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Rev. John E. Unsworth, right, pastor of St. Bernard Church in North Kingstown, and Angelo Giacchi, the church’s lay pastoral assistant, apply social-distancing decals to the floor on May 29 in preparation for the church’s first Mass since state government ordered places of worship throughout the state to suspend services.

More churches in South County this Sunday plan to re-start gathering together even while others will remain shuttered amid tradeoffs between religious succor and the threat of coronavirus infections.

The Rev. Fred Evenson at Peace Dale Congregational said services would remain online only through “at least through the end of summer” because “we simply cannot ensure the safety of our congregations due to the health risk the virus poses.”

He was joined in waiting longer before opening by Rev. Rob Travis as Wakefield’s Episcopal Church of the Ascension and St. John the Divine in Saunderstown.

On the other end of that spectrum is the Rev. John Unsworth at St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church in North Kingstown. He resumed services at his church Sunday, but with average attendance at four masses at about 45 even though social distancing allowed more.

“We were prepared for many more than who came. I think what that tells us is that many people are not comfortable coming back yet,” said the priest who has been pastor for 10 years and is leaving at the end of the month.

However, not far away in Narragansett, the Rev. Marcel Taillon, pastor of St. Thomas More Parish, including St. Veronica Chapel, reported significant numbers attending Mass and allowed under current guidelines in the chapel.

It is not a one-size-fits-all situation with reopening churches as some struggle with dilemmas about gatherings for in-demand religious observances while clergy don’t want to create coronavirus hot spots for the contagious disease. For still others, they and their parishioners feel safe with the current precautions.

Difference Circumstances

“Every parish and every pastor have different circumstances,” said the technology savvy Taillon, who before the pandemic had recorded services using a venue that spans generations of parishioners united in a preference for television and now online recordings.

He has expanded that effort a la carte — akin to booking a restaurant reservation — to an online Mass reservation system to track individual attendees, keep social distancing and follow other church and state policies that limit the numbers who can attend and require contact tracing.

Roman Catholic churches are aiming in some way to meet Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin’s desire for an immediate re-opening of Catholic churches in some limited fashion.

“I think our video and reservations system gave some confidence to come,” Taillon pointed out  and added that the main church, St. Thomas More, remains closed, while the chapel and nearby hall are being used for services.

“Other parishes with two churches opened both while we did not,” he said about the unique configurations pastors are exploring.

Taillon said about his first services in months with parishioners, “It was consoling and comforting to see some of the parishioners we all miss so much. It was moving to give them the sacred host to be sure. Many of them were emotional when they entered and during the Masses.”

This Sunday, June 7, a week after this initial opening of some churches a week ago, the First Baptist Church of Narragansett and the United Methodist Church in North Kingstown plan to re-start their weekly services, their pastors said.

The Rev. Caleb Morgan from First Baptist Church said he will also continue to livestream services, as other churches similarly plan to do, because attendance is limited to smaller numbers — 25 percent of normal capacity.

“We thought the governmental guidance was still a bit hazy…and holding off for the additional week gave us the needed time to plan, obtain masks and materials, redesign our seating arrangements, and survey the church (members) to get a sense for their level of comfortability and expectations for a return to the building,” he said.

Rev. Sharon Baker at United Methodist said, “We are limited to 42 in the sanctuary. We will count as people come in. We’ll have chairs in the narthex for any overflow. I’m very excited to see my church family, but I will miss the hugs,” she said.

Travis, though, from Church of the Ascension said, “While we are aware that some churches will be permitted to resume in-person worship, we will not be doing so for a while.”

“Our Bishop has strongly urged us to go more slowly, particularly because of the nature of this droplet and aerosol spread virus and the way that indoor services with projected voices and singing seem to be the highest risk environments for its spread,” he said.

Many members of the congregation are in the high-risk category and would not be able to attend services even if they were offered for limited numbers to attend in the church, he added.

Preparing the Church

The Roman Catholic priests who did resume services last week reported that much planning went into opening with limited numbers of people allowed, social distancing required in the church, mandatory face mask wearing and arrangements for giving those attending Communion without posing significant health risk from the virus.

“The way we did it was labor intensive, but we didn’t want too many people to show up if we left it loose,” said Taillon, noting he had also had a committee of parishioners assist him.

Unsworth said that he and an assistant did much of the work preparing for re-opening his church. His work included hunting around for hand sanitizer, face masks if needed by people without them, and other supplies.

“This is something I’ve never seen before or expected. Taking care of people’s safety here comes first,” he said.

Afterwards on Sunday following his masses, Unsworth said, “It’s so good to have people praying with me again. It moved me and it is just something I haven’t had in weeks. That’s what being a priest is all about.”

For those going to church the sentiments were similar.

Frank Hall, a summer resident in Narragansett who attends Mass at St. Veronica’s Chapel, said returning to church in person was very fulfilling.

“It feels great to be able to go back. It felt like a hole in our lives when we weren’t able to go,” he said.

Trish and Ted Garragy of North Kingstown also attended services on Sunday at St. Veronica’s. She accented Hall’s remarks that planning for the return was done with safety in mind as well as religious observance.

“It ran so smoothly. It wasn’t creepy at all. I felt safer than in a supermarket,” said Trish Garragy, adding, “I think Disneyland should take notes from this.”

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