ATLANTA, May 11 (Reuters) - Roman Catholic churches across South Carolina reopened for services on Monday for the first time since a coronavirus-related shutdown began on March 17, allowing parishioners to attend Mass in person.
The 94 parishes of the Diocese of Charleston were among the first Roman Catholic congregations in the country to reopen to worshipers. Over the past two months, the parishes streamed Masses via Facebook and YouTube to the Diocese of Charleston’s 200,000 Catholics.
At St. Mary’s in Greenville, Rev. J. Scott Newman was overjoyed with the diocese’s move, recalling the sadness he felt on Easter Sunday singing “Jesus Christ has Risen” to recorded music in front of a sea of empty pews.
“Normally the church would have them packed into the aisles and spilling outside,” Newman, 57, said of his congregation of 2,000. “I felt a keen sense of loss. Tears ran down my face like I was sucker-punched.”
Two weeks ago, South Carolina became one of the first states in the country to begin reopening its economy by lifting stay-at-home orders and easing limits on public gatherings aimed at controlling the outbreak.
While parishes were allowed to begin saying Masses on Monday under Bishop Robert Guglielmone’s May 2 directive, parishioners are not expected to turn out in force until Sunday.
South Carolina is an outlier, said Thomas Groome, a former priest and now a professor of Theology at Boston College, who closely follows national church politics. Most dioceses are keeping churches closed for now to help slow the spread of the virus, which has killed nearly 80,000 Americans.
“This bishop is stepping out of line with his fellow bishops,” Groome said. “We know that the day will come when they can reopen, but that day has not come. It’s very unusual to say the least, to say it mildly.”
Churches remain closed in the largest U.S. archdioceses, including Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Boston, although a few are in the planning stages for a phased re-opening, with no firm dates announced.
One of the few other Roman Catholic dioceses to have reopened is the Archdiocese of Denver, which resumed limited public Masses on Saturday. A spokesperson could not immediately be reached by Reuters.
The archdiocese posted online guidelines for local churches to follow to help protect the health of staff and parishioners, such as limiting numbers allowed in churches and enforcing social distancing rules.
In South Carolina, the diocese has called on churches to close every other pew and to limit congregations to just 25% capacity. Worshipers must stay at least six feet apart.
For the ritual commemorating Jesus’ Last Supper, called the Eucharist, priests wearing latex gloves will hand communion wafers to parishioners instead of placing them on their tongues. The practice of sharing a chalice of consecrated wine, which Catholics believe is the blood of Christ, has been suspended.
Newman said his parishioners were eager to get back to normal as soon as possible.
“Gathering with your brothers and sisters for the celebration of Christ is essential,” he said. “You can watch Mass on TV but it’s impossible to receive the Eucharist.”
Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Richard Chang