Snow drifted onto the empty parking lot at Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Cloquet. A small shoveled path paved the way to the front doors. Inside, the ornately designed ceiling rose to the heavens; stained glass in red, blue and green lined the walls. At center: rows upon rows of empty pews.
“To be here when it’s so quiet is kind of strange,” said Father Justin Fish, pastor at Queen of Peace, last Sunday, March 22.
Last week, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Duluth suspended public Mass through April 20 as a health measure to stem the spread of COVID-19.
The unprecedented move, in line with orders from Gov. Tim Walz and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has left many parishioners shocked and sad, local priests said.
Unless conditions change drastically, there will be no in-person Easter services or Holy Week celebrations.
Marie Kayser was heartbroken when she heard the news.
She attends Mass two to three times a week, and receiving Jesus in the Eucharist has been “a source of strength and comfort, especially during the most difficult times,” she said by email. “I am so sad about the closure, but there is an understanding of why it needs to be done.”
“The Eucharist of Mass is the center of our faith. Everything we do revolves around that,” Fish said.
“We’re a religion that has an obligation to Sunday Mass,” said Father Richard Kunst of St. James Catholic Church in West Duluth. They’ve been granted a dispensation because of the new coronavirus, but to suspend Mass “is a big deal on a sacramental, spiritual level,” Kunst said.
“Everybody is walking around with a deer-in-headlights look," he said. “(But) there’s also a real sense of hope, and we’re going to get through this, and God’s in charge.”
St. James Catholic Church’s last public Mass was the feast of St. Joseph, patron saint of universal church. Joseph was someone entrusted with caring for Jesus, Kunst said.
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In the empty sanctuary last week, Fish lit two candles with matches, igniting a rich sulfur dioxide smell in the air. On the altar underneath a large painting of the Virgin Mary sat a Roman Missal, a chalice, a circular wafer of sacramental bread.
In a rose-colored vestment, Fish explained the color is worn twice a year — halfway through advent and halfway through Lent on Laetare Sunday — to mark a time to rejoice.
He lifted the wafer to Mary, paused, placed it down and knelt before lifting the pall off the chalice.
Fish will celebrate the liturgies alone, and parishioners can join in communion and in spirit from home, he said. Still, Mass isn’t supposed to be celebrated privately. There’s a dialogue; there’s greetings of the people; there’s interaction. This is a daily part of parishioners’ “life of faith,” and it’s one Fish looks forward to.
“It’s a chance to start the day together, to pray together,” he said.
For Loran Wappes of Cloquet, Sunday Mass is a family affair.
“My 96-year-old mother is there, my sisters, other sister, her daughter and my wife and I, my daughter and her husband, their three kids, we take up an entire pew,” Wappes said.
For now, his family is sticking to their Lenten rituals and obligations, and they’re watching Mass on TV. Still: “To not do our worshiping when we need it the most is very difficult,” he said.
“We’re meant to be connected in person, especially in Christianity,” said Father Mike Schmitz, the Newman Catholic Campus Ministries chaplain at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Schmitz has had a weekly podcast, Homily Series, since 2007, and he is live-streaming Mass.
He anticipates this isolation from church will go one of two ways: people will feel distant from God and choose to stay distant, or there will be a deepening faith that reveals: “God is actually present in my living room,” he said. “If you can’t pray in your bedroom, you can’t pray in the chapel … (God) is where you are right now.”
It’s interesting this is happening during Lent, a time when students and parishioners alike are already reflecting on how to get closer to God through almsgiving and prayer. Schmitz said that can all still apply today.
“How are you going to serve your family because you’re quarantined together?" he said. "How are you going to give in such a way that you keep on growing in a place where you’re looking like and loving Jesus?”
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Talking with priests and pastors of other denominations, there’s a real concern that if people aren’t present on Sunday, the missed opportunity to give to the collection plate may have lasting effects, Fish said.
On the practical level, suspended Mass hits parishes very, very hard, Kunst said. “From my standpoint, I feel like I'm trying to keep the Titanic afloat.
“We survive based on the income of the plate, and St. James, we do not have a reserve account of money or savings.”
The priests said there are many resources, such as Catholic radio station 88.1 FM and EWTN Global Catholic Television. While many churches, like St. James, are offering a live stream of Sunday Mass, Fish won’t be one of them. “I think you’d rather watch the pope,” he said.
Kayser said she will continue to watch daily Mass on TV and receive spiritual communion.
And, she has seen hopeful observations on social media: Priests and pastors adding online services and words of encouragement. People are reaching out, and prayers are being said for people around the world.
“We have to continually focus on the example of Christ’s love he has for us, in order to continue to be his love for one another,” Kayser said.