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Cathedral of the Madeleine is among the first churches in Utah to reopen amid COVID-19

Jewish, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist and Latter-day Saint congregations among those who are still waiting

Ursula Quintana, center, and her mother, Joleen Rogers, second from left, sit together before Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Tuesday, May 12, 2020.
Ursula Quintana, center, and her mother, Joleen Rogers, second from left, sit together before Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Tuesday, May 12, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Before officially returning to a normal schedule Monday, the Cathedral of the Madeleine opened its doors Sunday for a “trial run.”

About 30 Catholic parishioners attended Sunday Mass. Rows of pews were taped off to ensure families and individuals sat no closer than 6 feet apart. Some wore masks, others did not, but overall, Father Martin Diaz said it “felt great” to be moving in this direction.

“There are a couple of things we need to work on this week, but I thought it went very well,” Father Diaz said Monday. “We’re very happy to be moving in this direction. We’re moving very cautiously. We’re telling people very strongly that no one has an obligation to attend — you can be at home if you need to be home — but most importantly, be safe. The health of the people is the most important thing.”

The Cathedral of the Madeleine was one of a few houses of worship to reopen this week after Utah Gov. Gary Herbert eased restrictions for social distancing.

People maintain space between each other as they receive communion from Very Rev. Martin Diaz during Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Tuesday, May 12, 2020.
People maintain space between each other as they receive communion from Very Rev. Martin Diaz during Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Tuesday, May 12, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, churches in Utah and across the nation began closing temporarily in mid-March. During that time, many faith leaders turned to technology and online resources to shepherd their flocks and stay in touch.

On May 3, The Mission Church in South Jordan held an outdoor service in a parking lot.

Starting Monday, Father Diaz said the Cathedral of the Madeleine will return to its normal schedule with two daily Masses and four Sunday Masses.

“We’re open but we’re not expecting to be overcrowded,” he said. “We’re limited to about one fourth of our capacity, a max of about 150 people.”

The Rev. Joseph Delka, parochial vicar of the Cathedral of the Madeleine and vocation director of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said they are working on a way to have parishioners sign up for a Mass while reiterating that measures are in place to ensure proper social distancing and sanitation.

Some pews are taped off to preserve social distancing during Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Tuesday, May 12, 2020.
Some pews are taped off to preserve social distancing during Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Tuesday, May 12, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“At-risk groups are still encouraged to stay home and we will continue livestreaming the Masses for those who are unable to come,” Father Delka wrote in an email. “This is a complex task that we want to do well for the health and safety of all who come. And so we ask for patience as we work out the details.”

In a letter dated May 7, the Most Rev. Oscar A. Solis, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, cautioned Utah’s 300,000 Catholics to “not get too excited or over confident to let our guards down.” Pastors and administrators have been counseled to use prudent discretion in determining how to move forward and community health guidelines must be followed.

“This is a critical time for our church to reignite the faith of the people of God,” Bishop Solis wrote. “Let us proceed with extreme caution, slowly but safely to help our parish community adjust to the ‘new normal’ brought about by the pandemic. ... Let us all work together and observe the guidelines dutifully.”

The Most Rev. Oscar A. Solis of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.
Intermountain Catholic

Rabbi Samuel L. Spector of Congregation Kol Ami said his congregation is fortunate to have several epidemiologists and other health care experts who are willing to be part of a task force. They will council together and make a “responsible and informed choice” to return when the time is right.

“Our top priority is the health and safety of our congregants. That said, we are in no rush to reopen until we know that it is safe,” Rabbi Spector said. “I think we want to see what happens with the reopening of the state and if we see an increase in cases before we make any decisions.”

In a letter to the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, the Rt. Rev. Scott B. Hayashi wrote there is an understandable desire to return to the way we were a short two months ago, but people must be patient.

“It has become clear that it is impossible to forecast a date to safely resume full in-person worship. The virus does not answer to us. We answer to the virus,” Bishop Hayashi wrote. “How quickly or slowly the virus will recede largely depends on how we behave. Reopening while the virus is still spreading only gives it the opportunity to continue its upward trajectory. The Diocese of Utah will contribute to mitigating the virus, not spreading it. As your bishop, I find it is important we have a clear road map for the way forward, even without being able to predict a definite date to safely resume in-person worship and outreach.”

The Rev. Steve Aeschbacher of the First Presbyterian Church agrees. While it’s still only groups of 20, 6 feet apart and wearing masks, it’s not time yet, he said.

“For us that means we will stay online only for now,” the pastor said. “We are looking forward to being physically together again but want to do it in a way that is healthy for our congregation and for our neighbors.”

At least one mosque in Sandy has discussed plans to reopen for prayers with social distancing, according to Imam Shuaib Din of the Utah Islamic Center. A recent newsletter also invited Muslims wishing to host 10 people for Iftar at the new Masjid to sign up and pay a fee during Ramadan.

The Rev. Kim James, pastor of Ogden First United Methodist Church, wrote in an email that Bishop Karen Oliveto, leader of the Mountain Sky Conference, has asked all United Methodist churches in the region of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana to not hold in-person services in church buildings until at least June, possibly longer. They will continue to have worship, classes and meetings via technology.

Until then, faith leaders are concerned about making sure their churches are properly cleaned, the possible need to maintain social distancing when people return and wearing masks. Most of the members in her congregation are over 65 years old.

“We worry about our congregation members’ natural desire to be close to one another and show signs of affection through hugs, handshakes and close proximity. Yes, we probably could tape Xs on the seats where people could sit to make sure they stay apart in the sanctuary. But would we also then lose our sense of community? Or, in our desire and need for community, would we violate social distancing? How would we enforce social distance?” Rev. James wrote. “For now, I’m glad to have the reprieve provided by our United Methodist bishop and Utah’s governor. This down time allows us to focus on the digital ministries we’re doing and not have to spread ourselves over two different audiences.”

President Russell M. Nelson spoke out Wednesday, May 6, in a video posted to his social media accounts that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is preparing step-by-step communications about when and where gatherings for worship will resume in its meetinghouses and temples. Church leaders will continue to exercise an abundance of caution, he said.

“As we cautiously move forward to a more normal way of life, church leaders will continue to monitor information and determine how soon we may again gather in our meetinghouses and temples in various locations,” he said in the video. “We will clearly communicate, step by step, when and where such gatherings and other church-sponsored activities may be resumed.”

Since the video was released, the church has announced the reopening of 34 temples in the first of a four-phase plan to return to full operation. The church suspended Sunday worship services and closed temples in March.