Christmas traditions, feast days, and other events of the December holiday season – like most celebrations in 2020 – were significantly modified because of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, from a glass-half-full perspective, friars and ministries across Holy Name Province were a bit more creative than in past years in their celebrations of Christmas, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and related traditions of the Advent and holiday season. As one observer noted, there were fewer people at Mass, but the restrictions of in-person participation did not diminish interest at parishes and other ministry sites.
An informal survey of ministries around the Province found reports of a COVID-19 diagnosis, a new way to distribute Communion, a snow Mass, and – as has become the norm over the past year – online Masses.
Guadalupe Feast in Durham
In North Carolina, the community of Immaculate Conception Parish in Durham kicked off its December celebrations with the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, reflecting the cultural traditions of Mexico and many Central American countries in observance of the feast day.
The celebration usually begins close to midnight on Dec. 11 with a vigil and Mañanitas – serenades to the Blessed Mother – that draws more than 10,000 people. But the 2020 festivities were tamped down, beginning with morning Mass at 6 a.m. attended by 150 people wearing masks and keeping socially distant.
Parishioners had spent days preparing for the celebration by polishing the silver in the statue of Mary and arranging the traditional wall of flowers, according to Hugh Macsherry, OFM.
“After the Mass, parishioners carried a smaller statue of Our Lady and led the congregation outside to our school playground,” said Hugh, a parochial vicar of the parish. “A mariachi band was waiting in the playground to sing to Mary and the parishioners.”
Later that morning, parishioners arrived in their vehicles for a curbside viewing of live depictions by members of the parish Latino youth group of various scenes of Mary’s appearance to Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac, St. Juan Diego’s sick father, and his veneration of Mary. Across from the last scene, parishioners and trios sang to the Blessed Mother throughout the day – during which donations were accepted in support of the victims of Hurricanes Iota and Eta in Honduras.
The parish hosted another curbside event a week later, called “Little Angels Drive-Through,” which provided scenes and experiences depicting Bethlehem during the birth of the Christ child.
“Families filled out census cards and were stopped by soldiers looking for the newborn king. They saw Mary and Joseph at the manger, and they even got to pet live sheep,” said Hugh, who has been stationed in Durham since 2017.
Slightly fewer Christmas decorations adorned the church, but a tighter budget did not keep the parish from celebrating. Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, who began his assignment as pastor of Immaculate Conception in September, worked with parishioners to set up the customary Christmas tree in the church’s gathering space.
A full schedule of Masses was offered on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, with Hugh presiding at a 3 p.m. Mass that was designated for children, and Salim Joseph, OFM, another parochial vicar, celebrating a Mass for families in a downtown Durham parking garage that the parish has been renting from the city to accommodate worshippers avoiding indoor gatherings.
In addition to other Masses in English and Spanish, the parish live-streamed its traditional service of “Lessons and Carols,” and Jacek and Gonzalo Torres-Acosta, OFM, parochial vicar, concelebrated a bilingual Midnight Mass. To address public health concerns, all Christmas Eve Masses in the church were live-streamed, while the parish also utilized standing fans to ventilate the church and a spray sanitizer after each Mass.
Drive-through Communion in Triangle
In northern Virginia, St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Triangle tried something new on Christmas. The friars distributed Communion using a drive-by system.
“People who wanted to receive the Eucharist, and who had watched Mass via live-stream, drove to the front of the church between noon and 12:30 p.m., rolled down their windows, and took the Eucharist in their hands. Many seemed to appreciate this,” said John O’Connor, OFM, pastor, who noted that he borrowed the idea from Jim Scullion OFM, whose former parish – St. Francis of Assisi on the New Jersey Shore – had offered drive-by Communion.
Although the Triangle parish has five Sunday Masses on-site, the friars will continue the drive-up Communion practice for the foreseeable future, according to John.
Outreach in North Jersey
At St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Butler, New Jersey, an aspect of parish life that became increasingly important to staff and parishioners during the Christmas season was service to the poor and marginalized, according to staff member Annette Miller.
“While the food pantry has a history of being an active ministry within the parish, it became even more so during the Christmas season in the midst of the COVID pandemic,” said Miller, director of faith formation. “Parishioners were incredibly generous with gifts for our giving tree program and donations to the food pantry.”
