We are all together in the Body of Christ even if we aren’t under one roof,” said Father Michael Vuky, pastor of Visitation.

Marion County entered phase 2 June 19, despite a surge in COVID-19 cases. Starting at the end of June, Queen of Peace Parish in Salem could accommodate 150 people in the church and 50 more in the adjoining parish hall, which has a large screen showing Mass. 

To handle larger numbers, the parish switched from call-in signups to the Eventbrite online system, which other parishes had recommended.

“We’ve learned about the importance of communication and really thinking through all that goes into this,” said Ethan Alano, liturgy and spiritual outreach coordinator at Queen of Peace. “We can get accustomed and we all will. We just need to be patient with the process. This is new territory for all of us.”

To the east in Mount Angel, St. Mary Parish is welcoming 200 in the church and 75 in the parish center. Parishioners can call the office to sign up. “They miss the Eucharist,” said Cynthia Unger, event and volunteer coordinator at St. Mary. In phase 1, Unger had the pleasant task of calling people to tell them their names had been drawn to attend a 25-person Mass. “They would be excited and tell me, ‘You have the best job,’” she said.

Cristo Cervantes, Hispanic ministry coordinator at St. Mary, said the smart phone app Flocknote has been irreplaceable during the pandemic. It was simple to send out text messages — in English or Spanish — telling parishioners how to sign up for Mass. And Flocknote already contains name and phone number for contact tracing if needed. 

Also in Marion County, historic St. Paul Church in St. Paul opened for public Masses June 28 with a maximum of 25 worshippers.

In Corvallis, where Benton County has begun phase 2, St. Mary Parish can welcome as many as 250 worshippers while maintaining safe distances. Lynette Martin, administrative assistant at St. Mary, reports that about 110 people have opted to come on Sundays so far. When people call or email seeking a place at Mass, Martin assigns them to a liturgy that they can continue to attend week after week until the next phase begins.

In nearby Albany, St. Mary Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish can fit 70 worshippers safely under Linn County’s phase 2 rules. Weekend Masses are always full but weekday Masses always have slots.

Teresa Middlemiss, administrative assistant at the parish, has a new job: keeping track of who has attended Mass most recently so she can rotate new people into the mix. She takes phone calls and uses a large spreadsheet. Like many parish workers, she has borne the extra work joyfully and focuses on the happy results.

“When we first opened, there were people who cried at Communion time because they were so grateful to be there,” Middlemiss said. 

In general, worshippers can come to Mass in English every other weekend while it’s a two-week wait for space at the Spanish Masses.

Lane County also has entered phase 2. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Cottage Grove is large enough to accommodate 50 signups. Since family groups can sit closer together, the headcount may exceed 50 while social distancing remains intact. The mission church, St. Philip Benizi in Creswell, is smaller and so can welcome 25 households or about 35 people. The parish has used Eventbrite online signups and the churches have hit capacity each weekend.

“People have responded well,” said Father John Boyle, pastor in Cottage Grove. “It is so nice to see people return.”

Father Boyle will continue livestreaming Masses. He has observed some parishioners are hesitant to return just yet. Those who have attended Mass have received the Eucharist “with great joy,” the pastor said.

Clatsop County on the north coast has entered phase 2. St. Mary, Star of the Sea Parish in Astoria can fit 75 people while the mission in Warrenton has room for 25. Amy Russell, office manager in Astoria, takes names over the phone and email. There has been room left at each Mass since the population is older and vulnerable populations are urged to stay home for now. Livestreaming will continue.

Those who have come to Mass in Astoria and Warrenton have been a source of joy for parish staff.

“We missed the faces of the people,” said Russell, who learned that to make the process work, a parish needs to reach out for as many volunteers as possible.  

“It’s been a great group effort,” she said.

To the south, Brookings and Curry County entered phase 2 in early June. Star of the Sea Parish can welcome 35 worshippers. Staff have encouraged weekday attendance so everyone can come to Mass once per week.

“We have been so excited,” said Saviourite Sister Fidel Ike, parish assistant. “I was happy the first day they came, and the arrangements have been perfect.” Mass slots in Brookings, obtained by phone call, fill up days ahead of time.

Jackson County in Southern Oregon is well into phase 2, with Shepherd of the Valley Church in Central Point opening up for congregations as large as 170. So far, the weekend headcount has averaged 60 and weekdays 20, said parish staffer Gisselle Cruz-Garcia. For weekends, worshippers sign up on the parish website but also can call in. On weekdays, people can just show up but must sign in at the door.

edl@catholicsentinel.org