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Many Minnesota churches opened their doors to smaller than expected crowds Sunday, and most didn't open at all, facing COVID-19 safety concerns and civil unrest gripping the Twin Cities.

It was the first weekend that houses of worship could hold in-person services since March 18, when they were required to close in response to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. Under new state guidelines released last week, they could reopen at 25% capacity and with safety restrictions.

But even at limited capacity, many churches did not fill. And the majority of Minnesota's Catholic churches, whose bishops were largely responsible for getting the state to relax capacity guidelines, were not open at all.

Annunciation Catholic Church in Minneapolis, for example, had mass sign-up sheets showing attendance ranging from a quarter to half of its 120 seats available.

Our Lady of Grace Church in Edina, which opened with about 70 available seats, saw about 45 members for its two morning masses. The evening mass sign-up, however, was at capacity.

The Cathedral of St. Paul, which opened 250 of its 2,000 seats for each service, also had lower than expected attendance Saturday night and at two of its three Sunday morning services, said cathedral rector the Rev. John Ubel. But Sunday's 10 a.m. service was full.

"We've heard attendance is down all over the country," said the Rev. Matthew Northenscold of Our Lady of Grace. "There's a couple reasons."

Most churches, not just Catholic, haven't had time to implement the health standards required to reopen, clergy said. And many faithful, especially the elderly, are worried about the spread of COVID-19.

Catholics, who are normally required to attend mass each weekend, don't have to under a coronavirus dispensation.

On top of all this, the civil unrest in the Twin Cities following the death of George Floyd in police custody may have kept some faithful at home, said the Rev. Dan Griffith of Our Lady of Lourdes Church near downtown Minneapolis.

Our Lady of Lourdes, for example, was planning three weekend services. It later posted on its web page that mass would remain online because of safety concerns.

"Once things started to unravel, we decided to delay opening," said Griffith.

Brennen and Paige Schulz were among the faithful who ventured to worship services Sunday, bringing their son Jack to Our Lady of Peace. The Minneapolis couple acknowledged they brought mixed emotions, happy to be back in church but sad about the week's events.

That said, watching an online mass from the basement for two months was getting old, they said. "We were anxious to get back," Brennen Schulz said.

The tragedy of Floyd's death, and the destruction that followed, was on the minds of many clergy as they saw their members face to face for the first time in 10 weeks.

During his sermon, Northenscold explained that Pentacost Sunday, which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus' apostles, is typically a time of joy.

"But this has been one of the most difficult and painful and challenging weeks in our state's history," said Northenscold. He asked the Holy Spirit for "an outpouring of gifts on us, on the city, on the nation."

The message at St. Bridget's Church in north Minneapolis also reflected the tense times. The Rev. Paul Jarvis didn't reopen the church but instead planned a Sunday afternoon prayer gathering at the site of Floyd's arrest.

"Peace only arises when there is justice and shared prosperity," Jarvis said in his sermon. "With yet another well-documented killing of an unarmed Black man by whites, it's becoming more and more obvious that there is a lack of justice and prosperity for society's marginalized."

It was mainly Catholic and evangelical churches holding public worship this weekend. Protestants and other faiths have declined, arguing that a large group gathering could jeopardize the health of their members and staff.

Most churches from the Minnesota South District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which joined Minnesota bishops in a challenge to Walz's restrictions on houses of worship, have not yet reopened, said Fredric Hinz, the district's public policy advocate.

Other religious leaders were taking different actions. The faith group ISAIAH Minnesota petitioned Gov. Tim Walz to place the Minneapolis Police Department into public receivership "under the control of state or county democratically-elected officials" and to remove Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman from the George Floyd murder case.

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511