As churches across the archdiocese reopened to the public for Masses last month, it’s no secret that parishioners did not flock back in their pre-coronavirus numbers in the initial Sundays. Even if they had been inclined, social distancing measures put in place to maintain safety and order would have precluded any kind of rush.
At Holy Cross parish in the Bronx, the growth in the worshipping congregation has been more of a slow build, with the numbers pushing upward. Some Masses are gaining 10 or 15 people each week, while others are holding steady.
Father John Higgins, the pastor, Father Vincent Druding, the parochial vicar, and other parish staff members, deserve credit for the way they have welcomed returning parishioners. Father Higgins, in an interview last week, spoke about creating YouTube videos, in English and Spanish, to give parishioners pertinent information about how to return to church. With both videos attracting more than 1,000 viewers, Father Higgins lightheartedly said he wished that number of people were coming to weekly Masses at his church in the borough’s Soundview section.
Even so, things are moving in the right direction, Father Higgins said, as each Sunday’s Masses bring “people we haven’t seen before.”
Many others “are still anxious about coming,” said Father Higgins, and with the dispensation for Sunday Mass attendance still in place, they are opting to stay home for the time being.
At Holy Cross, and other parish churches, many unsung heroes are helping to welcome the returning parishioners. Father Higgins is bolstered by the unwavering support of a top-shelf roster of ushers who are spread throughout the church at every Mass.
Junior Figueroa, the leader of the ushers, is a regular at the 10:30 a.m. Mass in Spanish on Sunday. His habitual church attendance played a role in his becoming an usher. “I never liked to miss Mass,” he said. He’s been serving as the leader of the ushers for more than 20 years.
Making sure that social distancing is being observed in church is Job No. 1 for Figueroa and his crew. It’s important work, especially as attendance at the 10:30 Mass has crept higher from week to week.
He explained that some parishioners were formerly under the impression that the spot where they sat each week was theirs forevermore. With some pews and seats now unavailable and the need to fill seats on a first-come basis, preselected seats are not possible.
The adjustments, necessary to keep people safe, have been “a big change” for the usher corps, but having a pastor like Father Higgins goes a long way, Figueroa said.
“He does a perfect job. I’ve never met a priest who is more responsible when something has to be done,” Figueroa said.
The same sentiments extend to Father Druding.
“The church has grown after we got these two priests, he said. “More and more people come to us. They love them.”
Figueroa traces much of his work as an usher to a principle he learned on his Cursillo weekend more than 20 years ago. “When I did the Cursillo, they said, ‘You have to help your priests.’”
It was Figueroa’s idea, a number of years ago, for ushers to wear burgundy jackets, a distinctive fashion choice he picked up when visiting a parish in Florida. The color switched to red this winter during a renewal of ministries at Holy Cross.
“That shows the people when they see the ushers with jackets that those are people of authority, who you can ask questions to,” Figueroa said.
The role of ushers has never been more important than at this time, when people are cautious and unsure, even in church. “They have done an exceptional job. They’ve taken their role very seriously,” Father Higgins said. “Their work has allowed our parishioners who have felt confident enough to come to know they’re safe.”
Tony Aviles is another longtime usher at Holy Cross, taking up the call shortly after he married his wife, Maria, at Holy Cross in 1978. For more than 20 years, he’s been the usher in charge at the 12:30 p.m. English Mass on Sundays.
But even a veteran like Aviles opted to start out at less attended daily Masses during the week when the church reopened to the public. He had been prepared by emails from the pastor, but he actually wanted to look at the church layout for worship at a time when less people would be present. “I got to see how Father had organized it,” he said. “We had a plan.”
Aviles is well known for the expression, “We smile them in, and we smile them out,” describing the welcoming role ushers play. Their responsibilities are actually much broader, especially these days.
Inside the single church entrance currently being used, ushers at Holy Cross greet people and offer hand sanitizer. Regarding safety, Aviles’ squad of ushers is spread throughout the church, with one or more stationed near a doorway where they would be able to duck out to make a 911 call, if necessary. Aviles said his concern for safety extends to everyone at the church, including the priest, parishioners and his fellow ushers.
Taking up the collection and guiding people in the Communion line safely back to their seats are other priorities. Aviles finds things can be accomplished more effectively with a wink or a word after Mass than a heated exchange. “It’s hard for us, but it’s also hard for parishioners, too,” he said of observing protocols meant to keep people safe.
Aviles said he has suggested to Father Higgins that they hang a huge reopening sign across the front of the church to let everyone in the neighborhood know the church is open. Meanwhile, he and the other ushers at Holy Cross will be doing their best to make sure it remains that way.