Through 10 weeks without Masses, local priests have found creative ways to connect, but nothing beats a live congregation, they say

GROSSE POINTE PARK — The churches are empty, but pastors still have a flock to look after.

Tuesday’s announcement of the resumption of public Masses as early as May 19 ends a 10-week suspension during which pastors were still busy ministering to their flocks, albeit in new and creative ways.

Fr. Andrew Kowalczyk, CSMA, is one of several pastors who have livestreamed Masses, rosaries and Divine Mercy devotions, including a Wednesday morning school Mass with students from the parish school.

“It puts it all into perspective,” Fr. Kowalcyzk, pastor of St. Clare of Montefalco Parish in Grosse Pointe Park, told Detroit Catholic. “This virus has taken away our ability to touch people at the hospital, to pray for those who are sick and journey with the dying; it’s really tough. But when we return, we’re going to revive our community life, making sure we gather not only for social support, but spiritual support as well.”

Archbishop Vigneron has allowed parishes to resume public Masses on a limited basis with strict safety guidelines as soon as next week, with all parishes resuming public liturgies by May 29.

Fr. Andrew Kowalczyk, CSMA, bakes chocolate chip cookies in the rectory kitchen at St. Clare of Montefalco Parish. Fr. Kowalcyzk is among pastors who have continued their parishes’ outreach in creative ways during the shutdown. (Facebook photo)

During the shutdown, Fr. Kowalczyk has made it a point to keep his parishioners close, posting photos of them on the rectory chapel walls and making regular phone calls to check in.

The online “school Mass” has featured Zoom conferences with student lectors and choir singers, just like at the parish’s normal Wednesday school Masses.

“It’s important for the students to study and learn when they are away from school, but also so they don’t forget how to pray and listen, to work for God,” Fr. Kowalczyk said. “We thought we should stay connected with our students while they are at home, having an opportunity to pray with each other and listen to each other.”

Fr. Charles Altermatt, pastor of St. Alfred Parish in Taylor, also asked parishioners to send in photos for him post on their usual pew spots during Mass — one way of making the church feel less empty.

“I saw something on Facebook of someplace over in Italy, a priest posting really nice big portraits, probably 11x13 in color, but that’s beyond my range,” Fr. Altermatt said. “I got one of the staff to send out a note, and I mentioned it on the livestream Masses. We’ve got about 72 pictures up right now.”

Fr. Charles Altermatt, pastor of St. Alfred Parish in Taylor, celebrates a remote May crowning with his parishioners via livestream.  

Online communication has become essential for pastors to keep in touch with their flocks during the shutdown, something that’s likely to continue despite Masses being reinstated.

At St. Peter Parish in Mt. Clemens, Fr. Michael Cooney has been taping his version of “fireside chats” from the rectory, titled “Tales from the La-Z-Boy,” a theme he often uses in his homilies.

“I’ve been here for 30 years now, and when I preach, I say, ‘When I sit in my La-Z-Boy in the room, I have a chat with the Big Guy,’” Fr. Cooney explained. “Then I use a story every week to relate in the homily. During the talk, I’m in a grey sweater, like Mr. Rogers was always in a red sweater.”

Fr. Cooney discusses topics such as the news, faith, and how to find God during difficult times. His talks are supplemented by Fr. Dale Redwanski, a senior priest in residence at St. Peter who records his own talks, titled “From Kitchen to Kitchen.”

Despite the creative outreach, no livestream Mass or quick phone call can substitute for seeing parishioners face to face, Fr. Cooney said.

Fr. Michael Cooney, pastor of St. Peter Parish in Mt. Clemens, offers one of his “Tales from the La-Z-Boy,” a Mr. Rodgers-like effort to keep in touch with his parishioners while Mass was suspended. (Courtesy of St. Peter Parish)  

“I miss my people; they are my family,” Fr. Cooney said. “Over 30 years, this parish has grown very close together. We’ve celebrated a lot of great things like baptisms and weddings, and we’ve celebrated sad things like funerals and loved ones being buried. We’re truly a family.”

Social distancing has taken a toll on parishioners who feel closed off from the sacraments, but also on the priests who find joy in providing them, a toll that will begin to ease with the resumption of some form of normalcy.

“I’ve only had two funerals where I had to go to the cemetery (since the shutdown). It’s really, really tough on the family, not being able to celebrate with the parish community, and that’s really tough on me,” Fr. Kowalczyk said. “We’ve come together as parish leaders and realized we’ve learned just how important community life is. We look forward to continuing that — in whatever form that may be.”