Community celebrates return of in-person church services to county

Signs and cones line the walkway to guide parishioners in and out of St. Theresa Catholic Church on Sunday morning in Kihei, the first weekend that allowed in-person religious services to resume. The Maui News / DAKOTA GROSSMAN photos

KIHEI– Hymns were sung with face coverings and parishioners were seated at designated distances in the pews, but the sense of community and connection were still strong inside St. Theresa Church on Sunday morning.

Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino allowed the reopening of in-person religious services Friday, just in time for South Maui Catholics to join together for prayer on Pentecost, celebrating the ascension of Jesus to heaven.

“When everyone is together, there’s a tremendous energy and the power of the Spirit that you don’t feel when the place is empty or through livestream,” Msgr. Terry Watanabe said after Mass. “It’s important that we come together as a community of faith, to support one another, that’s what’s important.”

While religious services may now resume under certain modifications that follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, not all churches were ready to reopen their doors this weekend.

St. Theresa organized Sunday Mass at 7 a.m., 9:30 and noon, each with a capacity of 100 people; St. Theresa usually has a capacity of 500. A service also was held Saturday night.

South Maui residents stand together in prayer on Pentecost Sunday at St. Theresa Catholic Church. Parishioners were asked to follow markings and sit in designated pews to maintain social distancing, as well as to wear masks during Mass.

Tickets were reserved ahead of time online and parishioners checked in upon entering the church. Ushers guided about 70 people to their appropriate seats throughout the 9:30 a.m. service and then guided them to an exit when Mass concluded.

The two other services Sunday hosted less than 50 people.

Services will continue to be available online for high-risk members or those who still do not feel comfortable attending in-person worship, Watanabe said.

“It went very well, we’re very happy to have them back, and we wish that more people could come,” he said. “The meaning of liturgy is to build communities, that’s the whole idea of coming together and to be one in faith, so it feels good to be back.”

According to a letter released by Bishop Larry Silva of the Hawaii Catholic Diocese, masks or face coverings must be worn by all who attend Mass. The only exceptions are the priest-celebrant, while he is speaking, and the lectors and cantors, while they are reading or singing.

Each parish will have its own limited capacity to ensure social distancing between nonhousehold members, the letter said. There will be no congregating before or after church on the premises and in the parking lots.

There was no physical contact during the Lord’s Prayer or the Sign of Peace, but people were asked to give a nod, bow or a wave instead. For communion, only a piece of bread was placed in each congregant’s hand, no wine.

Pews were sanitized between each scheduled Mass, and a few volunteer parishioners stayed after to help clean the church for the next service.

Following the new restrictions and precautions for in-person services seem doable moving forward, Watanabe said. After a lot of preparations, Mass went “very well and very smoothly,” he said.

And for him personally, transitioning back to in-person services, although modified, is more personable and satisfying than conducting prayer to empty pews via livestream.

While prayer is not required to be done in church, there’s a “sense of being together, and being one, and kind of working on something together” that is difficult to achieve anywhere else.

During the service, Watanabe spoke on the importance of being at peace and spreading compassion during these unprecedented times amid the pandemic and mass protests erupting across the nation over the death of African-American George Floyd at the hands of police, as well as life’s usual stresses. 

Kihei resident Joanne O’Kane thought Watanabe’s sermon was “very appropriate and very missed.”

Watching Mass online has had its technical challenges and hasn’t felt the same, she said Sunday morning leaving the church. O’Kane and other parishioners were grateful to attend in-person services.

“They are definitely going above and beyond for us,” O’Kane said. “It’s always great to be back and in-person, especially because we didn’t get to celebrate Easter. Now, here we are at the close of Easter, and we get to be together and celebrate.”

Waipuna Chapel in Kula also resumed in-person worship this past weekend under the same health and safety measures.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.


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