ABSECON — Mary Roman never missed a month of church attendance in her adult life until houses of worship were closed this spring to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Roman, 62, of Galloway Township, made sure to celebrate Mass in person with her fellow Catholics for the first time in months Sunday at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton church.
“The church service was beautiful. I was happy to be back,” said Roman, who attended the church’s groundbreaking during the 1970s. “He (Fr. Joshua Nevitt) was so glad to see us. ... It felt like home.”
This was the first Sunday that houses of worship were allowed to invite the general public back inside their doors since Gov. Phil Murphy banned public gatherings.
Roman sat through the hour-long service wearing a mask, which was required of all attendees, but this was the first time she ever wore a mask for that long, so she did take it off a couple of times during the Mass.
During the previous weeks, Roman had been watching the livestream of the 10 a.m. service. The church will continue livestreaming its 10 a.m. Mass.
The churches that did open Sunday, including the Christian nondenominational Praise Tabernacle in Egg Harbor Township, have taken measures to keep both worshippers and the clergy safe from COVID-19.
Among the actions taken at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton were: custom stickers placed on the floor 6 feet apart that said, “follow the way of the Lord”; Holy Communion distributed at the end of the service instead of the middle; and members arriving at the church were given assigned seats to ensure social distancing inside the sanctuary.
Kevin Walls, 55, of Galloway Township, is the chairman of the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s reopening committee. He said the church spent $500 to buy a “bioblaster” to quickly clean the church pews in between services.
Nevitt said it was exciting leading up to the first Sunday Mass with parishioners in months.
“It was emotional having our people back seeing their faces in the pews and knowing how joyful they were to be back,” Nevitt said. “It was emotional, happy and joyful for us as well.”
Praise Tabernacle Senior Pastor Steve Rahter greeted the members attending the 9 a.m. Sunday service with a noncontact forehead infrared thermometer.
Anyone who was running a fever, which is one of the possible symptoms of having COVID-19, would have been encouraged to not enter the building, Rahter said.
Praise Tabernacle’s efforts to accommodate both social distancing and the number of worshippers that attend the church meant limiting the sanctuary to 50 people with members-only sitting in every other row of chairs.
All the doors were open, so no one had to touch a door handle to enter or leave.
An indoor overflow room that showed the livestream of the service was setup to handle another 50 people if they arrived. There also was a second service at 10:30 a.m. outdoors where the chairs were spaced far enough apart on the property to handle all of the people who wanted to attend.
Rahter’s wife, Laurie, one of the church’s leaders, gave the sermon during the Sunday services. She was preaching on intimacy and how intimacy is something that happens in the heart.
“You don’t have to be in the building to have intimacy,” Steve Rahter said.
Worshipping and having fellowship together in person was lost when members were forced to watch just a livestream of the service. Praise Tabernacle attendees sang their hearts out together for the first time in months to the 30 minutes of song that started their Sunday services.
Kevin Anderson, 56, of Egg Harbor Township, has been attending Praise Tabernacle for the past 15 years.
Anderson has been watching the livestream while he has not been allowed inside the building. He also attended the outdoor service in recent weeks. He was happy come back inside the church. Pastor Rahter has been good to him. He went to visit Anderson’s mother and his son during times when they have been hospitalized, Anderson said.
“To me, it’s just a wonderful place to be,” Anderson said.