Parishes begin to reopen under archdiocese’s phased plan

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Father Nicholas Kostyk, associate pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glenview, cleans the door handle after a parishioner left the room where they met for the sacrament of reconciliation on May 30, 2020. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

When the doors opened at St. John Cantius Church on May 24, there was a line of people waiting to enter.

That line was there almost constantly for the first several days that the church, 825 N. Carpenter St., was open for personal prayer under the Archdiocese of Chicago’s reopening plan.

St. John Cantius was one of dozens of churches certified to open for Phase 1 and 1a during the first permitted weekend, May 23 and 24. The archdiocese announced June 1 that parishes that had successfully opened their doors for Phase I and received additional certification would be able to open for Phase 2 — Sunday and daily Mass — starting June 6.

Brother Nathan Ford of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius said he had more than a score of volunteers organized to serve as greeters and ushers for all of the hours the church was open the first two weeks.

“We had people contacting us as soon as we knew we were going to be able to reopen,” Brother Nathan said.

For the canons and the volunteers, it has all been worth it.

“Seeing the smiles and the tears on the people’s faces has been amazing,” he said.

Under the opening plan, greeters and ushers must do more than simply welcome people to church. They have to make sure all guests sanitize their hands, wear masks over their noses and mouths, and maintain at least six feet of distance from other people.

According to archdiocesan regulations, parishes must have a reopening task force in place and designated volunteer captains for setup, greeting and cleanup crews. Volunteers had to be trained before parishes could get certified for Phase 1, which includes opening for the sacraments of reconciliation, matrimony and baptism, as well as funeral Masses, and Phase 1a, which allows the church to be open for private prayer and eucharistic adoration. Attendance at those events originally was limited to 10 people.

For Phase 2, parishes must use a reservation system both to limit attendance and to have a record of who was at Mass, in case anyone later tests positive for COVID-19. Those records are to be destroyed 14 days after the Mass if no one becomes ill.

Attendance for Phase 2 is limited to 15% to 20% of church capacity or 50 people, whichever is less, to start.

Training materials are available at

At St. John Cantius, which has had parishioners drive in from the suburbs as well as neighborhood residents who do not belong to the parish and might not even be Catholic, the limit on people in the church means ushers must remind people who come to pray to be considerate so that other people can come in.

At the Church of St. Mary in Lake Forest, the church opened for reconciliation at 9 a.m. on May 23, the first day parishes were allowed to open their doors.

Father Mark Augustine, the parish administrator, said that some of his parishioners were asking why it was taking so long to reopen church doors and why the reopening plan is so gradual.

“There’s a lot of work just in figuring out the configuration of the church for the different sacraments and prayer,” Augustine said.

He has had about 50 people volunteer to help in some capacity. All volunteers must be under 65 and have no underlying health conditions. Those who work directly with parishioners and guests — greeters and ushers — must also be over 18.

The parish had a baptism scheduled on May 31, but he said he expected more regular opening, including time for personal prayer, by the first week of June.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Glenview opened for reconciliation for the first time May 30, and had a wedding, a funeral and a baptism scheduled in the eight days following that, said Father Jeremiah Boland, the pastor.

He had already tried on the plastic face shield that celebrants will wear at points where they have to come close to people, such as distributing Communion or baptizing an infant. Such shields are designed to protect both the person wearing them and those they are close to.

“I kind of felt like I was on the set of a Star Wars movie,” Boland said. “But it used to feel strange to wear a mask, and now we do that without thinking.”

Boland did a YouTube video with the parish communications director, Terry Luc, to answer questions about how the reopening would work, addressing everything from how penitents could confess sins without being overheard (plenty of space and a white noise machine) to whether weddings and funeral Masses celebrated now with 10 people can be followed up with larger liturgical celebrations when restrictions ease.

The answer in both cases is yes, Boland said.

“It’s hard,” he said. “Especially for people who have been engaged for a long time. First we moved all our summer weddings to the fall, but no one can say you’ll be able to have a reception with 300 people in October.”

Boland said that many parishioners were eager to volunteer, but some were hesitant when they realized what would be expected of them, especially the greeters and ushers.

“When we start describing that greeters have to make sure there’s only 10 people in the church and everyone has to wear a mask, and when there are more than 10, telling those people they can’t come in, some people are like, ‘That’s not what I want to do,’” Boland said.

He is grateful that the archdiocesan procedures are clear and comprehensive, but acknowledged that there is a lot to consider and a lot to do before, during and after every time the church is opened.

“It’s a lot more complicated than people think,” Boland said. “They sort of think it’s just, you turn the lights on and open and the door.”

Our Lady of Perpetual Help is fortunate to have a large enough custodial staff that they can be in charge of disinfecting the church after each use, but it will still take time.

“It’s not like you can have back-to-back baptisms,” he said.

Milissa Bartold, pastoral associate at St. Matthew Parish in Schaumburg, said the parish planned to have a handful of sacraments, whether baptisms, funerals or reconciliation, before opening for prayer.

“We have chairs instead of pews, so we’ve been working on how to configure them for the different sacraments,” she said.

As at other parishes, it has been a challenge to find enough volunteers who are under 65.

“I think the biggest challenge is the people who want to step forward but can’t because of age and vulnerability,” she said. “That represents a significant portion of our most active parishioners.”

The archdiocese later told pastors that people over 65 could volunteer if they acknowledged that they understood the risks.

She said she was also concerned about what will happen with older parishioners when the parish moves to Phase 2. The number of people who can attend Mass is still limited by social distancing rules, and the archdiocese has told parishes to use an online reservation or registration system.

“We’ve used those for religious education before,” Bartold said. “But a lot of older parishioners will come to Mass no matter what, and they don’t use computers.”

In the training materials, archdiocesan officials made it clear that each parish should open when it is ready and not before.

As of May 27, Father Terry Keehan, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Inverness, said that date was coming soon for his parish, but he couldn’t say exactly when.

“We have some very talented and capable people we are absolutely blessed with our staff and our volunteers,” Keehan said. “We’re just combing through and following the archdiocesan guidelines to a T, but it’s a lot.”

One of the parish’s biggest challenges is that people have heard on the news that churches are opening, but they don’t know of all that is involved to make that happen, he said.

“For us, before that happens, there’s a process that we have to train and certify all of our staff and volunteers in order to make that happen safely. We’re telling people, ‘Don’t worry about the date. We’ll let you know about the progress of the process.”

When it seems too slow for parishioners, Keehan reminds them why it is important to take it slow.

“I say, ‘Guys, this is a pro-life issue,’” he said. “‘We’re caring for the life that God has given to us.’”


  • parishes
  • coronavirus
  • covid-19

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