For an associate pastor at St. Robert Bellarmine Church in Omaha, a welcome sound helped ease him back into Masses in front of the congregation.
He heard a baby cry.
“He told me that was good to hear,’’ the Rev. Steven Stillmunks said. “It gave him a feeling that things were starting to get back to normal.’’
Stillmunks, the pastor at St. Robert for almost nine years, is one of the priests dealing with a range of issues as churches begin to reopen after closing because of coronavirus concerns. According to a World-Herald sampling last week, Catholic churches appear to be the most proactive about inviting parishioners back, while other denominations are taking a more cautious approach.
Of the 85 churches contacted by The World-Herald, 20 had opened by this weekend. These numbers could be characterized as a snapshot, not a statistically valid sample.
Thirteen others have set opening dates at least tentatively, bringing the total to 33 that plan to be open by the end of June. That’s still fewer than 2 out of 5 churches contacted.
To some, even a return next month seems overly ambitious.
“I feel that it’s absolutely not safe for churches to be opening again,’’ the Rev. Eric Elnes said. “It boggles my mind that this is happening.’’
Elnes, the senior minister at Countryside Community Church, is especially sensitive to the topic. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 in mid-March shortly after returning from a trip to Spain.
“I experienced a lot of feelings of anxiety and guilt,’’ he said. “I wrote a letter of apology to our congregation.’’
Elnes said his church, part of the Tri-Faith Initiative, has no immediate plan to bring that congregation back.
“We’re not going to discuss it until June 18,’’ he said. “I can see us not reopening until the fall or maybe even later.’’
The Tri-Faith Initiative is a cohort of three different religions and prayer spaces on one campus. It also includes Temple Israel and the American Muslim Institute.
Because of his diagnosis, Elnes and 30 members of the Tri-Faith staff were placed under a two-week quarantine. He said it’s that experience that has him wary about a return to on-site services instead of holding them online — something most churches already have been doing.
“Nobody contracted the virus because of me, but that was extremely frightening,’’ he said. “I think the whole experience was a wake-up call for our community to take this seriously.’’
Only two of the churches in The World-Herald sample have not arranged some sort of online services the past few months.
Elnes said he understands the desire for churchgoers to seek a return to life the way it was before COVID-19.
“Faith is essential, and I know a lot of people feel as though they need to get together and worship in a big group,’’ he said. “But for 1,900 of the last 2,000 years of Christian history, we haven’t gathered like that.’’
Catholic churches have been the most likely to reopen. Of the 16 contacted — which represents 19% of the overall group — they represented 55% of the open churches. By the end of June, nearly all (15 of 16) of the Catholic churches in the sample will be open. The exception is Sacred Heart in northeast Omaha.
Guidelines for the reopening of Catholic churches are addressed on the Omaha Archdiocese website. The opening statement says Archbishop George Lucas has been in frequent contact with the pastors and priests of the archdiocese and is offering them support in their preparations to welcome the faithful back.
At St. Robert, those faithful already have returned. Stillmunks, who has been a priest for 44 years, said the parish is better for it.
“My job is to lead people back to a sense of normalcy,’’ he said. “I’m happy that parishioners have been watching our Masses online, but many still have a strong desire to come back to church.’’
The Rev. Mike Grewe, the vicar general of the Omaha Archdiocese and the pastor at St. Cecilia Cathedral, said he has one such 90-year-old parishioner.
“That person told me that they hadn’t missed Mass since 1946,’’ he said. “There are a lot of people like that who find comfort in being here.’’
Grewe said one lasting impact of the coronavirus is that people have an added sense of their own spiritual identity.
“It created so much anxiety and a feeling of helplessness, something that we’ve never experienced,’’ he said. “The isolation that’s been created is a big reason why many of our parishioners have been itching to come back.’’
With Gov. Pete Ricketts’ original order in place of no more than 10 people at gatherings, most churches turned to online solutions. Some say those livestreamed services have produced an unexpected benefit.
“Our attendance has actually been higher,’’ Elnes said. “I think a lot of churches are realizing that they can reach more people this way, not just here in Omaha but all across the nation.’’
The COVID-19 restrictions also have forced church leaders to become more creative while trying to reach their congregations. At Maplewood United Methodist Church, communion has been offered in a symbolic way to the homebound through the online Zoom platform.
“It was a way for our people to feel connected,’’ the Rev. Bethann Black said. “Our bishop provided the model for us, and we felt it was something that we wanted to do.’’
Black said she feels a strong connection to her 125-member congregation, but added she isn’t quite comfortable enough yet to invite them back for live services.
“The reason I’m dragging my feet is that it isn’t 100% safe,’’ she said. “I think we’ll reassess next month, but July seems to make more sense.”
Marty Boeschling, co-lead pastor with his wife, Jael, at Community Covenant Church in Millard, said COVID-19 has forced all church leaders to rethink how they care for their congregations.
“I think good things can actually come of this, especially through our digital presence,’’ he said. “We’re the little church on Q Street but now we’re reaching out much farther.’’
His church remains closed to live services and he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.
“About half of our congregation is ready to come back and half aren’t,’’ he said. “I just don’t see us returning to anything near normal right now.’’
He said even the simple things, such as canceling the usual order from the bakery for doughnuts after services, has made him stop and think.
“We always want to create a comfortable atmosphere, and I don’t know how we’re going to do that,’’ he said. “People love to get together and chat before and after services, and that’s not a good thing right now.’’
Boeschling said another sign of the changing times is that communion at his church is prepackaged for when it can be dispensed.
“We’re trying to do everything to diminish the possibility of passing germs,’’ he said. “It’s certainly more sterile. But it’s allowed us to continue doing it.’’
The Rev. Damian Zuerlein, who ministers at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, said he didn’t know if certain Mass traditions — the sharing of sacramental wine at Communion and the sign of peace handshake — will ever come back.
“Without a vaccine, I don’t know how they can,’’ he said. “This is just something else that we don’t know about the future.’’
Zuerlein said it’s been difficult enough trying to continue with services such as baptisms and funerals.
“When we had a limit of 10 people gathering, it was extremely tough,’’ he said. “One woman passed away and she had eight kids, so they were the only ones who could attend.’’
Connecting with the most isolated church members or those who have lost income because of the coronavirus seems to be a priority for the leaders of every religious denomination.
“We’re mindful of the elderly, especially if they don’t have any other family members around here,’’ Stillmunks said. “The self- employed also have been impacted big-time, and we’ve worked to get them gift cards to try and help.’’
Zuerlein said it’s been gratifying to see his congregation stepping up its donations to the St. Vincent de Paul Society to assist the needy. He added that contributions to the church, usually collected at offertory during live Masses, have remained constant.
“These are challenging times for everyone,’’ he said. “If anything positive comes of this, I hope that it will be a deeper spirituality for us all.’’
The Catholic churches that have reopened are taking several precautions to try to keep congregations safe. Seating in only every other pew is the rule at most, hand sanitizer is readily available and masks are encouraged.
Still, Elnes — the minister treated for COVID-19 — wonders if any restrictions will provide a completely safe environment.
“All I had was a mild cough and it turned out to be something much more,’’ he said. “It stinks because I miss my congregation, but I just want to be as cautious as possible.’’
Grewe said it’s important for people to maintain a positive attitude despite the uncertain future.
“We’re definitely going to make it through this, but we just have to take it one day at a time,’’ he said. “We know that God will provide, and we need to put our trust in Him.’’