WHEELING — The Rev. John Ledford needed only one word to describe the past two months since all Masses were suspended across West Virginia due to the COVID-19 outbreak: Boring.
“I think most people are bored out of their minds,” Ledford said.
So the pastor of St. Jude Catholic Church in Glen Dale was eager to get to work Friday putting together a plan to keep parishioners safe when public Masses are permitted to resume later this month.
The Most Rev. Mark Brennan, bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, announced Friday that Roman Catholic churches in the state could begin holding in-person Mass starting the weekend of May 23-24 if the parish submits a plan designed to protect parishioners and is approved by diocesan officials.
Brennan suspended all Masses in the state on March 13 as the coronavirus spread.
“We’re going to try to do what the diocese is asking us to do to the best of our ability,” Ledford said. “The point is the bishop is trying to protect everyone’s health to the best of his ability, and I admire the man for that.”
To reinstate Mass, each of the more than 100 parishes in West Virginia must submit a detailed plan using directives suggested by a committee formed by the diocese earlier this week to offer guidance on how to reopen. Brennan will then personally approve each plan, allowing Mass to resume at that parish.
Brennan said this “transitional phase (requires) the full cooperation of clergy and laity so that public Masses may be celebrated in the safest manner possible” until they are able to enter the final phase that returns the church to “normal practice in our liturgical life.”
Some directives from the committee, which is led by Msgr. Eugene Ostrowski, the diocesan Vicar General, include requiring all parishioners to wear masks, suspending the offering of Communion wine and no longer using hymn books or holding each others’ hands during prayer. Brennan reiterated that the church has suspended the obligation to attend Mass in person indefinitely during this time.
Brennan said he hoped the committee’s guidelines would “keep our faithful and our clergy as safe and healthy as possible” while worshipping.
Since social distancing guidelines are expected to be followed at Mass, the population and physical size of each church likely means different plans will need to be enacted.
The Rev. Carlos Melocoton Jr., pastor at St. Michael Catholic Church in Wheeling, met with the parish staff Friday morning to begin a “walk-through on the plan” provided by the diocese’s committee. As one of the largest Roman Catholic churches in the Northern Panhandle, Melocoton said it will be a lengthy process to put a plan in place to keep parishioners healthy and safe. He was unsure when the parish may submit its plans to the diocese for approval.
“It is a daunting task, but it is one of the things where we have to be careful, we have to be prudent and we have to care for our people,” Melocoton said. “That’s the purpose of the process.”
Ledford was also beginning to think Friday what safety protocols would be needed at his church in Glen Dale.
“I think it will be a learning situation for all concerned,” Ledford said. “We’ll do the best we can with what we got and go from there. We try to take care of people. That’s what it’s all about.”
Ledford said he has tried to spend as much time as possible at the church rectory to be available for phone calls if parishioners need spiritual guidance or support.
“I’ve stayed home in case anyone needs anything,” he said. “When anyone calls, I’m here.”
He likened the situation to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 and the quarantine during that time. He is hopeful parishioners would be excited to return to Mass, while also being respectful of the new safety protocols.
“We’ll do the best we can,” he said. “People are people.”
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