TIVERTON — For Lynne Swass, hearing Father Shemek Lepak tell his parishioners during Sunday’s 11 a.m. Mass at St. Theresa Church that this would be the last time they would celebrate the liturgy as a congregation for a while made her sad.
“It’s just sad. I’m not afraid. I know that everything is going to be okay,” Swass said.
Swass, who attended the Mass along with her husband Doug and three of their children, Jillian, 17; Timmy, 14; and Douglas, 12; joined about 50 fellow parishioners who practiced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended “social distancing” as the deadly COVID-19 coronavirus continues to spread across the country and around the world
“I just have this quiet stillness in my heart that we’re going to get through this.”
Father Shemek told the congregation that in his native Poland, much of the nation had already shut down its borders and most social activities to prevent the rapid spread of the virus. He reassured them, however, that they would still be together in spirit.
“Go on the parish website, watch EWTN, use online sources,” he said, as they continue to pray separately, but still together, as a faith community.
He said that even though the church will be closed for the foreseeable future, the parish secretary will still be at her post answering calls and messages from parishioners and updating the parish website to provide information.
On Monday, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin announced the suspension of public Masses in the Diocese of Providence.
“In light of the growing coronavirus crisis in Rhode Island, in response to the request of public officials, and upon the recommendation of health experts, I hereby direct that the celebration of all public Masses and other liturgical services be suspended in the Diocese of Providence effective Tuesday, March 17, 2020 and continuing until further notice,” Bishop Tobin said in a statement.
The bishop said that the celebration of funerals and weddings may continue, but must be celebrated without Mass using approved liturgical forms.
“Every effort should be made to limit the size of the congregation to necessary participants only and the health precautions previously announced by the Diocese of Providence and the State of Rhode Island should be carefully followed.”
Bishop Tobin noted that to the extent possible, churches should remain open during the day for personal prayer, devotions and visits to the Blessed Sacrament, while individual confessions may also be heard during this time.
“This is an exceedingly difficult and painful decision, but it is necessitated by our commitment to promote the health and well-being of our brothers and sisters, especially the frail and the elderly. That is a moral priority we should all share. May we continue to pray for and support one another in these very trying times, and through the intercession of Saint Patrick, Saint Joseph and Our Lady of Providence, may God be with us,” the bishop said.
On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 4,226 total cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., with 75 deaths.
As of press time, the number of Rhode Island COVID-19 positive (including presumptive positive) cases stands at 23, with 403 people who have tested negative at R.I. Department of Health Laboratories, and 149 tests results still pending. Approximately 3,000 people have been instructed to self-quarantine in Rhode Island. This number include approximately 1,700 people from Cranston High School West.
According to the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center, as of Tuesday, there were 196,639 total cases of COVID-19 confirmed worldwide, with 7,893 deaths and 80,840 total recovered from the virus.
In a Friday, March 13, letter to parishioners at St. Kevin and St. Benedict’s Churches in Warwick, where he serves as pastor, Father Robert Marciano said he was informed that day that all individuals who attended the First Penance Service at St. Kevin Church on Tuesday, March 10, have been quarantined for two weeks because a parent of a child at the service has presumptively tested positive for COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.
Father Marciano revealed Friday that he is part of that group, which also includes Fathers Roland Simoneau and David Gaffney who both assisted at the service.
“As of today — besides the parent who has presumptively tested positive for the virus — no one else who attended the First Penance Service has shown any symptoms, including Father Marciano, Father Simoneau, or Father Gaffney,” Father Marciano wrote in the letter.
On Tuesday afternoon, Bishop Tobin announced new measures to assist individuals out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The bishop authorized the diocesan office of Catholic Social Services of RI to distribute Stop and Shop gift cards to those individuals who are temporarily out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The gift cards, ranging from $25-$50 will be available for distribution at the Diocesan Social Service Satellite Offices in Woonsocket, West Warwick, and Wakefield, beginning Wednesday, March 18.
To receive a gift card and more information, individuals are asked to contact any of the three satellite offices providing services: the West Warwick Office at 401-823-6211, the Woonsocket Office at 401-762-2849, or the Wakefield Office at 401-783-3149.
Last Friday, Catholic Schools Superintendent Dan Ferris announced that Catholic schools in the diocese would follow the recommendations of Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo and the state Director of Health Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott that K-12 schools in the state close to students the week of March 16.
Ferris said that some schools will continue instruction by distance and virtual learning for their students who will be at home.
“Parents of pre-kindergarten students should check with their Catholic school to determine if their child’s pre-kindergarten program is in session,” Ferris said in a release.
Parents are asked to call the Catholic School Office at 401-278-4550 with any questions.
“It’s sad to begin with, but it’s also understandable considering the circumstances,” St. Theresa parishioner Greg Smaldone said of the closures necessitated by the pandemic.
Smaldone and his wife Lisa, a Catholic School teacher in nearby Fall River, Massachusetts, will seek spiritual nourishment by watching televised Masses broadcast on the EWTN network.
“It’s the right thing to do, to hold off until our situation changes completely,” Doug Smaldone said.
Lisa Smaldone said that the current crisis also brings an opportunity for Catholics to focus with a renewed intensity on their faith.
“While such cancellations are perhaps disappointing for loyal and faithful Catholics, it’s the perfect opportunity to spend time in prayer at home and actively utilize terrific resources as the Relevant Radio App,” she said.
“During this Lenten season and with all the challenges associated with the virus, we should also pray for the sick, elderly and each other, and provide support in all ways that we can.”
St. Theresa parishioners Rebecca and Daniel McComb believe that their community will remain strong, united in strong faith, even though they will not be able to gather for worship for a while.
“It’s the right thing to do to keep people safe,” said Daniel McComb. “We will worship and offer private intentions daily.”
Rebecca McComb was encouraged by their pastor Father Shemek’s vow to continue praying right along with them, even though the congregation will need to separate for a while.
“It gives us hope because we’re not alone,” she said. “Even though we have to be in our separate spaces, we’re all together as a community at heart.”