Parishioners of St. Mark Catholic Church in Highlands Ranch lined up for Mass the weekend of May 16 for the first time in months.
They wore masks, stood significantly spaced apart and prepared for an unusual service amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The church hosted four services over the weekend, each limited to 80 people, all of whom were required to register beforehand.
As they arrived, they were taken through propped-open doors to their assigned sections of the church, pre-planned to allow for substantial spacing between family units and groups of 10.
“We’re happy to be back,” some churchgoers said as they entered the building.
However, the return to in-person worship did not come off without a hitch. The weekend services were temporarily canceled the Friday before they were set to take place after Tri-County Health Department was alerted that the services would allow 80 people, while the public health order only allowed for gatherings of 10 or fewer, according to an email from the Rev. Gregory Bierbaum to the congregation.
“Please know we have done everything to ensure that we would be following the appropriate safety measures, which have been thoroughly vetted by our Diocesan attorneys, who were in communication with the governor,” the email said.
After many people reached out to Tri-County on the church’s behalf, the two organizations were able to discuss an apporpriate plan to move forward with the service, said Mellissa Sager with the health department. Soon after, the parish announced the Masses would resume as planned.
“It did work out and they’re operating safely,” Sager said about St. Mark. “From what we are seeing, these places of worship are focused on having a thorough plan to protect folks.”
On Sunday, May 17, a church staff member said they’ve received some hostile backlash from the community as a result of reopening.
The Douglas County commissioners, in coordination with Tri-County, submitted a variance request May 18 to the state asking to be allowed to reopen gyms, places of worship and restaurants under specific guidelines. A response was expected within a week of submission. Governor Jared Polis was also expected to soon release a new set of procedures for the state’s places of worship.
The variance requests that county churches be allowed to open with 50% capacity, Sager said. The health department is also hoping to allow attendees to remove face masks once sitting inside the building and away from other people, she said.
“We’re looking at these flexibilities so folks know we are exercising balance as well. We don’t want to be overburdensome,” Sager said. “If it’s impractical, people may not want to do it at all.”
St. Mark and other Catholic parishes in Douglas County are part of the Diocese of Colorado Springs, which announced May 13 that restricted Masses would be allowed. The Archdiocese of Denver made the same announcement May 6.
“This was a decision that has taken a lot of deliberation and study,” said Veronica Ambuul, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Colorado Springs. “It definitely was something that the bishop takes very seriously after consulting with a number of different people.”
The decision was made in part after a national Catholic organization released a detailed guideline about how parishes could safely reopen, Ambuul said. The procedures include things like emptying all shared holy water dispensers, restricting the numbers of people inside the buildings, removing reusable worship books, disallowing any physical contact between parishioners and not giving out wine as part of the sacrament of Communion. The Eucharist, or bread, was still distributed for those interested. The parishes also discourage any congregating before or after the service.
“Bishop Sheridan has left it up to pastors to determine if they can offer Masses and still comply with their local health department,” Ambuul said.
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