Their generosity was felt throughout the region, according to Miller, who reported that the parish was able to provide food and toys to local families in Butler and Bloomingdale, as well as to the Bloomingdale Methodist Church, Catholic Charities Early Learning Programs in Paterson, and the Mercy House in Newark. Joseph Juracek, OFM, pastor, said dozens of families received turkeys and groceries from the parish food pantry.
An article in a recent issue of The Beacon, the newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson, featured the distribution of toys to the early learning programs.
“It was a great opportunity for those assembling safely in church or from the safety of their homes online (where parishioners were able to view and commit to what needed to be purchased). Everyone joined forces in a unified task,” said Matt Pravetz, OFM, who became part of the Butler community this past autumn.
St. Anthony Parish offered Christmas Mass both online and in-person on a first-come, first-served basis, with a maximum capacity of 75 people at the church.
Advent at Mt. Irenaeus
The friars at Mt. Irenaeus hosted their first live-streamed events to better connect with friends and supporters of the Province’s Mountain retreat community in West Clarksville, New York. As every Province fraternity and ministry is experiencing, COVID-19 has radically altered the life and ministry of Mt. Irenaeus.
“For many years, a large portion of our ministry has been with students from St. Bonaventure University,” said Kevin Kriso, OFM, guardian of the Mountain’s Holy Peace Friary. “That changed last spring when the students were sent home and the curriculum went online. We had to turn away other visitors who normally came for Mass or retreat. However, from the beginning of the pandemic, we asked: ‘How do we minister under these circumstances? What is the essence of what we offer? What is God calling us to do?’”
When it became safe to allow limited numbers of visitors, the friars noticed that offering people a place to experience nature in smaller, more intimate groups, along with time for silence and reflection, was the right approach needed for these times, according to Kevin.
“We also found ourselves falling more and more into electronic media to share the Gospel,” said Kevin, who lives at Mt. Irenaeus with Joe Kotula, OFM, Lou McCormick, OFM, and Dan Riley, OFM.
“We have been using podcasts, Instagram, and Facebook for a long time. But now, Zoom and Facebook Live have shown their usefulness in reaching out in real-time to people who cannot be physically present,” Kevin said.
The Mountain live-streamed a three-hour Saturday afternoon Advent retreat on Dec. 12, the first attempt by the friars at live-streaming an event. The gathering included a prayer service in the chapel followed by installing the Christmas tree, building an outdoor wreath, and receiving prayer petitions. Participants – both friars and laypeople – presented each petition aloud and put an ornament on the tree to represent each prayer.
“Because our first live stream went well, we decided to live-stream a New Year’s Eve prayer and adoration service from the chapel. Sixty people joined online and many others viewed the recorded version on New Year’s Day,” said Kevin.
“After this tumultuous year, many people told us that this quiet, contemplative way of praying out of 2020 and praying into 2021 was exactly what they needed,” he added. “To me, God is telling us what is ours to do.”
Christmas after COVID in Allegany, New York
Advent and Christmas were different this year at St. Bonaventure Parish – roughly 45 minutes west of Mt. Irenaeus, near the St. Bonaventure University campus. Advent had an auspicious beginning for the pastor, Jim Vacco, OFM, who awoke on the first Sunday of the Advent season with a fever and cough.
“Suspecting it may be COVID, I quickly isolated myself and made arrangements for a rapid test. It proved positive, so I was in isolation in the parish rectory for 14 days,” said Jim. “My first re-appearance to the parish was on the fourth Sunday of Advent. Luckily, I had done some pre-planning and an early mailing that outlined our services for Christmas during the pandemic.”
On the four Sundays of Advent, the parish held its Swaddling Clothes collection, with each week having a different theme of items for parishioners to donate.
“One week people gave socks and underwear, on another they gave sheets and towels, another was for blankets and so on,” said Jim. “These items — which were divided among the recovery houses and protective homes for abused women and families – almost filled the parish conference room when they were being sorted.”
On Dec. 23 at 7 p.m., Jim celebrated a pre-Christmas Mass that was recorded and posted on Christmas Eve on the parish YouTube and Facebook sites so parishioners and site visitors could watch a Christmas Mass at any time. On Christmas Eve day, Jim celebrated a 12 noon Mass for people over 70 years old.
