For many area faithful, it has been months since they have been able to come together and worship in churches.
Because buildings are closed due to coronavirus concerns, parishioners have turned to technology, watching weekly services online or attending services in church parking lots or at drive-ins.
With Cambria and Somerset counties in the yellow phase, churches are beginning to implement procedures for reopening.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown has begun a phased reopening of churches following a complete closure of buildings on April 1.
Bishop Mark L. Bartchak announced parishes could reopen buildings for private prayer on May 16.
Seating restrictions that provide safe social distancing between individuals is required and masks must be worn at all times.
‘Abide by directives’
At this time, Mass and other sacraments will continue to be celebrated privately.
“I am requesting and urging that all of you, the faithful Catholic people of our diocese, will continue to abide by the directives in place to combat the spread of COVID-19,” Bartchak said.
“These directives include frequent hand washing, disinfecting, physical distancing, wearing a mask and abiding by limits on occupancy in places where people wish to gather.”
On Wednesday, Bartchak announced additional phases for reopening, including the reinstatement of the sacrament of Reconciliation beginning Saturday, the distribution of Holy Communion during private Masses starting on June 1 and resuming public Masses during the weekend of June 13-14.
“We rejoice at the progress being made, and we continue to pray for one another in the days ahead,” Bartchak said.
The Rev. William Rosenbaum, pastor of St. Clement Roman Catholic Church, 114 Lindberg Ave. in Upper Yoder Township, said the church is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily for individual prayer.
“I recruited some volunteers to be greeters and they’re outside the doors of the church,” he said. “Only one door is open, and they welcome people and remind them of needing to wear a mask.”
There is seating available for 25 people at one time who are 6 feet apart.
Rosenbaum said greeters are giving people a Post-it to place on their seats when they leave the church.
“Once people leave, they’ll go in and disinfect the area where people were sitting,” he said.
Prior to the church reopening for prayer, Rosenbaum posted a video message to the church’s website explaining how it would work.
“We want to make it a safe environment and we’ve done that the best that we can,” he said.
Rosenbaum said when St. Clement’s does celebrate Mass, it will be an important day for him and the parish.
“Some of this isolation has affected people,” he said. “So mentally, emotionally and spiritually knowing that you can go to church is what’s going to help people.
“When we start opening the church for regular services, whether it’s weekends or weekdays, it’s going to give an uplift to people.”
Holy Name Roman Catholic Church, 500 N. Julian St., Ebensburg, is offering private prayer from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.
“We have parts of the church taped off so people avoid using the pews. We have the middle chairs in the back for use,” said the Rev. Brian Warchola, church pastor.
“We encourage people to wear their masks and we’re keeping it to around 25 people at any given time. We also put out hand sanitizer.”
He said the area is being cleaned and disinfected each day.
“By blocking off just those seven hours, it’s a way to keep down the amount of people coming in and gives us an opportunity to clean up for the next day,” Warchola said.
Moving forward, he said he’s looking into the possibility of holding outdoor Masses.
“When we do have people come back into the church, we’ll probably have it a third full,” Warchola said.
“We have a big church and can have people spread out the best we can. Even when we come back, there wouldn’t be the sign of peace with handshaking or distributing from the chalice, and who knows if that will ever happen again.”
He said it’s tremendous to be able to have the church back open, even in limited capacity.
“Individuals have been sheltered in for so long, and I’ve noticed that even if people can come in for just a few minutes, it’s really doing a lot for them,” Warchola said.
“Being able to walk into the church really is uplifting for people.”
The Rev. Scott Klimke, pastor of Mount Calvary Lutheran Church, 1000 Scalp Ave., Richland Township, said he’s unsure when the church will reopen for services.
“In normal times, our church worship is well in excess of 200 people,” he said.
“With going to yellow, you can have 25 people together at a time, so for us to accommodate the whole community with those conditions would be pretty difficult to pull off.”
Klimke believes people are reticent about coming out and are waiting on more definitive word that it’s safe.
“That will factor into our thinking pretty majorly,” he said.
When the church can reopen, Klimke said it will follow CDC and local health officials’ recommendations.
“Even singing at this point is not safe, so we’ll be looking at altered worship formats,” he said.
“Certainly we’ll have to have to keep people separated by 6 feet or more. We want to serve the community as best we can.”
Klimke said that first worship service back will be an hourlong session of crying.
“There is a deep void in my life and I think in the life of every active Christian because of how long we’ve been kept apart,” he said.
“We will be crying tears of joy when it finally happens.”
The Rev. Nancy Threadgill, pastor of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church,
335 Locust St., downtown Johns-town, said her congregation has been advised by the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh not to do anything quickly.
“We’re going to be very cautious about reopening,” she said. “When we do, there will be a lot of precautions in place – wearing a mask and distancing and there will be no singing.”
Threadgill said the diocese has asked churches to put together plans for reopening and send them in for review.
“We aren’t planning to open the church for a while because so many of our parishioners are older and need to be very careful,” she said.
“It will be limited to the number of people coming in.”
There also will be a deep cleaning of the church prior to the opening.
Threadgill said having people back in the church is important because being in community is part of being a Christian.
“We just want to be back worshipping together and be able to have communion,” she said.
“The first day back is going to be an Easter celebration.”
