Amid coronavirus pandemic, Catholics in San Antonio celebrate Mass in public for the first time in two months

By Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje, Staff Writer

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For the first time in over two months, the pews at San Juan de los Lagos Catholic Church were occupied by something that had been conspicuously absent: worshippers.

More than a dozen parishioners filed in Tuesday morning ready to celebrate Mass at the 58-year-old church nestled in a modest West Side neighborhood.

“To receive communion is to be fed by the Lord,” said Mary Ann Esquivel, wearing a face mask made from fabric depicting the Virgen de Guadalupe. “My soul asks for it. Being able to do this in the church today means so much spiritually.”

On March 13, the Archdiocese of San Antonio announced it had to suspend public Masses at all its churches to help contain the spread of the coronavirus and keep the faithful safe.

During the pandemic, many churches have been livestreaming Mass on their Facebook and YouTube pages. In that format, viewers receive communion — wine and bread that worshippers believe transform into the blood and body of Jesus — by way of an ancient spiritual prayer.

But it’s not quite the same experience.

“We need this weekly healing, so this (reopening) has been long-awaited,” said parishioner Marcelino Villanueva, entering the sanctuary with his wife, Lydia. “There’s just something about being with other worshippers, with humanity, that makes communion special.”

“It’s just been heartbreaking not to be able to attend,” Lydia said.

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In keeping with the rules established by Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, a sign in the church’s narthex set forth in English and Spanish the safety protocols that all worshippers were expected to follow.

Only four people per pew, and they must sit 6 feet apart. Every other pew — roped off with plastic twine — must stay empty. Families can sit together, but masks are required. Communion includes no wine (except for what the priest drinks). Exit the church immediately after the service, so it can be disinfected. Worshippers are urged to be patient and cooperate.

The pews have been stripped of hymn books and missals, and Holy Water basins are dry. There was no passing of the collection plate. When it was time to pass the peace, congregants shyly waved at each other from their pews.

For communion, Associate Pastor Father Ricardo Guerra donned a blue mask and handed out the wafers at the foot of the altar, never directly touching the worshippers.

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After the service, Father Guerra said his sermon’s message that morning — that Jesus had to leave us in order to be with us in a different way — really strikes a chord with Catholics during the pandemic.

“We’re missing him, so this homecoming is like greeting an old friend,” he said. “It’s a sacred moment.”

At St. Matthew Catholic Church on the Northwest Side, around 100 worshippers sat in pews that had been demarcated with blue duct tape, to indicate proper social distancing, as the noon Mass began.

There was only one permitted entryway into the impressive, 250-seat sanctuary, although parishioners could use multiple exits. As at San Juan de los Lagos, communion wafers were placed by the celebrant on the palm, instead of on the tongue.

But there were a few signs of blessed normalcy amid the changes — the church bells ringing, a baby crying during the church announcements.

For longtime member Bitsie Scholwinski, being able to receive communion in person was something to cherish.

“The Eucharist is the gift of all gifts that we have as Catholics,” she said. “We’ve been deprived of it for just reasons, and now we have these attempts to bring things back to normal.”

Cathy Elizondo, a black lace mantilla on her head, agreed.

“Our Lord is present here, in a way he’s not present otherwise,” she whispered, right before entering the church for the Mass.

Catholics can resume attending Sunday Mass in person this coming weekend.

The leader of the flock in San Antonio said he is amazed how Catholics have continued to observe their faith, even with all the stresses and strains of the coronavirus.

“I want to express my gratitude to our priests for ministering to God’s people in these challenging weeks,” said Archbishop García-Siller. “We all need to be renewed in the Spirit.”

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje is a general assignment reporter covering breaking news, cultural trends and interesting people and goings-on around San Antonio and Bexar County, as well as all across South Texas. To read more from Melissa , become a subscriber. | Twitter: @mstoeltje

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