By Annette Alleva
The North Star Catholic
It has been a year since our churches, schools, and many businesses were shuttered, a year since a novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 shifted our lives, vocabularies, and ways of worshiping, learning, and socializing. It has been a year of challenges, adaptations, losses, hope and creativity.
As the herculean effort to vaccinate the world against an unseen enemy picks up speed and new coronavirus cases begin to decline, the churches and missions throughout the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau look forward, with cautious optimism, as they continue to navigate a new normal.
At Saint Paul the Apostle parish in Juneau, Pastor Mike Galbraith began livestreaming Mass as soon as state, local, and archdiocesan mandates ended in person attendance. As restrictions loosened up, folks began returning to Mass at the city’s largest parish.
“We have a good-size church, with capacity for 500 people,” he said. “About 75 to 100 people show up for each Mass on weekends.” Daily Mass has an average of 30 participants, he added.
“It is mostly middle-aged people who are not showing up,” Father Galbraith said, though the increase in attendance by young people with kids is encouraging. The elderly—those most vulnerable to coronavirus’s worst effects—are consistently faithful in mass attendance, he added.
The number of people who tuned into Father Galbraith’s daily and Sunday Mass offerings is impossible to ascertain. Still, he has been faithful in streaming it to those who do, even as in-church attendance has been an option since May of last year.
As schools turned to Zoom sessions to educate children, many parishes have used the popular online app for religious education. “About 80 percent of our kids are ‘zooming’ once a week,” while the other 20 percent attend religious education in person, Father Galbraith explained. About 15 children are in sacramental preparation, about half of the parish’s normal average. Four couples are preparing for marriage.
For the far-flung mission churches and villages of Bristol Bay, Father Scott Garrett’s visits are always welcome and occasions for much joy. Sidelined by COVID-19, the mission priest for Saint Paul’s Mission, who is based at Holy Rosary parish in Dillingham and flies “the gospel to the ends of the earth,” has had to adapt, improvise, and hope for the best.
The priest-pilot has served this area for nearly twelve years, visiting churches in King Salmon/Naknek and Clark’s Point weekly, and 25 area villages on an irregular basis.
Unable to minister to the villages he serves, most of which are in strict lockdowns due to high numbers of coronavirus cases, he livestreams Mass and broadcasts for a two-mile radius around the Dillingham church on an FM radio station. “The higher risk people won’t go out, they don’t have to,” he said. The folks who gather in the parking lot “love to listen to the Mass on radio,” he said, though some don’t leave their vehicles to receive Communion due to fear of the virus or other reasons.
While Father Garrett has inevitably lost some Mass attendees due to an unwillingness to enter the now open churches or simply getting used to livestream and broadcast liturgies, he has picked up a few families with a livestream of praying the rosary. With the easing of restrictions, Father Garrett has also witnessed a “trickle back” of those he described as “core people who always come to church,” he said.
Because he must provide irregular and limited engagement with many members of his scattered flock, sacramental preparations have long been a system of “catch them when I can and know when they are ready,” Father Garrett said. In his regular or infrequent visits, he spends more time with couples preparing for marriage and families preparing children for Baptism, Eucharist or Confirmation. While fewer folks are doing so, people are still looking forward to celebrating these milestones on their faith journeys.
“It is a whole new era in the church. The people are getting used to it,” he said.
In Anchorage, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton parish hit the ground running with livestreamed liturgies immediately after mandated lockdowns. Pastor Scott Medlock said he has seen a gradual increase in people coming to Mass.
With a current allowable capacity of 110 people, “if you don’t have any underlying conditions, you should come to Mass,” he said.
“We have tried to continue to do everything we possibly can,” Father Medlock said of meeting challenges presented by COVID 19. “We can’t have normal social gatherings for faith formation and there are a number who cannot come in person,” he added.
Last summer, the parish chose to have sacramental classes in socially distanced gatherings and through Zoom. “Our faith formation program is based on family formation,” Father Medlock said, and added, “we have trained parishioners to be ‘family guides’ to help them navigate the resources. Families are completely overwhelmed,” said Father Medlock. The guides are an important part of outreach in simply giving overburdened parents and kids encouragement and assurance, he added.
“We have had good participation in sacramental preparation and our numbers have remained fairly steady,” Father Medlock stated. “While there has been some fall-off in folks attending Mass, there are going to be a lot of things to reach out to them. Plans are to re-engage them with new strategies.” “Come Back to Mass for Lent” is a program of preaching, letters, and emphasis on Mass attendance, Father Medlock said of a campaign to move forward with greater participation in liturgies and other programs.
Across town at Saint Anthony parish, a church known and celebrated for its cultural diversity and situated in an economically and socially disadvantaged neighborhood, COVID-19 presented additional challenges to a church long struggling on several fronts.
As other churches reopened for limited Mass participation, Saint Anthony was dismantling the brick wall behind its altar, declared unstable and unsafe following the 7.1 earthquake in 2018—an unanticipated expense generously funded by an anonymous donor.
Unlike many pastors, Father Vince Blanco chose not to livestream Masses. Admittedly unfamiliar with the technology to do so, his decision was intended to create in the parishioners “a hunger for Eucharist and community, the very thing that connects us to each other,” he said. Until the work on the wall was completed, Father Blanco offered Mass in an empty church for all of his people who he knew hungered to be with each other.
While the church remained closed, weekly offerings initially fell off significantly. “Now, we are doing well,” he said of his parish, attended largely by those who work in service industries and at jobs negatively impacted by mandates and lay-offs. Father Blanco notes his parishioners’ generosity, who, despite great challenges, managed to reach their One Bread One Body financial goals, consistently donate food for hungry folks, and personal and household items through its annual “angel tree” offering. When a need arises in the parish, somehow, they meet it, he said.
Samoan families comprise the dominant culture at Saint Anthony, followed closely by Filipinos and many other ethnicities. “In the context we have, we have a different culture and cannot afford the things other churches take for granted,” Father Blanco explained. “We have shared our uniqueness and our beauty with the archdiocese,” he said and added that it is time we speak out about our challenges as well.
Mass attendance has increased, sometimes straining the mandates on capacity. “There are new faces and they bring new hope; the younger ones, they are coming, and the older ones at our daily Masses will reach higher numbers,” Father Blanco stated. “We trust the Holy Spirit.”
For many months, we have gathered in our churches, social distancing and wearing masks. Still, we come, seeking what we have always sought. A year has passed, and the Body of Christ is alive and well.