The Rev. Art Moffat Jr., pastor of Second Presbyterian Church, 565 Park Ave., Johnstown, said the church never shuttered its doors and people were welcome to come for prayer or a Sunday service.
“I’ve never closed, and we want to make sure that worship is happening here at this church and some people have come in every time,” he said.
“We’ve been holding an informal worship.”
He said the church will hold its first official service at 10 a.m. Sunday.
“We wouldn’t pass the offering plate, and if they want to wear a mask, they can,” Moffat said.
“We’ll have people separated but congregated toward the middle of the church.”
He said the church is disinfected and, following worship, door handles are wiped down.
“We want people to feel comfortable and safe,” Moffat said.
He said he is grateful to be able to welcome people back into the church.
“It will be wonderful to see the people and maybe new people coming in,” Moffat said.
“It’s going to be exciting.”
“We get to worship the Lord as one and a lot of people in the church are looking forward to coming back.”
Church service May 31
Greater Johnstown Christian Fellowship, 3429 Elton Road, Johnstown, plans to officially open the church for a service at 10:30 a.m. May 31.
“We are going to take precautions to promote social distancing in our sanctuary and all of our youth and children’s ministries will be taking precautions in their ministry rooms,” said Jim Gay, the church’s senior pastor.
“We’re starting slowly because we normally have three services over the weekend.”
Hand sanitizer will be available and people will pick up bulletins before and after the service.
“We have volunteers from the church who will deep-clean the sanctuary and classrooms to make sure that everything is sanitary,” Gay said.
“We’re going to make sure that this is a safe space for people to come and worship.”
He said having a large sanctuary will allow for distancing.
“We will use every inch of our space,” Gay said.
“We have it situated in such a way that certain parts of pews within the sanctuary will be used and certain sections of seating in our balcony will be used. There’s no requirement to wear a mask, but you can if you feel more comfortable in wearing one.”
He said it has been since early April that people were in the church, so it’s exciting to welcome them back.
“The Bible talks about ‘not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together,’ and that verse has meant so much more to me because it has been difficult to preach to a camera,” Gay said.
“Something special happens when God’s people get together, and that’s why we’re excited about it because we know something special is going to happen.”
The Rev. Randy Bain, senior pastor of Oakland United Methodist Church, 1504 Bedford St., Johnstown, said church officials are continuing to deliberate on when to reopen.
“We have so many worshippers and we would be hard pressed to divide them up into groups of 25,” he said.
“We’ve talked about, as an option, doing house churches in June where people will start hosting gatherings at their homes to watch the online service together.”
Bain said when the church reopens, there will be social-distancing measures in place.
“We could scatter the seating and use a couple different venues in our church building to have smaller groups,” he said.
“Depending on the recommendations, we would have masks available for people who don’t bring one.”
Bain said the church has undergone a couple of deep cleanings and once opened will be sanitized between services.
“Our bishop and Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference has sent out recommendations and we’ll use those ideas but also honor what the government and health leaders are directing us to do,” he said.
Bain said when people are able to return to the church, it’ll be a day of jubilation.
“I think it will be really exciting to see faces and people who we haven’t seen or gotten to talk to,” he said.
“Worship is a big part of Oakland and when we’re not able to do it together, it really feels like something is missing.”
The Rev. Samuel Scales, associate pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, 206 Peelor St., Johnstown, said the church is working toward a July reopening.
“In preparation for the church to open, we’ve had professionals come in and disinfect from head to toe,” he said.
“We want to protect our congregation and we’re following CDC and government guidelines.”
When the church does reopen, certain pews will be cordoned off to allow for social distancing, and the sanctuary will be cleaned and disinfected on a regular basis.
“People can continue to wear masks if it makes them feel more comfortable,” Scales said.
He said it will be a fantastic day when the congregation can come back together for worship.
“There is a closeness in worshipping, so just being able to come together and praise God and pray will be beautiful,” Scales said.
“I’m looking forward to the day when this is put behind us and people can come in and sit side-by-side.”
‘Only fair way’
The Very Rev. Protopresbyter Frank P. Miloro, chancellor of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of Johnstown, said Christ the Saviour Cathedral, 300 Garfield St., Johnstown; SS. Peter & Paul Orthodox Church, 141 Hoffman Farm Road, Windber; and SS. Peter & Paul Orthodox Greek Catholic Church, 149 Wheeler St., Central City, were reopened May 17 by Bishop Gregory of Nyssa.
“We are asking people to wear masks and there is 6 feet social distancing while inside the church,” he said.
“Right now, we have no more than 25 people in the church.”
Miloro said pastors are inviting people alphabetically for Sunday services, making sure they don’t exceed the number of people allowed.
“Depending on how long this goes, people may only have an opportunity once every three or four weeks to attend,” he said.
“It’s the only fair way that we are able to do it.”
In churches, there are hand-sanitizer stations and people are being asked not to venerate holy icons.
“There are cleaning crews in the churches that previously never existed, these are just COVID-19 crews,” Miloro said.
He said reopening the churches is paramount.
“People who are regular worshippers have done this their whole life and they are missing something really important to them,” Miloro said.
“Many have questioned the fact that churches have not been regarded as essential because to Christians, this is an essential part of their lives. We are working our way back and we will get there.”