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Westminster church offers drive-thru confessionals in the age of social distancing for coronavirus

Fr. Mark Bialek, pastor of St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster, conducts drive-through confessionals for penitents on March 25. Confession, or the sacrament of reconciliation, is especially important for Catholics before the Easter holiday. In good weather, Bialek sits in a chair, not his car.
Fr. Mark Bialek, pastor of St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster, conducts drive-through confessionals for penitents on March 25. Confession, or the sacrament of reconciliation, is especially important for Catholics before the Easter holiday. In good weather, Bialek sits in a chair, not his car. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

As the coronavirus spreads in Maryland, Carroll County residents have not been permitted to gather in groups of 10 or more. One Westminster church has found a way to offer an important service of faith to its parish.

St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster has been offering drive-thru confessionals as an alternative way to help members of the community exercise their faith while also social distancing.

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“Everyone knows when you go to Burger King or when you go to Chik-fil-A or you go through a drive-thru — you kind of pull up to the window, you place your order — so we kind of set it up the same way as a drive-thru experience,” said Father Mark Bialek of St. John. “In order to make sure that we maintain the 10 or less restriction that we have on social gatherings, basically everybody stays in their cars. So everybody stays quarantined in their cars and what they do is, they form a line, they pull up to where the priest is, the priest is six feet from the curb, so we’re six feet away. The person lowers their window, we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation with them and then they’re done.”

The concept of social distancing, which is recommended by health professionals and state officials, requires people to stay at least 6 feet apart in order to mitigate the spread of the virus.

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According to Emily Alster, communications coordinator for St. John Roman Catholic Church, they have tried to stick to their regular times for confessions: 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. on Wednesdays; 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays; and 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on Sundays.

The confessions started March 18, and they had a bigger turnout than expected, Bialek said.

“We were surprised at the response,” he said. “We had over 70 cars show up between those two hours, so I heard confessions for about two and a half hours. People were very patient, people stayed in their cars and we got through all the confessions.”

The drive-thru confessions were inspired from another parish in Bowie that they saw on Facebook. According to Bialek, after they announced it to the St. John parish, they have received a “very good” response.

The coronavirus pandemic, also know by the disease it causes, COVID-19, came in the midst of the Catholic Lenten season, a prominent time for worship.

St. John Roman Catholic Church, a large parish in Westminster with over 4,000 members, remains empty during the coronavirus pandemic. The pastor, Fr, Mark Bialek has been conductsing "drive-through" confessions for penitents outside the church so that penitents can drive up to him for the sacrament of reconciliation. March 25, 2020
St. John Roman Catholic Church, a large parish in Westminster with over 4,000 members, remains empty during the coronavirus pandemic. The pastor, Fr, Mark Bialek has been conductsing "drive-through" confessions for penitents outside the church so that penitents can drive up to him for the sacrament of reconciliation. March 25, 2020 (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

“This is kind of the peak time when Catholics are seeking to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. So, to be able to offer it to be able to extend the opportunity is very, very important,” Bialek said. “We’re really trying to think outside the box, which is the four walls of our church. So, right now our people cannot get to their pastors, people cannot get to their priests, so we are bringing the pastor, we’re bringing the priests to them.”

Parishioners have been offering thanks and support for their work, according to Bialek.

“They really do want to be able to celebrate the sacraments of the church, which can only happen in person,” Bialek said. “There’s a number of things that we can do online and through live streaming. But the sacraments have to be in person we cannot offer the sacrament, say through Skype, or live streaming, it has to be done in person. So they are just very, very thankful that they that we are bringing Christ to the people. We’re bringing Jesus to the people.”

The confessions aren’t just limited to those who are members of St. John Roman Catholic Church; people from all over have come to participate, according to Alster.

“I know for a fact we had, I saw on one Saturday, I saw a couple of Pennsylvania license plates. I’m pretty sure we had some people from St. Barts [St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church] in Manchester,” Alster said. “Didn’t talk too much to the people, again, trying to maintain that distance. Not sure how far people were coming, but I do know there are people from different parishes.”

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