It’s been nearly two months since public Masses returned to the Diocese of Albany.


Due to the coronavirus, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger suspended public Masses on March 16, which ushered in the era of the livestreamed Mass for parishes in the 14-county Diocese. For over three months, while in lockdown, this was the only way for Catholics to worship until Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on June 6 that public worship could resume at 25 percent capacity with many restrictions in place such as masks and social distancing.


Some parishes, particularly those that had been working on their reopening plans for some time, began offering weekday Mass that next week, followed by Saturday and Sunday Masses on June 13-14. Some parishes have had success with outdoor Masses, most notably the Parish of Mater Christi in Albany, while other parishes have yet to open.


We wanted to give you a snapshot around the Diocese how pastors and parishes have handled their reopenings, if they have any problems, and what they want to tell parishioners who are still not ready to come back to Mass.


CATHEDRAL OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION, ALBANY 

The Cathedral currently offers two weekend Masses  Saturday at 5:15 p.m. and Sunday at 11 a.m  and weekday Masses on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 12:15 p.m., and Tuesday and Thursday at 7:15 a.m.

 

“We returned to public worship on the weekend of June 13-14, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ,” said Father David R. LeFort, rector of the Cathedral. “We decided to return offering two of our weekend Mass times, rather than the full complement of four. 

 

“Deacon Tim Kosto developed a very detailed plan, sought and trained volunteers to assist, and has been assuring me it is going well. From my vantage point, things have gone very well. Just a few weeks ago, we returned to our daily Mass schedule during weekdays.”

 

All of the typical safety precautions against COVID-19 are required, including filling out a form for contract tracing if necessary. Father LeFort said attendance has been increasing each week.

 

“As the weeks have progressed, our attendance is gently improving, but we still can accommodate several more parishioners at both Masses,” Father LeFort said. “From what I can gather, people who have returned are extremely happy and grateful for all our many efforts to care for them well.

 

“Parishioners and visitors have been very patient with our processes and with one another. At present, we have a limited number of volunteers, so when more are available and trained, we may be able to return to an additional Mass, if needed.”

 

Due to the numerous and obvious safety precautions, Father LeFort believes that has instilled a “confidence” in parishioners to return.

 

“In the early weeks, once people were able to witness our attention to details concerning health and safety — and the beautiful details of celebrating the sacraments with attentive reverence — I believe it instilled in them confidence about returning to public worship. Still, for those who are uncomfortable, I have encouraged them to remain at home until their comfort level increases, “ Father LeFort said.

 

Father LeFort, however, feels right at home since public Masses have returned.

 

I feel very comfortable, personally, since I know that we’re all doing the very best in practicing safety when in public,” he said. “Also, my comfort returned when I could finally offer Masses with the faithful!”



ST. MARY’S CHURCH, CLINTON HEIGHTS

PARISH OF ST. JOHN THE EVANGELIST, ST. JOSEPH, RENSSELAER


Father Thomas Konopka, pastor at St. Mary’s and sacramental minister at St. John and St. Joseph, said he was “surprised that people weren’t knocking the doors down” when public Masses resumed.


“In my conversations with people, I don’t think a lot of people are ready or are fearful. I have read that this is the case across the country,” said Father Konopka, who is also a therapist and director for the diocesan Consultation Center. “Given the surge in other parts of the country, I don’t see a huge influx of people yet. I am thinking that as people see how careful we are being then their confidence will grow. I have been very careful to follow the norms. People here are probably thinking I am a little bit of a germophobe, but I want to make sure we have done everything possible to avoid being a hot spot.”

 

What has surprised Father Konopka is the type of parishioner who has returned.

 

“What I find interesting is that the people who are coming I would put into the ‘at-risk’ category,” he said. “Our younger families seem to be staying away. My big fear is that many will not come back for a variety of reasons or use this as an excuse to not return to Sunday Mass. I am not sure when we will be back to our normal numbers; I am praying that we will have more than before, but only God knows that.  


“What has been a success is that we offer the opportunity to those who watched the livestreamed Mass to come to church after to receive Holy Communion. We have had almost 40-plus cars every week. When we do return to our two Sunday Masses, this probably will end but I am amazed at the hunger for the Eucharist.”


Besides the continued livestream, St. Mary’s offers one public Sunday Mass and St. John/St. Joseph had its first public Mass on July 11. At St. Mary's parishioners have to register online and fill out a nine-question survey. The church, at 25 percent capacity and with social distancing, can currently accommodate 70 people. Father Konopka said parishioners have been following the new normal at Mass.


