Spurred by necessity, pastors lean on tech-savvy parishioners to upgrade equipment, digital tools they say will last long after COVID-19 is gone

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ERIE — It’s Wednesday night at St. Joseph, a rural parish in Erie that is home to about 600 families. The webcam is on, and Fr. Mark Prill is introducing his guest to viewers watching from home. A year ago, Fr. Prill never would have imagined he’d be hosting a weekly livestream, aptly named “Mark My Words.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, St. Joseph not only lacked technology such as cameras and speakers; the parish didn’t even have Wi-Fi in the church. 

“It was something I planned to do in the future, but then the future started on March 15,” Fr. Prill, pastor of St. Joseph, told Detroit Catholic.

On March 13, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron suspended public Masses in the Archdiocese of Detroit, and two days later, Fr. Prill was livestreaming Mass for the first time on Facebook, using a parishioner’s 7-year-old smartphone. 

St. Joseph was one of the first parishes in the archdiocese to offer a livestream Mass, and has done so every Sunday since. That first weekend, St. Joseph’s Mass reached 4,000 people. Fr. Prill has heard from viewers who tuned in from several states, as well as from Ireland and Canada. Some donated money to help offset the cost of new audio/visual equipment.

Fr. Mark Prill celebrates Mass at St. Joseph Parish in Erie as a parishioner records and broadcasts it to Facebook. Before the pandemic began, St. Joseph not only didn’t have the ability to livestream; it didn’t even have WiFi in the church. (Courtesy of St. Joseph Parish)

According to Tyler O’Brien, St. Joseph’s director of religious education, the parish went from that older-model cellphone to a hard-wired laptop connected to 300 feet of ethernet cable running from the parish school’s library into the church. Now, the parish uses a laptop that operates off the new church Wi-Fi with a webcam mounted in the choir loft. Not long ago, St. Joseph added a new microphone system and camera that will allow them to zoom in while recording.

“EWTN, watch out!” Fr. Prill said. 

In addition to Masses, the parish livestreamed a Eucharistic procession on Divine Mercy Sunday and a May crowning this spring. Each week, St. Joseph also streams the Our Lady of Perpetual Help devotion on Tuesdays, a rosary on Thursdays, and daily Mass on Tuesday through Saturday.

The “Mark My Words” segment airs every Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. on the parish’s Facebook page. Fr. Prill typically invites a parishioner or staff member to join him for conversation about what’s happening at the parish or to share personal testimony. Recently, he answered questions from viewers who posted on the Facebook feed.

“I try to make it fun and informative in a more relaxed environment. We can talk about people’s journeys. We can laugh,” Fr. Prill said. “It’s the type of conversation we’d have if I were at someone’s house for dinner.”

While St. Joseph began with no technology back in March, St. Isidore Parish in Macomb was on the other end of the technology spectrum. 

Clergy celebrate Mass at St. Isidore Parish in Macomb as a camera pans past the sanctuary. St. Isidore was ahead of the game technology-wise before the pandemic began, but has used the opportunity to perfect its digital platforms. (Courtesy of St. Isidore Parish)

Over the past several years, the parish has focused on technology to engage with parishioners and evangelize those in the area who might be looking for a church home. For Lent this year, St. Isidore’s evangelization team produced the Lenten Video Project, a series with daily reflections that reached more than 1,000 subscribers. 

“We have been fortunate to have the resources in existence to really lean on our digital outreach platforms,” said Matt Kush, St. Isidore’s music and creative director.

Instead of livestreaming Masses, St. Isidore prerecorded the Mass each week and posted it Sunday morning.

“The main reason behind this was to offer the best immersive experience using the premium recording and editing capabilities at our disposal,” Kush said. “Many parishioners have not only thanked us for being ready with the broadcast Mass option on week one, but have also expressed appreciation for the experience, which they said made it feel like they were right there.”

St. Isidore’s pastor, Fr. Ron Victor, records daily video homilies that are posted to the parish website, YouTube and social media channels. St. Isidore also hosts live digital concerts. 

At the Church of the Holy Family in Novi, Fr. Bob LaCroix sees the pandemic as an opportunity to reach out to both parishioners and non-parishioners. Even when the parish doors were closed, Holy Family added parishioners to its roster and new events weekly. 

Michael Precht, a parishioner and volunteer at St. Joseph Parish in Erie, records the Mass from the choir loft. The parish broadcasts Mass six days a week, in addition to rosaries, devotions and a special weekly “talk show” with the parish’s pastor, Fr. Mark Prill. (Courtesy of St. Joseph Parish)

The parish livestreams Sunday Masses in English and Spanish, men’s group meetings, praise and worship nights, and funeral Masses. Approximately 25-30 small groups and six intercession teams meet regularly on Zoom. This fall, Holy Family will offer the Alpha series and religious education both in person and online.

“We’re here to reach people for Christ. We want to use every tool at our disposal,” Fr. LaCroix said. “I think God wants us to be better stewards of technology. We have to be open to learning new things, to trying new things. Young people aren’t going to read bulletins. Technology is going to be essential to our mission moving forward. I think we’re just beginning to understand the power with which God can use it.”

Fr. LaCroix believes in a bottom-up versus top-down approach to his parish. Recently, when a parishioner wanted to make the men’s ministry meeting available in person and on Zoom, Fr. LaCroix said yes. When the idea of livestreaming praise and worship nights was brought to him by the music director, he said yes. And when a parishioner asked to offer the Alpha program — already in English in Spanish — in Portuguese, he said yes. 

“The best stuff happens when the Holy Spirit anoints people and we don’t get in the way,” Fr. LaCroix said. “It has everything to do with spiritual renewal — to have an environment for people to encounter Christ.”

An earlier version of this story misidentified the volunteer livestreaming St. Joseph’s Mass in a photo caption.