Pews Lightly Filled in Diocese
Despite Bishop Malloy’s immediate dispensations for the ill, older and fearful parishioners, many opt to attend Masses.
By Pat Szpekowski, Observer Correspondent
March 19, 2020
DIOCESE—The first weekend, March 14 and 15, of the new coronavirus guidelines for Mass issued by Bishop David Malloy set the tone at churches around the diocese.
 
At weekend Masses, diocesan Catholics learned of the bishop’s decision last week to continue to hold Masses. 
 
Those at Mass who hadn’t yet heard also learned that Bishop Malloy had dispensed (excused) from attending Mass those with underlying health problems that make them more vulnerable to viruses, people 60 and older, and anyone fearful of exposure to COVID-19 corona virus.
 
They also learned diocesan schools would be closed and other diocesan and parish activities would be severely limited. (See more details inside this issue.)
 
At St. Catherine of Siena Parish in West Dundee, all four Masses were sparse amidst a somber air. At most, about a quarter of the usual faithful attended each Mass. 
 
“We are grateful for Bishop Malloy’s compassionate response for the Mass to continue during this crisis for those who want to be here,” said Father Matthew DeBlock, pastor. “We are mindful of the elderly and have deep concern for their health. I urge our parishioners to check on them, assist by bringing food, or helping them obtain their medication, if necessary.”
 
One surprising aspect of the weekend was who attended Mass at St. Catherine’s. 
 
“I spoke to people who came from Chicago, Schaumburg, Hoffman Estates and other communities for Mass here,” said Father DeBlock.  “They came because their own parishes within the Archdiocese of Chicago did not hold Mass and were closed.”
 
Members of the Men’s Music Ministry choir, who lead parishioners each week at the Sunday 11:30 a.m. Mass, understood the reasons why many people did not attend on this day as to minimize their exposure and risk. 
 
Bob Grant, a member of the Sunday 9:30 a.m. choir, joined the Men’s Ministry choir March 15 as his choir’s earlier performance was cancelled. 
 
“Our choir is primarily composed of senior members,” he said, “and our choir director made the decision on behalf of caution.”
 
It wasn’t a weekend they expected said Iwona Chrzastowski and Beth Fitzgerald, parents of children at St. Catherine of Siena School. They were at a fund-raising table after Mass. They took a few advance orders for a variety of flavored butter braids to help support the planned eighth-grade trip to Springfield. 
 
“We just can’t stop everything,” said Chrzastowski, “but I know we want to be safe and not jeopardize anyone at this time.”  
 
Added Fitzgerald, “Everyone is stressing out about the coronavirus and whether to come to Mass.  I understand that we shouldn’t come if we don’t feel well. 
 
“We have permission from our bishop to stay home for many reasons,” she continued. “I just couldn’t help but think about what Father John Gow said Saturday at Mass about not paying attention to attention to  ‘Catholic guilt.’ ”
 
Father Gow is a parochial vicar at St. Catherine of Siena.
 
In Rockford, Holy Family Parish’s 6:30 a.m. Mass is usually not filled, but there were a few less people in the pews on March 15.
 
One usher, Sergio Zamora, said his section of the church was down by about 10 people. He thinks Bishop Malloy’s directives were “different but nice. He considers the situation.” 
 
He added, “I think a lot of parishioners are accustomed (to the usual) and this will be different.”
 
In addition to directives in Bishop David Malloy’s letter to priests and their parishioners, Holy Family refrained from passing the basket at offertory time, opting instead for baskets placed at exits so people could drop their offerings there.
 
Frank Loduha admitted his view of the regulations was, “personally, I think it is a little bit overkill,” and he expressed concern that daily Mass might be cancelled.
 
Co Leber Mirguin considers that the bishop was “obviously, simply being proactive” at Masses. She works as a librarian at St. Rita School and says, “I think they’re proactive with the schools as well. I think they are trying to address this problem correctly.”
 
In his homily, Father Kenneth Wasilewski said that following the instructions from the bishop and civil leaders could be “a sign ultimately of our love of God and of our neighbor” and a matter of “I’m not putting (others) in danger.”
 
He encouraged everyone to take the coronavirus precautions seriously as a sign of the Christian love that Catholics profess.
 
The 5:30 Mass at St. Mary in Pecatonica is one of the most attended Masses of the three held at the parish west of Rockford each week. It is most popular with those 50 and older. The attendance on March 14 was about one-fourth of what it usually is. Parishioners come from Pecatonica, Seward, Winnebago and Ridott.
 
Sally Huggins of Winnebago was one of those present and said she was glad Bishop Malloy decided to keep the celebration of Mass, although she understands it is a difficult decision.
 
“I can deal with a lot but I’m not ready to give up church yet,” she said.
 
At St. Mary/St. Patrick Parish just south of the Wisconsin stateline, attendance was down at the 8:30 a.m. Mass March 15 in Durand. 
 
A group of women gathered at the back of the church after Mass to talk about how different things were from 1955 when 11 of  the 14 children of Keron and Anne Walsh of Durand suffered from mild to severe forms of polio.
 
Five of the children were hospitalized. The two oldest children, teenage brothers Dan and Ed, died.
 
One of the women recalled that the church was full and extra prayer sessions were scheduled.
 
On Sunday, they agreed, they were pleased that the bishop had continued to allow Masses.
 
By Tuesday, however, conditions had changed enough that Bishop Malloy decided it was time to suspend Masses until April 4.
 
Contributing to this story were editors Penny Wiegert, Amanda Hudson, Sharon Boehlefeld