“We have not run into any problems with masks, etc. I think people are seeing the wisdom of what we are doing and the effect this virus could have on people,” Father Konopka said. “I am not uncomfortable about being ‘open’ again. The one thing that I think needs to be celebrated is how many of my brother priests, deacons and lay ecclesial ministers stepped up in March and ministered in ways no one could imagine or ever were taught, often doing it by the seat of our pants.  


“I have been reminding the people here about an article I read from a priest in the Archdiocese of New York (who said) that even though our building was closed, the Church continued to flourish. We continued the mission of Jesus and I realized that we cannot confine the church to a building … because we never stopped practicing our faith. The Church never closed.” 


Whatever the future holds, Father Konopka doesn’t see parishes just going back to business as usual before the pandemic.


“I keep asking myself where the grace is in all this stuff.  I think the new evangelization that we have talked about ad nauseam but never seem to have embraced is right before us,” he said. “The use of social media, a phone tree we created to reach out to people, Zoom Faith formation  thanks to Maureen Billa, our faith formation director   has pushed this parish into a new path. I am convinced that we cannot return to the pre-PAUSE church, but we need to embrace the Church of the Acts of the Apostles, post Pentecost, and preach the Gospel anew.”

 

ST. JOSEPH’S, GREENFIELD CENTER
ST. PAUL’S CHURCH, ROCK CITY FALLS

St. Joseph’s new normal is the outdoor Mass. Father Simon Udemgba said the parish tried a parking lot Mass but the transmitter broke, so they decided to use their pavilion and surrounding green space for Mass.

 

“Our reasoning was, so people can see the priest and the altar, instead of listening from their cars,” Father Udemgba said. “We thought too, since the transmitter broke, so parishioners can hear it. The first time we did it, we rented a PA system, so they can hear the Mass. It was like being where we were meant to be. The number keeps increasing every week. We have survived rain, so sunshine is easy to deal with.”

 

Father Udemgba is quick to praise the parishioners who help each week in setting up the outdoor Mass.

 

“We have an army of volunteers every Sunday who help to bring everything out to the pavilion and to bring (everything) back to the Church,” said Father Udemgba, who wanted to specifically recognize Joe Varone, chief pandemic officer, and Joe Ficarette, sound engineer. “We have greeters, screeners, ushers, and everyone that wants to help and praise God outside during this challenging times.”

 

There is an indoor Mass at St. Paul’s, which is recorded on Saturday but Father Udemgba said, “People are still a little bit leery coming into enclosed space for Mass.” Not so for the outdoor Masses.

 

“Parishioners are more comfortable outside. We have enough space and people socially distance themselves  for more than 12 feet,” he said. “We had to buy a new PA system, which I am sure everyone in Greenfield Center can hear from their home. … parishioners are saying they love the outdoor Mass and will love to do it more often, when this is all over, during the summer months.”

 

Father Udemgba enjoys the outdoor Masses as well, adding “I feel very comfortable, it is like our Lord Jesus Christ preaching on the boat or on top of the mountain.”

 

HOLY TRINITY PARISH, COLUMBIA COUNTY

Father Anthony Barratt, who is also the diocesan director of Prayer and Worship and was part of the reopening committee in the Diocese, said the return to Masses have “gone incredibly well.”

 

“We started as soon as we could, I think it was Corpus Christi,” Father Barratt said. “We had already had some rehearsals, we had a team together, a pandemic safety officer, all those different things. We rehearsed and practiced and felt we were ready to go, so we did. I think one of the issues that many of us have experienced is having enough volunteers and training people. We have been very blessed. We have a good team of ushers, greeters, sanitizers and so on. It has made things very smooth really.”

 

It has gone so smoothly that they have nearly approached their maximum capacity, which happens to be 25 percent, at St. Mary’s Church in Hudson.

 

“We are close to that (at St. Mary’s). The concern is, we have made it clear to folks, please God we can fit everybody in, but if we reach the maximum in terms of maintaining the distancing then people will need to wait or they are welcome to return to receive Communion. So far so good, but we have come close. The numbers have certainly crept up each week, it is noticeable.”

 

The parishes have also done baptisms, funerals and two weddings. And for anyone not comfortable attending a public Mass just yet, the livestreamed Masses are still in place and Father Barratt says a spiritual Communion prayer at every Mass for the people who can’t be there.

 

“A number of folks for different reasons (have not returned to public Masses), some with underlying health issues or in that vulnerable category and others who just are not comfortable yet and I always explain to them as Bishop has said, ‘Look, that is not a problem, you are where you are.’ ”