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Local churches are taking it slow despite Phase 4 guidelines loosening

There still is no holy water in the fonts. Pews are alternately roped off and marked with tape to ensure 6-feet distancing. And, really, you don’t have to go to church on Sunday – certainly not if you’re unwell.

Residents throughout Starved Rock Country kicked off the weekend by dining out, working out, bowling or taking part in other activities previously ruled out at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Many more went to church this weekend and found the doors open, but not exactly wide open.

Simply put, the pastors are taking a slow approach to reopening.

Monsignor Richard Soseman is pastor of the Peru Catholic Parishes, where Mass is now celebrated six days a week. After each celebration, cleaning crews descend quickly on the sanctuary with sanitizer and wipes to make sure the pews are sterilized. They are taking no chances, and that means parishioners still can be self-policing and follow Mass online if they aren’t comfortable going into a church.

“The Sunday obligation is dispensed for everyone,” Soseman said, “and the bishop especially enjoins people who are not in good health to stay away.”

That about summed it up for most pastors contacted about Phase 4's eased restrictions that opened restaurants and movie theaters. Live services that were completely off-limits for about a 10-week span this spring have been reinstated. Nevertheless, pastors plan to continue live-streaming and extend outdoor forms of outreach until they can fill the house, whenever that may be.

Not all Catholic churches in the Diocese of Peoria are open, per se. The Ottawa Catholic Parishes have been offering daily Mass inside the cafeteria at Marquette Academy, which lends to quick cleaning and disinfecting.

Weddings and funerals are presently offered inside the churches, but the Rev. David Kipfer, pastor, said he considered his comparatively large congregation and roomy churches and decided not to resume indoor Sunday Masses until after Independence Day weekend.

“We were a little behind other churches, but we have three churches and nine weekend Masses,” Kipfer said. “We decided to go slow by having daily Mass and then open July 11 and 12.”

Slow and steady was the approach Alex Garncarz took as well. Garncarz is pastor of Zion United Church of Christ in Peru. Rather than throw his doors open when Phase 4 was announced, he opted to use Phase 4 as a review period to monitor the state and regional infection statistics and give the church a professional deep-cleaning ahead of mid-July opening.

Until then, however, he’s content to continue live-streaming via YouTube, as he’s done the past two years. Live-streaming will, in fact, continue long after the pandemic is behind us.

“No one is under any obligation to attend,” Garncarz said. “We are reopening July 12, contingent on COVID-19 numbers continuing to stay low in our area. I am communicating to our people that if they are feeling sick in any way or if they are nervous about coming at this time, please stay home and join us online. I'm encouraging everyone to follow God's leading and their conscience. No pressure to rush back.”

The Rev. Andrew Kishler is the outgoing pastor at St. George Orthodox Church in Spring Valley, and he joined the chorus of pastors who believe the increase in digital outreach has been a silver lining to the otherwise thoroughly unwelcome pandemic.

“We have no plans to cancel our YouTube streaming,” Kishler said. “Even apart from COVID, we have enough shut-ins and others who benefit from the online ministry.”

Kishler said there have been “no major changes so far” and the Sunday obligation remains on indefinite hold. As infection controls have been lifted, a growing number of members is coming inside the church for services. His congregation is small, however, and so far the number of worshippers entering the door (about 15 at each service) is manageable and safe.

“I don’t forbid at-risk members from attending,” he said, “but most of them are coming privately for prayer and sacraments.”

Bill Jacobsen is pastor at Seatonville Community Church, where worship services resume Sunday, July 5. Service will be at 9 a.m. and all are requested to wear masks and to observe the social-distancing markers inside the sanctuary.

“We have sanitized the facility, we have roped off pews for social distancing, we have hand sanitizer and wipes available, signage with rules, and instructions from me from the pulpit on how we are going to conduct ourselves,” Jacobsen said.

Jacobsen announced “Sundae Sunday,” the summer ice cream social, and Vacation Bible School have been canceled this summer. He hopes to resume both in 2021. Meanwhile, Facebook broadcasts continue even after worship returns to the sanctuary.

“All services are optional,” he said. “We don’t want anyone to come if they feel uncomfortable.”

Ax Church in La Salle is gearing up for its first outdoor services at 10 a.m. Sunday, July 12, at Pulaski Park. Lead pastor Cameron Graper said he wants his members to have the option of worshipping as a community and in an outdoor setting, where coronavirus transmission would be impeded.

“Online services are still our No. 1 priority because that is where we believe people can invite their friends and family to explore their faith right now,” Graper said. “We are encouraging everyone to participate online or in physical services but recommend everyone prayerfully do what they think is best for themselves and their families.”

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