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Some Laurel churches cautiously open again for services amid coronavirus pandemic

Father Mel Ayala presides on his last day of service June 20 at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Laurel before reassignment. Only 20 people were allowed at the first Mass since the church was closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Father Mel Ayala presides on his last day of service June 20 at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Laurel before reassignment. Only 20 people were allowed at the first Mass since the church was closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

Upon entering St. Nicholas Catholic Church for Saturday afternoon Mass, parishioners were asked a series of health questions and had their temperatures taken. Masks had to be worn. As they were directed to their seats, they found pews taped off to allow social distancing. There was no singing and no sharing of handshakes during the offering of peace.

For the 15 people in attendance at the church on Contee Road in Laurel, the Mass was wonderful, as it was the first time since March that they were allowed to celebrate together.

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“It’s really, really good to be back,” said Ener Cunanan, who was attending with his wife, Luz. “I felt so embraced.”

“It’s nice to be in the house of the Lord,” Martha Edmonds said. “Receiving holy communion rejuvenates you for the rest of the week.”

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At St. Mary of the Mills in downtown Laurel, parishioners were welcomed back to its first Mass on June 13. While the church doors had been open throughout the past few months for prayer, to host a Mass with a live audience was “wonderful,” according to the Rev. Anthony Lickteig.

“It was very joyful to welcome the congregation back,” Lickteig said. “It was very difficult to tell people to stay away.”

Both St. Mary of the Mills and St. Nicholas followed guidelines provided by the Archdioese of Washington as well as by their own committees to reopen. Each have taken a gradual approach, welcoming a limited number of people to start.

“Our first weekend, Prince George’s County still had indoor services of 10 people total, including the priest,” Lickteig said. “Now, we can open with 25% capacity, about 60 to 70 people at most.”

St. Mary of the Mills currently offers six Masses and a Spanish Mass on weekends as well as Masses during the week. To clean and sanitize thoroughly before each gathering, Masses are held alternately in the church and in the church’s Keesler Parish Center, which is located in the parish’s St. Mary of Mills School.

“We usually use the second building during Christmas and Easter,” Lickteig said. “The main thing is trying to keep people safe.”

A lottery system is used at St. Mary of the Mills and St. Nicholas has a sign-up on its website for those interested in attending a Mass.

“As soon as we let people know we were opening, we were booked,” said the Rev. Mel Avala of St. Nicholas, which is now offering a Mass on Saturday and Sunday. “A lot of people are eager to come back. It is such a blessing.”

Rev. Amy Schacht at Laurel Presbyterian Church is also looking forward to welcoming people back, but for now, her congregation is still meeting remotely.

“We are finding ways to be the church without gathering inside a building,” Schacht said. “People are so grateful for anything we do offer.”

She and church leaders are keeping abreast of COVID-19 outbreaks across the country. While Maryland’s numbers are decreasing, there are still too many unanswered questions about the disease, Schacht said.

“Can you get re-infected? How is it people are getting infected if they are following basic guidelines?” Schacht said. “It is just not safe to gather even if we follow every protocol.”

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Laurel Presbyterian does have a team together that is preparing the church for when it does reopen, Schacht said.

“We will limit the number of people. There will be no singing,” Schacht said. “We are doing our best to follow all safety protocols recommended.”

Even though they are now holding public Masses, both St. Mary of the Mills and St. Nicholas are planning to continue online services in order to reach those who do not feel comfortable attending church.

“People want to reconnect with the Lord,” Lickteig said. “We do realize there are those who feel isolated. We are trying to move forward the best we can with the restrictions in place.”

St. Mary of the Mills’ food pantry has seen a rise in need, Lickteig said. Typically helping an average of 40 families, the pantry now assists “double, if not triple” that amount, he said.

“People have been super generous supplying the food pantry,” Lickteig said. “There has been an outpouring of generosity to those in need.”

Members of Laurel Presbyterian have been routinely collecting food for Laurel Advocacy & Referral Services. Members also gathered to support the youth-led Black Lives Matter rally on June 7 at Granville Gude Park.

“We continue to have connections with people any way we can,” Schacht said. “This is a time everybody figures out what is right for them.”

While Father Mel Ayala and Deacon Eric Simontis have been holding Mass regularly in an empty church throughout the pandemic and hosting various prayer sessions online, to welcome parishioners, even just a few, into the church was monumental.

“A lot of things are so uncertain,” Ayala said. “It will be nice to see people again.”

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