'An empty church, but still saying Mass'

Area pastors encourage congregants to find lessons in this strange time


Two priests at St. Thomas More Catholic Church walked down the aisle of an empty church March 20 to begin their daily Friday Mass.

Normally, daily services like these garner crowds of about 200 congregants. These days, only about a dozen or so staff, including the priests themselves, dot the gathering space of the Centennial church. Instead of 17 weekly services, the 12,000-person parish is now down to seven masses per week, or one every day.

Now that Gov. Jared Polis has ordered all in-person services of more than 10 people to be canceled as a measure to combat the spread of COVID-19, most people participating in the Mass will be watching the livestreamed celebration from their homes. Across the state, as places of worship experience mandated cancellations for the first time in their history, they are finding creative ways to build the sense of community that coming together as a congregation engenders each week.

“This is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen,” St. Thomas More IT manager Bob Lehto said while waiting for the service to begin. “An empty church, but still saying Mass.”

About 150 people tuned into the Friday livestream service. By the following Monday, the taping had about 1,400 views.

Many other places of worship throughout the Denver metro area have also begun streaming their services. 

Some, like Cherry Hills Community Church, an Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Highlands Ranch, have found other solutions in addition to livestreaming. The 4,500-person church is offering three “Drive Up Church” gatherings on weekends, similar to a drive-in movie. Cars entering from Grace Boulevard will be guided to staggered parking spaces, and people can view the service from inside their vehicles.

At St. Andrew United Methodist Church, also in Highlands Ranch, Bible studies and support groups have been moved to video chats for the more than 3,000-person church. Soon, Rev. Mark Feldmeir plans to begin daily live video chats on Facebook, where he can respond to people’s comments and provide a brief devotion.

“Despite the challenges that the current coronavirus is creating, it’s also creating new opportunities to think creatively about how we reach people,” Feldmeir said. 

By far the most common remedy for churches is to stream their worship service online. But this, of course, isn’t a perfect fix and doesn’t replace the opportunity to attend in person.

“It’s different when you’re leading worship in front of an empty house,” Feldmeir said. 

For St. Thomas More and other Catholic churches, this solution takes away the opportunity to receive Communion, an important sacrament within the faith, said Monsignor Tom Fryar. In this sacrament, which is practiced in every service, churchgoers line up to eat and drink what is believed to be the body and blood of Christ.

“It takes away the central element of our spiritual celebrations,” he said. “The Eucharist is the source and the summit of our spiritual life.”

While it’s undoubtedly a challenging time for places of worship, many pastors are encouraging their congregants to find the opportunities in this solitary time.

“The main lesson is that this is really challenging for people who think they’re in charge of their lives,” Fryar said. “We like to think so, but there is so much in our lives that we can’t control.”

To glean these lessons, Feldmeir is encouraging people to limit their intake of news and entertainment.

“In a strange way, this crisis becomes an opportunity for us to focus on what matters most to us,” he said. “Binge-watching ‘Mad Men,’ while it may be fun, it also may fill in the gaps that this opportunity creates for us to do some spiritual searching.”



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