River Valley Church is holding 32 worship services in eight locations this weekend, when Minnesota’s faithful can pray together at Sunday worship for the first time in two months.
The Cathedral of St. Paul was to reopen with five weekend masses in its 3,000-seat building. Other churches are keeping it small, or not opening at all, uncertain about attendance in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic and civil unrest in the Twin Cities.
This weekend brings the first test of how religious services will unfold under the coronavirus guidelines announced May 23 by Gov. Tim Walz and several faith leaders. It has been a tremendous relief to the faithful, who say comfort for the soul is desperately needed during these difficult times.
But the reopenings also prompt questions. Are safety precautions adequate? Does the congregation understand them? Are there enough volunteers? What if someone contracts the virus?
“There’s so much unknown going into this,” said the Rev. John Ubel, rector of the cathedral, which was hastily putting up signs directing members through certain doors and into restricted pews.
“It’s hard to know how it will play out,” Ubel said. “I think we’re all feeling a bit stressed going into this.”
Also unknown is the response from the congregation.
“I say I have three churches in eight locations,” said the Rev. Rob Ketterling, pastor of River Valley Church, based in Apple Valley. “There were those that wanted to open immediately, those that want to reopen with safety precautions, and those that are unsure.”
Ruth Ivesdal and Paul Putzier are among those eager to return with the new safety precautions. Ivesdal, who is heading Sunday to the Eden Prairie Assembly of God Church with her family, hopes religious services can help heal the many troubles she’s seen in the pandemic’s wake.
“Marriages are crumbling, kids can’t go to day care, parents have to home school,” said Ivesdal, a piano teacher from Chaska. “I’ve seen people at the ends of their ropes.”
Online services are fine, Ivesdal said, “But people need to be with other people.”
Putzier, a geologist from Burnsville, plans to attend the cathedral’s first mass on Saturday. During the past two months, he said he discovered the importance of worshiping in a spiritual community.
Putzier is comfortable with the safety guidelines that include no singing, no shared hymnals, social distancing in pews, and low-touch communion. He plans to wear a face mask and hopes everyone else will, too.
“I’ve been to grocery stores, big-box stores, businesses,” Putzier said. “I think I’ll be safer in the cathedral.”
Walz gave churches permission to reopen a week ago, after Minnesota’s Catholic bishops and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod said they would not comply with the 10-person limit he had imposed earlier. The more liberal state guidelines allow for 25% seating capacity, up to 250 people, and mandated health procedures.
These Catholics and Lutherans, as well as evangelicals, started opening their doors for services this week in what is expected to be a gradual rollout. Most mainline Protestant churches, as well as mosques and synagogues, announced they will stay closed to protect their members and staff from the pandemic.
Faith leaders recognize there will be differing comfort levels among the faithful. They plan to keep their online worship for people hesitant to enter a building full of people even as they develop new formats for in-person services.
But many churches weren’t prepared to open just yet, including large faith communities such as the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis and Wooddale Church in Edina.
Some small churches, such as Restoration Anglican, have no option but to stay online only. Members meet in the Lake Nokomis Community Center in Minneapolis, which is now closed, said church treasurer Daniel Lehn.
Some church leaders don’t even want to predict when doors may swing open again, and instead are planning possible parking lot masses.
“I miss all of you terribly,” wrote the Rev. Mike Sullivan to members of St. Joseph the Worker parish in Maple Grove. “I want to see your faces, greet you, tell you I love you, and hug you and your kids. At the same time I want to see, greet, hug all of the people who are my age and older. The challenge is trying to figure out a way that we can do both,” Sullivan said.
Another looming issue for houses of worship operating under new safety rules is the need for volunteers to help explain and enforce them. Retirees disproportionately serve as volunteers, but they also have been encouraged to stay home by public health experts because they are more vulnerable if they catch the novel coronavirus.
“We’re trying to keep our volunteers young or middle-aged,” said the Rev. Byron Hagan of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Minneapolis.
Despite the many challenges, thousands of Christians are expected to return to their houses of worship this weekend.
“These are days of history,” said the Rev. John Paul Erickson of Transfiguration Church in Oakdale. “Just like with the Spanish flu, people will be looking back at it. To be on the front lines of spiritual care is great.”
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511