To church or not? Faith leaders grapple with the question

Bishop John Borders III, senior pastor at Morningstar Baptist Church on Blue Hill Avenue, prayed as Gov. Charlie Baker visited the largely-empty church on March 22. The church has been live-streaming service and does not have a set date for re-opening for live services yet, according to Bishop Borders. Photo courtesy Gov. Baker's office

The first phase of Gov. Charlie Baker’s statewide reopening protocols allows for houses of worship to open right away.

But in Boston, that doesn’t mean that churches are ready— or willing— to swing open their doors. At least, not yet.

Some Catholic churches in the archdiocese of Boston will hold Masses for the first time since mid-March this weekend. But, according to Fr. Jack Ahern of St. Gregory’s parish, none of the Dorchester or Mattapan Catholic churches will open for Mass until Sat., May 30.

“No one is prepared for this weekend,” he said.

Deep cleaning the churches and implementing specific guidelines laid out by the archdiocese on Monday will require more planning, Ahern said. Also, there is concern that if one or two of the neighborhood’s Catholic churches were to open ahead of the others, it could lead to overcrowding. The governor’s order issued on Monday allows for only a 40 percent capacity.

At St. Brendan, the first Mass will be at 4 p.m. on May 30. At St. Ann, the first liturgy will be at 10:30 the next morning. In a letter to parishioners, the pastoral team asked for volunteers to assist in cleaning up as mandated by state regulations.

“Without enough volunteers to help at each liturgy with welcoming and cleaning after each Mass, we can’t have Mass. This is a time to step up and help everyone,” the team wrote.

Everyone, of course, will have to wear a mask. There will be no singing. Families can sit together, but parishioners are asked to “use the front seats first and fully, so we minimize the cleaning after Mass,” the team said, adding, “Communion will be unique and safe for all. Baskets at the entrance will be for your offertory. No collections will take place.”

Other congregations in the neighborhood are approaching the notion of re-opening with even more caution.

Bishop John Borders at Morningstar Baptist Church on Blue Hill Avenue, thinks it may be two to four weeks before the church is prepared to open its sanctuary. They will continue to worship online until then.

“I plan on approaching this very thoroughly and gradually, because if we open up and one person is affected, I’m going to be devastated,” Bishop Borders said.

When regular services do resume, Borders says he has already decided to “recreate” the liturgical calendar that was missed in March, April and May— including Palm Sunday and Easter.

Rev. Terry Sweetser, interim minister at First Parish Dorchester on Meetinghouse Hill, said the parish intends to continue online worship this Sunday at 11 a.m. He referenced a comment from his colleague, Rev. Eric Cherry, saying he “speaks for me and many Unitarian Universalists” when he called the new Massachusetts guidelines for worship in congregations “perilous.”

“Though gathering physically is so very tempting, this won't be like returning to what we all miss so much. And it is undoubtedly and unnecessarily dangerous to self, family, and neighbor. Please gather for worship - for yourself and for your community - but gather from home for now,” said Cherry.

This position is most in harmony with that of your mayor.

Boston is the third most densely populated major city in the US, Marty Walsh noted in a cautionary press conference on Tuesday. “So, we have unique concerns and situations that affect how we prepare and what we prepare for,” he said.

And for his part, he advised senior citizens not to attend church services in person — not yet. “I know that for many of you, your place of worship is the heart of your community, and you are missing it,” he said. “I want you to hold off going back to your services at this point. We want you to follow the ‘safer at home’ advisory. Contact your faith leaders to be in conversations with them, and I ask the faith leaders to guide them in supporting seniors in putting safety first.”

To pastors and other faith leaders, Walsh said: “I encourage you to take every precaution. If you have any doubts about the ability to re-open and maintain strict guidelines, I urge you not to.”

It’s sound advice.