ST. HELENS — Columbia County officially entered Phase 1 of Oregon’s COVID-19 reopening plan on May 15, but like most aspects of society here, this didn’t lead to an instant return to life as normal at St. Frederic Parish. With a significant percentage of parishioners being elderly and therefore more at risk of developing serious consequences from the virus, it was important for staff to show that church attendance is, for example, safer than going to a grocery store. 

Fortunately, parish staff said, the Archdiocese of Portland’s requirements have been clear and consistent, and a core group of volunteers dedicated themselves to the procedures to offer six masses every week. The group even recently added an hour for eucharistic adoration. In addition to sanitization after every gathering, contact tracing logs, and reconfiguring the nave to ensure 6 feet of distance between worshippers, St. Frederic also checked its heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, and upgraded its filters.

The first people to return were small groups of regular Mass attendees who were mostly middle-aged, healthy and with their families. However, a number of older parishioners also came. As easy as it was to watch livestreamed or recorded Masses at home, and even pick and choose a channel for favored music or homilists, people craved participating in the Eucharist in person. 

And the parish seemed to need them.

“Photos on pews pale in comparison to members of the body of Christ worshipping together in person,” said Tom Prevish, a parishioner at St. Frederic.

As the weeks went by, more people started coming. Families and friends attended baptisms and funerals, which led to more people learning how serious the parish was about mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Subsequently, more parishioners have been trickling back to Mass on a regular basis. It’s still far from normal. Many parishioners with underlying health conditions are rightfully choosing to stay home. With limited music and people speaking behind masks, the celebration of Mass tends to be subdued and reverent, rather than energetic and joyful. 

But, staff say, that’s as it should be during this time when the church family is not fully reunited and the world needs prayers for healing. 

“Parishioners are returning and for that we are grateful,” said Prevish. “We look forward to the day when people will once again fill the pews, hug and shake hands, and the sounds of prayer and singing will float out the open doors into the streets.”