Entering St. Rose of Lima Church in Northeast Portland on any other Easter Sunday one would find a festive sanctuary filled with welcoming smiles, friendly handshakes and hugs. Parishioners and their families would be dressed up a little more than the usual Sunday Mass attire. There are 475 active households.

Bob Burtchaell and his wife, Kathleen, were married in St. Rose in 1965 and both have been parishioners ever since. 

“Easter Sunday morning we would’ve had to park four blocks away and we would’ve had to arrive early,” Bob said. “The balcony would already have been filled and there would be people standing in the back of church even into the vestibule. We would be really crowded. … When Easter comes the purple covers come off the statues, they come off the big crucifix and it’s a new day.”

On the Easter 2020, the sun cast shadows of empty pews onto the red carpet. The sanctuary was quiet and no one was in the balcony. It had been nearly three weeks since Gov. Kate Brown issued Executive Order 20-12, directing Oregonians to stay home in efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Sunlight also illuminated pews filled with 8x10 photographs. Each row from the front to back was adorned with multiple images of parishioners.

Megan Schuver, development coordinator at St. Rose of Lima, printed and mounted photos of church members locating them in the general area where each group normally sits. “Catholics are fairly consistent in sitting in the same area each week,” she said. Inspired by an Italian priest and St. John the Apostle Church in Oregon City, the photographs were placed on the pews before the Holy Thursday service.

Schuver said the aims were to let parishioners see that they are “very present to us in our activities and ministry” and provide Father Matt Libra with a reminder that his parishioners are with him in prayer and in celebration of the Mass.

Maintaining community in a time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders can be challenging.

Bob Burtchaell said when he first saw the photographs at St. Rose of Lima online, he realized something. “The purpose of it (the photographs) wasn’t for us actually to be in this room, our church. The purpose was for our priest, whom we love, to know that we are there with him in that church. It wasn’t just some clever idea. It’s us telling this guy that we really care for what he does for us and how he does it. And that he may think he’s alone in here saying Mass with a couple of altar servers but he’s not. We are there with him. In a way that he wants us to be there even when our bodies aren’t.”

Karen Pinder, chairwoman of the administrative council at St. Rose of Lima and a member for 50 years, said the photos took her breath away.

“The first time I saw it online I just started crying,” Pinder said. “I was overwhelmed, just sort of in awe with joy seeing those pictures the first time. It totally broke me down emotionally. I realized how much we take for granted our communities.”

Sister Dominica Mchau, leader of The Holy Spirit Sisters, said she entered the church that Thursday evening with five others. She was surprised and amazed.

“I wanted to cry when I saw Father Matt preaching (to the photographs) and talking to us.” she said. “I felt like everybody was in there.”

Holy Spirit Sister Emiliana Moshi said her heart was touched.

“When I looked at all of the pictures in the pews, it just brought me the sense of all the people who were supposed to be in the church, and they were not there, but with their pictures they were present. I felt the grace of God pouring through them.”

The photos will remain for the foreseeable future.

Kimball is a freelance photojournalist.