BRANDON — For the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, during the holy season of Advent, in a church named for the birth of Christ, parishioners turn out and pray to the revered patron saint of Mexico.
But not even this sacred trifecta could overcome the stifling effect of the coronavirus.
Attendance was only about 50 for the special feast day Mass on Dec. 11 at the heavily Hispanic Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon. Last year, 350 people turned out. The parish is one of the biggest in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, with a sanctuary that holds 2,000.
Sunday Mass attendance typically increases during Advent and Christmas, Bishop Gregory Parkes reminded people in a letter Dec. 9. Still, building back toward even half-full is a challenge when Catholic parishes had to shut down for two months at the start of the pandemic in March.
“Churches continue to be one of the safest places for people to gather and maintain distancing,” Parkes said in his letter. “Our seats are about 50 percent occupied and we have asked our parishes to make accommodations for overflow crowds so that we can keep people safe.”
The diocese requires masks, removed hymnals from the pews, suspended wine at communion, instituted disinfectant procedures, prohibited touching during the sign of peace, and restricted the number of people attending each Mass.
A number of Christian denominations outlined similar restrictions when local churches started reopening in late spring and summer.
One of the stricter requirements: Temperature checks before services and dismissing the congregation afterward row by row at First Presbyterian Church of Brandon. The Florida Diocese of the Episcopal Church suggests its parishes suspend children’s programs and after-service get-togethers. The Lutheran Church’s Florida-Georgia District encourages separate services for seniors.
Some churches still haven’t reopened and offer only remote services, including Historic Bethel AME in St. Petersburg and Allen Temple AME in Tampa, according to their websites.
At Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, on the other hand, one of Florida’s largest worship centers with seating for 5,000, few anti-COVID measures are spelled out on its robust web page. Masks are not required as long as people are social distancing. In addition, ministry groups are holding regular meetings.
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At Nativity, people have one eye on their faith and one eye on their safety this Advent season.
“It has not been easy,” said Ignacio Santamaria, 52, a devotee of Our Lady of Guadalupe who was attending the feast day Mass. “This is one of the most important celebrations we have. In the midst of this pandemic, the Virgin is the pillar of our faith.”
Santamaria’s wife, Exmaguarda, attended the Mass with her husband, praying for her family and for the end of the pandemic.
“When you put your trust in God, everything works,” said Exmaguarda, 46, a mother of five. “You have to be patient, you have to believe.”
Father Belisario Riveros, 74, a Colombian native and parochial vicar at Nativity, celebrated the Mass for Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Virgin is said to have appeared four times in the 1500s to sainted Mexican peasant Juan Diego in a village outside Mexico City that came to be known as Guadalupe.
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“Things are not like before,” Riveros said. “But here I am, on the front line and working for my community. Of course, I have to be very careful.”
Riveros entered the sanctuary carrying a Bible. He wore a light brown tunic and a mask that covered half his face. The 50 parishioners in front of him stood in silence about six feet apart, taking up positions where they found spaced blue ribbons. Bottles of hand sanitizer stood at each corner.
“Let us pray,” Riveros said in Spanish.
Mass is live-streamed daily for people who don’t want to risk worshiping in a group. With fewer people dropping money envelopes into the basket, the parish is also emphasizing its online giving option.
“We have left nothing to chance until a vaccine is available,” Riveros said, adding confidently: “Any risk of contagion has been eliminated.”
“Also, this is a church with good ventilation. The ceiling is quite high.”
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Riveros prays for another kind of virus to sweep through the parish: “Loving and serving people in need.”
Nativity continues operating its food bank, helping some 250 families each week. Volunteers prepare the bags.
“What would we be without them?” Riveros said.
One highlight of the Advent season is sacred music, but it’s muted this year at Nativity. As in many parishes, the church has suspended its choir to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Xochitl Alvarez, a 61-year-old nurse from El Salvador, is trying not to lose faith this Christmas. She attended the feast day Mass with son Brandon, 24, and she prays every day for the virus to pass.
“It is an honor to come to pray in front of our Virgin for the family and your community, but always without neglecting safety,” Alvarez said in Spanish.
Wary of crowds, Mauricio Pinzon, a 44-year-old husband and father from Colombia, takes advantage of the lesser-attended weekday masses. Pinzon is a parish volunteer.
“I think you have to set an example. These are times of brotherhood and fellowship.”
In a normal year, Nativity offers an Advent communal penance service where people can seek forgiveness for their sins as they prepare for the coming of the Christ child. Visiting priests boost the number to 16 hearing confessions from some 400 people.
This year, though, parishioners who turn out will be broken into smaller groups and assigned to one of three rooms, no more than 50 at a time.
A new message went out this year along with Nativity’s traditional words of encouragement:
“Don’t wait until the last session to go to confession. Our parish priests will not be able to accommodate a last-minute, pre-Christmas rush.”
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