'I felt I was home': Berkshire churchgoers make emotional return to in-person Mass

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"So, how does it feel to be home?"

The Rev. John Tuohey drew polite applause as the pastor welcomed back the nearly 40 parishioners at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Pittsfield attending Mass on Saturday afternoon for the first time since mid-March.

The return was an emotional one for lifelong church member Karen Winslow.

"The building makes me feel at peace," she told The Eagle after Mass. "I cried after I received communion."

Meanwhile, a small but vocal gathering at the 11 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Mary's Church in Lee was apparently longing for live, uplifting spiritual music. The roughly 20 people clapped when The Rev. Brian McGrath acknowledged organist/vocalist Sandy Cummings playing in the choir loft.

"I felt I was home," Cummings told The Eagle. "This is my extended family."

While attendance may have been far below normal, St. Mary's pastor, the Rev. Brian McGrath, was thrilled to celebrate Mass before a live audience. "It's great to see you back," he said. "It's going to be an adjustment."

Shuttered by the coronavirus outbreak for 11 weeks, local Catholic churches reopened this weekend for in-person Mass, most resuming regular schedule of masses. The churches have adjusted to the social distancing, hand sanitizing, mask wearing and other health guidelines necessary to keep the pandemic in check. Until the doors reopened at 89 Briggs Ave., St. Charles livestreamed a single mass on Sunday from the church chapel; Easter Mass was done from the sanctuary with photos of parishioners taped to the pews.

Gov. Charlie Baker had lifted the closure order on May 18 for churches, synagogues and mosques. While religious services could resume Memorial Day weekend, the Catholic churches needed a week to ensure the sanctuaries were thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. Roughly two-thirds of the pews were also blocked off for social distancing purposes.

However, the majority of Berkshire Congregational churches and Jewish synagogues remain closed, as religious leaders believe more time is needed to ensure it's safe to gather in their houses of worship.

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The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, serving the four Western Massachusetts counties, laid out a lengthy list of guidelines for the parishes to incorporate in their reopening plans. The guidelines include:

- No communion by the cup.

- Communion in the hand only.

- Holy water fonts to remain empty and covered.

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- Social distancing (6 feet minimum) to be abided by at all times.

- Masks will be required.

- The priest and others with him do not need to wear masks in the sanctuary as long as strict social distancing is maintained. They do have to wear masks when assisting with the distribution of Holy Communion.

- Time must be allocated between Masses and any time the church is open to the public to conduct a cleaning before the next Mass or public use.

Despite the safeguards, a number of regular Saturday churchgoers at St. Charles probably stayed away, uncomfortable even among smaller gatherings, according to Tuohey.

Nevertheless, the pastor was pleased with the estimated 175 people at the four regularly scheduled masses.

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"Quite good, I'd say," Tuohey said. "I think good communication and our open house [last weekend to explain the return] helped with our attendance," he said.

Paul and Judy Robarge were among those who felt at ease in returning to St. Charles.

"The feeling of comfort and connection," Paul Robarge said.

Added his wife, "It was exactly like Father said, we were back home."

Victoria O'Neil, communicant of St. Mary's, said churches should have remained open during the pandemic.

"Supermarkets were open because food is essential for the body. Church and the Eucharist are essential for our souls. We should've never been closed," she said.

Fittingly, Catholic churches' return to in-person Mass occurred on Pentecost Sunday, which commemorates the Holy Spirit descending on the apostles and other followers of Jesus. Religious scholars consider Pentecost the birth of the early Christian church.

"The pandemic has shown us how big this world is," McGrath told his parishioners. "Let's pray for a renewed church. Let's pray for the Holy Spirit breathed into us again."

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com.


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