By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
With the sun shining and a heat index nearing 100 degrees the evening of July 4, Catholics gathered for Mass in the parking lot of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Lost Nation. Some sat in cars and trucks with the windows rolled down, while others set up lawn chairs on a narrow strip of shade along the west side of the church.
“I feel for you,” said Father Francis Odoom, the parish’s pastor, “but I know your love for Jesus has brought you here today. I thank you for coming, and I pray that our time spent together will not be in vain.”
As parishes innovate to celebrate Mass as safely as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic, some have begun to offer outdoor Masses, either exclusively or as an option for parishioners who do not feel safe gathering indoors.
For Father Odoom, who serves parishes in Lost Nation, Oxford Junction and Grand Mound, celebrating Mass outside reduces planning time for seating and sanitizing. In addition, many more who want to worship in-person are able to do so.
Of course, there are downsides, he said. The parking lot gets hot because it lacks shade. However, the parish provides water for anyone who feels dehydrated and the priest tries to keep homilies short. The parish is considering a pop-up canopy for future services.
A small church solution
Outdoor Mass has alleviated a space issue for St. Peter Parish in Buffalo, at least during warm-weather months. The parish has one of the smallest church buildings in the diocese, with about 20 small pews. “We probably could have had about 10 people in church with social distancing,” said Father Paul Appel, the parish’s pastor.
Celebrating Mass outdoors allows the parish to welcome more people; on June 28, about 30 people brought lawn chairs and set them up under the tree behind the church, Father Appel said. He and parochial vicar Father Nicholas Akindele take turns leading the outdoor Mass.
On the radio
In addition to celebrating Masses indoors, Father David Brownfield offers a drive-in Mass at All Saints Parish in Keokuk on Saturday nights for parishioners who are “worried about catching the virus.” Father Brownfield and the parish staff set up an altar for the Saturday evening Mass. Parishioners park their cars and tune in to 98.5 FM on their radios or roll down their windows to hear the liturgy. The drive-in Mass “appeals to those people who are not yet going out in public and are still using curbside service to get groceries and other essentials,” he said.
Parishioners can opt to participate in the indoor Masses from the parking lot by turning on the radio. Pastoral Associate Trevor Pullinger said the parish fortunately updated its sound system shortly before the pandemic. This system allows the parish to broadcast a low-frequency signal to the parking lot that is “small enough to comply with FCC rules.” Eucharistic ministers go outside to distribute Communion to those who wish to receive it.
Father Brownfield believes it is important for his parish to offer options to make worship accessible to as many people as possible. “I want people to be comfortable and feel safe in their return to church.”
Pew issues? No problem!
St. Joseph Catholic Church in DeWitt has church pews that react poorly to cleaning solutions, which creates a challenge during this time when sanitation protocols are essential to reopening.
As the parish works on plans to refinish the pews with a more durable sealant, Father Stephen Page, the pastor, celebrates Mass elsewhere on parish property. Weekday Masses take place in the gathering space and weekend Masses outside in the parking lot.
On Saturday night and Sunday morning, staff and volunteers help Father Page set up an altar in the alley near the school entrance. Parishioners set up lawn chairs in the parking lot, trying best to avoid the sun. “On Saturday nights, the shade is next to the trees on the west side, so people sit there. On Sundays, the shade is on the other side, so people sit there. They can bring umbrellas and wear hats,” Father Page said.
Wearing vestments in the hot sun can be uncomfortable, but “I don’t mind doing Mass outside,” Father Page said. “I’m so grateful people were flexible and understanding.”
Mass on a hayrack
The cluster parishes in Wellman, Richmond and Riverside celebrate weekend Masses outdoors in all three communities, with the altar set up on a hayrack or implement trailer. Volunteers spiffy up the pull-behinds with a fabric skirt. “It looks really nice,” said the cluster’s pastor, Father Bill Roush. “We’re not losing reverence. That’s what I was afraid would happen, and we’re not.”
Weekday Masses still take place indoors. The plan to have weekend Masses in the parking lot came about after conversations with parishioners who are older or have health conditions that make them more susceptible to a severe COVID-19 infection. “They said they would come to a parking lot Mass but didn’t feel comfortable coming inside,” Father Roush said.
Parishioners stay in their cars during the liturgy but have a choice of walking up to the altar or rolling down their car windows to receive Communion. Father Roush’s voice is broadcast through an AM radio transmitter.
Feedback about the outdoor Masses has been positive, he said. “It’s turning out really well. People are very receptive.”
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