“Since the CDC identifies this population as vulnerable to the virus, I thought I would schedule one Mass just for that age group, hoping that people who have not attended indoor Masses because of the pandemic would feel more comfortable attending,” he said, noting that he also scheduled 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Christmas Scripture Services, mainly for families with young children, on Christmas Eve.
With six-foot distance guidelines dictating a maximum capacity of 70 people in the church, parishioners were required to make reservations for the services – which ranged from 38 to 54 participants at the 90-year-old church that recently unveiled its completed renovations.
“It seems that people in this area are taking the COVID warnings very seriously and conscientiously,” he said. “In speaking with priests at neighboring parishes and a couple of the area’s Protestant ministers, I learned that everyone’s experience is the same – many congregants stayed home for the holidays.”
Since the end of March 2020, Jim has posted a weekly Liturgy of the Word service, along with a homily, on the parish Facebook page and YouTube channel. He has also been sending a general parish mailing or an email message to parishioners every three weeks as a way of keeping everyone connected.
Snow Mass in Buffalo
In the northwest corner of New York State, two examples of creative outreach took place post-Christmas. Renewing a tradition that began in the grotto at St. Bonaventure University in the early 2000s, a Snow Mass was held on Dec. 27 in the Sister Karen Garden at Ss. Columba-Brigid Parish in Buffalo.
The date of the annual Snow Mass varies depending on snowfall and other conditions. Sunday, Dec. 27, the feast of the Holy Family, was the first date that there were the requisite six inches of snow on the ground, the wind was below 20 mph, and driving conditions were safe.
More than 30 people attended the outdoor Mass held at 6 p.m. in 25-degree temperatures, said Jud Weiksnar, OFM, pastor of Ss. Columba-Brigid.
That afternoon, an area large enough for social distancing was shoveled and a temporary altar was set up by the Arbor Vitae trees, according to Jud, who noted that the outdoor setup included everything found at an indoor Mass, including incense. The only differences, he said, instead of a cruet of water, a pinch of snow was added to the wine at the Offertory, and a wooden chalice was used to avoid the hazards of drinking from a metal chalice in below-freezing temperature.
In addition to the snow weighing down the boughs of the evergreens, the outdoor setting allowed for unique sensory experiences, such as a nearly full moon and the red and green decorative lights visible on the downtown buildings a mile away. As would often occur at St. Bonaventure, Jud said more people attended the Snow Mass than any of the regularly scheduled Masses that day.
Attendees who braved the cold ranged in age from 5 to 86, with most staying afterward for a quick cup of warm chocolate. A Bona alumnus, Brian Quinn, ‘95, drove an hour from Batavia, New York, when he saw the Snow Mass advertised on an SBU community Facebook page, Jud said.
On Jan. 2, Jud continued a tradition believed to have been started in Buffalo at Ss. Rita-Patrick by then-pastor Ron Pecci, OFM – the blessing of front doors with chalk for Three Kings Day. The custom has been embraced at Ss. Columba-Brigid, especially by Latino parishioners. Pastoral associate Paula Hunt drove the parish van, while Jud was assisted by two parish youth, Ben and Allie Pinkowski. Starting at 9 a.m. and dressed as Magi, they visited approximately 30 homes within a 10-mile radius of the parish.
“The chalk blessing – 20+C+M+B+21, which signifies that in 2021 Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar have visited the house – was written in the color of the family’s choice,” explained Jud. “An additional meaning for CMB is Christus Mansionem Benedicat – meaning that Christ has blessed this house.
— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.
Editor’s note: A summary of how friars and their partners-in-ministry commemorated Thanksgiving was published in last month’s issue of HNP Today.
- “Holidays During a Pandemic” – Dec. 16, 2020, HNP Today
- “Friars Develop Ways to Bring Prayer, Worship to Homes During COVID-19 Pandemic” — March 26, 2020, HNP Today
- “Friars Celebrate Christmas with Prayer, Parties” — Jan. 15, 2020, HNP Today
- “Celebrating the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe” – Dec. 17, 2014, HNP Today