After a year of livestreaming, Catholics eager to return for Holy Week liturgies

Members of the congregation pray during Palm Sunday Mass on March 28 at St. Mary Parish in Royal Oak. Parishioners across the Archdiocese of Detroit say they’ve appreciated the availability of livestream liturgies, but many are hungering for a return to the Eucharist — especially during Holy Week. (Daniel Meloy | Detroit Catholic)

Desire for the Eucharist, community and tradition is strong across archdiocese, even if some aren’t comfortable returning just yet

LAKE ORION — When Catholic churches in the Archdiocese of Detroit closed last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Christina Gardner created a special place in the basement TV room for her family to watch Mass. She gathered religious art and relics from around the house for their in-home sanctuary to set the space apart. 

That first Sunday in March 2020, Gardner, her husband and their six children, ages 16 months to 14 years, got dressed up as they normally would and livestreamed Mass for the first time. 

“At first it was a new thing and we were really focused, but after a while, it became harder,” Gardner said. “The younger kids would wander away to play with toys, and my husband and I would be distracted trying to direct their attention to the Mass on TV.  It just wasn’t a substitute for being there. Even in our regularly practicing family, we could feel it was a slippery slope.”

When churches re-opened in May, the Gardner family returned to public Masses even though one of their daughters is asthma-prone.

The Gardner family participates in a livestream Mass with Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron from their home in Lake Orion on Easter Sunday in 2020. Christina Gardner decorated the space with red cloth and palms. (Courtesy photo)

“Once we had the option again, we felt like Mass had to be a priority for us even if it’s outside our comfort zone,” Gardner said. “We weren’t going anywhere else at that point to be on the safe side with our daughter.”

As was the case with many Catholics returning to Mass, the Gardners wondered about safety protocols at churches. At first, they went to Mass at St. Mary of Redford in Detroit because of the church’s large size. In the summer, they returned to their own parish, St. Joseph in Lake Orion, and have been attending there ever since.

Slowly but surely, Mass is starting to feel like old times for Gardner and her family. She is a cantor at St. Joseph and now sings behind a plexiglass shield. Her boys have begun altar serving again.

On Good Friday in 2020, the Gardner family venerates a wooden cross in their home as churches were closed because of the pandemic. The family belongs to St. Joseph Parish in Lake Orion. (Courtesy photo)

“Being back feels right. We can make a spiritual communion, but there’s no replacement for the sacrament,” Gardner said. “Not being able to attend Mass makes you appreciate being able to go, especially when you think about the people all over the world who can’t attend.”

As parishes across the Archdiocese of Detroit prepare to celebrate Holy Week, many are still requiring registrations and limiting capacity. But the desire for the Eucharist is strong even among households who are still taking a cautious approach to the pandemic.

Being without the Eucharist ‘the loneliest time’

Olivia McCarthy and her family have also gained a new appreciation for the Mass. McCarthy is the mother of three children, ages 2, 5 and 7. She is expecting her fourth in April.

“I have a special devotion to the Eucharist, and when churches shut down, it was the loneliest time for me not to receive the source and summit of my faith,” McCarthy said. “It’s our family culture to attend Mass.” 

Once churches opened their doors again, McCarthy and her family ran the gamut of Mass experiences — livestreaming at home, parking lot Masses, and in-person. She received the Eucharist for the first time in months on her birthday in May, during a parking lot Mass at her parish, St. Anastasia in Troy. 

The parish still affords parishioners and guests the opportunity to livestream Mass in their cars, and then receive the Eucharist at the front doors of the church during Communion. 

Fr. Marc Gawronski, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Grosse Ile, celebrates an outdoor Mass for members of the parish in September 2020. The parish continues to offer Communion to those who watch livestream Masses from their cars in the parking lot, and plans to re-introduce outdoor Masses this spring. (Courtesy of Sacred Heart Parish)

In addition to her COVID-19 safety concerns due to her pregnancy, McCarthy’s father is immunocompromised as he undergoes treatment for pancreatic cancer. But returning to Mass was not a question for McCarthy and her husband, especially as their oldest daughter prepares for her first Holy Communion in June.

