Saint Michael Parish in Canton, Bradford County, will be one of the first that is gradually able to resume public Masses

As four counties within the Diocese of Scranton’s territory entered the “yellow phase” of Pennsylvania’s reopening plan on Friday, May 8, 2020, Bishop Joseph C. Bambera announced that public Masses would be allowed to gradually resume for parishes in those specific communities.

Public Masses will initially only be allowed to resume in Bradford, Lycoming, Sullivan and Tioga counties, which were the first four counties to enter the “yellow phase.” Bishop Bambera directed that public Masses in Bradford, Lycoming, Sullivan and Tioga counties could not begin until at least Monday, May 18, 2020, ensuring parishes have the proper time to develop plans to protect the safety and well-being of all parishioners.

“A slow, steady, gradual approach will best enable us to regather,” Bishop Bambera said, emphasizing “gradual” to ensure the health of all the faithful, clergy and the community. In addition to opening their doors for public Masses, parish churches in the four designated counties will also be allowed to offer sacramental confessions and the celebration of wedding and funeral liturgies, but only with strict adherence to current social distancing guidelines and the mandate that no more than 25 people gather in one place at one time.

Bishop Bambera also announced that during the “yellow phase,” much-anticipated First Holy Communion and Confirmation Mass celebrations will be able to take place, with individual parishes determining when and how these are to occur. Lauding the faithful of the Diocese for radiating the “Light of Jesus” and expressing his appreciation for their patience and understanding during these “challenging and unprecedented times , ” Bishop Bambera stressed the call for sacrifice continues. He stated the preparations and planning underway by pastors and parishes for such a transitioning are immense and timelines for the reopening of churches may vary between parishes.

“Jesus’ embrace of our lives and our world powerfully reminds us of why we are charged to take so much care in reopening our churches,” the Bishop said, as he looks forward to welcoming faithful back to the pews. “Our careful attention to keeping each other safe as we regather is the greatest affirmation that we can offer in support of human life and, ultimately, our faith as Christians.” Bishop Bambera cautioned the guidelines required to resume public Masses are fluid and changes should be expected. However, he was also emphatic that it is important that the process begins. The gradual resuming of daily Masses on May 18 in the Bradford County Parish of Saint Michael in Canton was announced by its pastor, Father Joseph Kutch. In addition to Saint Michael Church, the parish community also encompasses the worship sites of Saint Aloysius Church, Ralston, and Saint John Nepomucene Church in Troy. Father Kutch stated the schedule for weekend Masses throughout the parish will be scaled back, with a reservation system being implemented for all liturgies in accordance with the limit of 25 congregants in attendance.

“What I am most thrilled about is the opportunity to now baptize and confirm one of our catechumens and confirm our other two candidates in the RCIA program,” Father Kutch commented. “Of course, we were unable to do this at this year’s Easter Vigil.” Those sacraments are now scheduled to be conferred and celebrated in the parish on the Vigil of Pentecost Sunday on Saturday, May 30.

“This is particularly important to me and our parish,” Father continued, “because once our catechumen is baptized and confirmed and his fiancé is also confirmed, they plan on receiving the Sacrament of Matrimony on June 20 here at Saint Michael’s Church.” The rural pastor also said he is looking forward to the celebration of the sacraments of First Holy Communion and Confirmation for the parish children in the near future. Father Andrew Hvozdovic admitted he initially had mixed feelings about moving his parish, Church of the Epiphany in Sayre, Bradford County, from the socalled “red phase” to the “yellow phase.” “One on hand,” the Epiphany pastor said, “I thought, ‘this is great,’ then reality set in and I thought, ‘how do we make this happen?’”

Father Hvozdovic stated that once the guidance measures and materials for reopening the churches were issued by the Diocese and shared with the Parish Pastoral Council, members were “overwhelmed with initial wonder as to how we would safely be able to make this work.”

Not surprisingly, according to Father, reaction from parish faithful was quick and enthusiastic as parishioners devoutly looked forward to rushing back to church. “Well, not so fast,” he responded.

Blessed with a large worship site able to seat 500 people, Epiphany Church will utilize its capacity to abide by social-distancing requirements for the two dozen worshippers allowed in the church at any given time. Separate doors to enter and exit the church are also available.

The reopening process will begin with the parish’s celebration of daily Mass at 12:10 p.m.

“The opportunity to attend will be offered first to the family of the Mass’ intention and the family requesting the intention,” Father Hvozdovic said. “Then whatever space is available will be on a first-call order system,” to be operated by members of a newly formed Pandemic Coordinating Team.

According to the pastor, the first several weekend Masses to be offered at the reopened parish church will be dedicated to the celebrations of First Holy Communion, Confirmation, and RCIA sacraments.

With regard to First Communion and Confirmation, Father explained, Masses will be limited to just a few of those children receiving the sacrament and their family members. “This would probably take us into the middle of June,” he said.

The Sunday morning Mass at 9 a.m. will also continue to be livestreamed from Epiphany Church.

Father Bryan Wright, pastor of Holy Child Parish in Mansfield, which includes Saint Mary of Czestochowa Church in Blossburg, announced a preliminary schedule of Masses between the two worship sites has been tentatively set as the Tioga County faith community moves forward in its reopening phase.

Holy Child Church, Mansfield, will host a weekend vigil Mass on Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday morning Mass at 11:15 a.m. Daily liturgies at the main worship site will now be celebrated on Thursday at 6 p.m. and Friday at 8:30 a.m.

Saint Mary’s in Blossburg will be open for Sunday liturgy at 9 a.m., with weekday Masses scheduled for Monday and Tuesday at 12:10 p.m.

Attendance for Masses is by invitation only. The parish churches will be open for private prayer as follows: Holy Child – Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Thursday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sunday, 2 to 4 p.m. Saint Mary’s – Wednesday, Thursday & Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 12 noon. “We are very happy to be part of this moving-forward process,” Father Wright said.

“As far as we’re concerned, the congregations for the Masses will be sizable groups, especially given our staggered schedule of celebrations,” he continued. “Many people are excited, but some will be cautious and may not want to return immediately, and that’s understandable.” In Lycoming County, Father Brian Van Fossen, pastor of Saint Joseph the Worker Parish in Williamsport, is also moving forward with safety in mind. “We are approaching this time with tender care,” the Williamsport pastor said as his parish prepares to reopen its church doors.

“We are planning with the Parish Council and our staff in order to allow people time to spend in prayer as well as continue our ministries to those in need.” Father Van Fossen indicated the parish church will be open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and offer Holy Hour from 4 to 5 p.m. Plans are also progressing to expand the Holy Mass celebration schedule in order to offer evening times for those wishing to attend – particularly those who serve at the nearby hospital. He also stated Saint Joseph the Worker will continue its online presence through YouTube and the virtual presentation of Eucharistic liturgies.

“We are very excited to welcome people back to the Sunday celebration in the church,” Father said, “but we are also approaching with caution, just in case we are reverted back to the ‘red zone.’” At this time, parishes in the seven other counties that make-up the Diocese of Scranton (Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming counties), which remain in the “red phase” of Pennsylvania’s reopening plan will not be able to resume public Masses at this time. Pastors in those communities have been encouraged to begin planning for their eventual transition to the “yellow phase.”