California’s second lockdown, like its first, has been unusually severe. But in recent months, outdoor church services have been introduced in some parishes, thanks to the help of creative-thinking volunteers.
“I see the Eucharist as my weekly spiritual meal,” says John, a parishioner of St Martin of Tours Catholic Church in Brentwood, “and until now, I’ve been starving!” The church, originally built in 1946 on an orchard that was part of actor Gary Cooper’s estate, is the heart of a devoted community. To meet the challenges of lockdown, a group of lay members have made it possible for outdoor Sunday Masses to take place in the upper parking lot.
The congregation stay in their cars during Mass and hear Mass through their radios via closed-circuit transmission. (A PA system, they decided, would not help community relations.) Communion is distributed car-by-car.
John is especially pleased about the availability of daily Mass, now celebrated on an outdoor patio with parishioners in chairs spaced apart. “Our priests are great,” says John, “and the laity partnership has handled all the nitty-gritty.”
St Therese parish in Alhambra does not have a large parking lot; instead, Mass is celebrated in an outdoor space in between school and church buildings, recently covered with a large sunshade. Like other parishes at this time, finances may be low but spiritual zeal is high. I spoke with Angela, a daily Mass-goer who says that St Therese Catholic Church is thriving in many ways: “It is a parish run by the Discalced Carmelite Friars, known for being very devout and orthodox. They have been doing everything they are allowed to do to bring the sacraments to their parishioners, and the parishioners show their gratitude.”
Masses are celebrated with a full altar and tabernacle, and Confessions are heard regularly in the open foyer of the school. Umbrellas and extra sunshades are provided as many elderly parishioners attend these Masses with their walkers and wheelchairs. It is a popular parish and the pastor takes his role as shepherd seriously, even during this pandemic. Angela relates, “In response to someone who asked why he didn’t smile more during the streamed Masses, our pastor said: ‘I’m just a father that misses his family.’”
At St Sebastian Church in Santa Paula, “Be Not Afraid” is written under a painting of St. John Paul II which hangs as one of two backdrops for the outdoor altar. Folding chairs are spaced six feet apart, though families can bring their own and sit together in a group. When it comes to Holy Communion, there are tape markings on the pavement to show where to stand to keep distant. Priests have disinfectants nearby, used especially during Communion in case they feel they might have been contaminated by touching someone. Everyone wears masks. The tent over the congregation keeps things comfortable but still outdoors. It is fully a group effort with volunteers wiping down between Masses. Many parishioners even bring garden kneeling pads.
The other painting is of St Junipero Serra, who founded the California missions – one every 20 miles, the distance of a day’s walk. Under this painting is Fr Serra’s personal motto, “Siempre Adelante” (“Always Forward”). The painting is by a parishioner, Nick, who told me: “The priests really want to serve us and be there with the sacraments. They are modelling a strong faith and belief in the necessity of receiving the sacraments frequently.”