When case numbers for COVID-19 were high in their area, McCarthy’s husband took the older two girls to Mass while she stayed home with their 2-year-old for the livestream. She appreciated his willingness to lead the family during a challenging time, and for showing their daughters that Mass is a priority.

“Watching Mass is totally different than being in-person,” McCarthy said. “We’ve had a lot of challenges navigating the balance of what’s practical and safe while still teaching our daughter about the beauty and truth of Mass. Now as I’m getting close to my due date, I’m so grateful for the precautions our parish has taken.”

McCarthy felt like she was “going home” when she walked through the doors of her church again for her family’s return to Mass. 

Cautiously returning to the sacraments

Fr. Derik Peterman is an associate pastor at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Farmington. He was ordained in 2019 and experienced his first Lenten season, the Easter Triduum and Easter Sunday during the church closure. 

“The biggest sense I get from those who have been coming back for the first time is a sense of homecoming, a sense of relief,” Fr. Peterman said. “It’s really a feeling of, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be and where I’m home.’”

A lector prays at St. Augustine and St. Monica Parish in Detroit on Palm Sunday, March 28. For many Catholics, the return to in-person Masses has been a welcome homecoming. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

At Sacred Heart Parish in Grosse Ile, Mass is a top priority for 74-year-old Gregg Zuccker. For now though, he is watching Mass remotely and hopes to return to in-person Mass for Easter. One of Zuccker’s close friends died recently of COVID-19. 

“Once that happens — once you lose someone — it’s not just a number anymore. It makes you extra cautious,” Zuccker said. 

While Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron reinstituted the obligation for most Catholics to return to Sunday Mass, a dispensation remains for those whose health would be significantly impacted should they contract COVID-19, including those in higher age groups. 

As the worship chairman for Sacred Heart’s parish council, Zuccker remains involved at church, often setting up for Masses before going home to watch the livestream with his wife. He is proud of his parish for the many ways they’ve been able to accommodate and minister to parishioners. Sacred Heart installed a large monitor in a gathering space to allow for more social distancing and made the parish hall available for overflow. 

Sacred Heart began offering a parking lot Mass last summer, which drew more than 100 people each week. Using a temporary outdoor altar, pastor Fr. Marc Gawronski offered the Saturday vigil Mass while people sat in their cars or in lawn chairs. 

Fr. Marc Gawronski celebrates an outdoor Mass in September 2020 at Sacred Heart Parish in Grosse Ile. The parish is expanding its seating for Holy Week and Easter services, including an auxiliary space for overflow. (Courtesy of Sacred Heart Parish)

When the weather turned cold, the Mass moved back inside the church, but people could still livestream from the parking lot and receive the Eucharist. Zuccker has seen cars parked in the church lot for Mass during the winter while it was snowing. The parish plans to bring back parking lot Masses this spring.

Volunteers at Sacred Heart now bring the Eucharist to a larger number of shut ins, and Fr. Gawronski and Zuccker have received thank-you notes from those who’ve attended parking lot Masses or livestreamed from home.  

“They know they haven’t been forgotten,” Zuccker said. “This situation has really allowed us to increase in understanding and compassion. Did we have shut-ins before this? Yes. But now they have a chance to see the Mass happening inside their own parish, and we’ll continue doing that for those who might need it.”

Getting through the year hasn’t been easy for Zuccker, but he sees the powerful impact it has had on his own faith and how it brought his parish together.

“The pandemic has proven that our Catholic Church hasn’t wavered. If anything, it’s stronger,” Zuccker said. “This has stripped us down to the teachings of our Church and allowed us to see that they’re still meaningful. Maybe it was a time-out to ask ourselves what the basics are and to ask ourselves, ‘Why do I go to Mass? Do I go because I have to, or because it really means something to me?’”