By Roman Flores
EL CENTRO – A few faithful entered the athletic field of St. Mary’s School on Sunday morning.
The green grass was adorned with small, yellow flags and white spray-painted squares, marking where families could stand or sit in their own chairs to keep social distancing. Atop an outdoor stage sat an altar displaying the white cloths used in liturgy, while a large crucifix with a smaller Jesus corpus stood near the altar.
This and similar scenes unfolded over the weekend as Valley Catholics gathered for Communion services after Gov. Gavin Newsom recommended on Friday afternoon that Imperial County return to Phase One, requiring everyone to stay at home, except essential workers. In light of that recommendation, hours later the San Diego diocese suspended its plans to re-open public Masses starting the next day.
The parishes did served those who turned out for the weekend Masses.
“I give thanks to God for this moment that we’ve been given, the opportunity to receive the Body of Christ,” said Candy Valle before the 8:30 a.m. service in Brawley.
Valle said although it was sad what was happening, it was important for local Catholics to exercise prudence and obey the governor’s recommendation.
In a news conference Friday, Gov. Newsom recommended Imperial County go back to Stage One due to the consistent growth of COVID-19 cases there.
Over the past 14 days, California as a whole has seen a 5.3 percent increase in cases, while Imperial County had a 23 percent increase, Newsom said.
Imperial County has logged 6,187 positive cases and 81 deaths, according to numbers reported June 29 by the Public Health Department.
The cases have been stressing healthcare providers, such as El Centro Regional Medical Center and Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley, with many patients being sent to hospitals in nearby counties, including San Diego.
Newsom said 500 individuals had been transferred out of Imperial County hospitals in the last five weeks, an average of 17 daily.
Before the governor’s press conference, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy and Auxiliary Bishop John Dolan planned to celebrate public outdoor Masses in Brawley, El Centro, Imperial and Calexico.
Hours afterward, the Bishops met virtually with priests in the Valley. They decided to pause plans to resume Masses in public. They would, however, serve those faithful who already had planned to attend the weekend Masses. Those who arrived were given general absolution and were able to receive Holy Communion.
Yet even with the churches keeping to the schedule as planned, gone were the crowds of people who usually congregated for 7 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. services in El Centro and Brawley, respectively.
The faithful trickled in and gathered individually or in small, single-family clusters. Following social distancing guidelines of at least 6 feet apart, they stood with their families or sat on lawn chairs, some with umbrellas for shade from the desert sun.
El Centro Catholic’s altar sat under a large, white canopy while a few parishioners of the Catholic Communities of Brawley & Westmorland sat in the Sacred Heart School Ramada before the 8:30 a.m. service, walking to the open field as the service began.
The pastors made short statements acknowledging the situation and delivered brief Liturgies of the Word and homilies. They gave the final blessing, including general absolution, followed by distribution of Holy Communion, administered to people as they exited the athletic fields in social-distanced lines.
Father Mark Edney, pastor of El Centro Catholic and Dean of the Imperial Valley for the diocese, asked his parishioners to “please keep all those suffering from this virus in your prayers during this service” and “pray for our Church.”
The parishioners themselves said the services were bittersweet, noting they were happy to be back in a public setting, yet also sad about returning to staying in their homes, if the County Board of Supervisors adopts the governor’s recommendation.
“I work in a pharmacy and it’s very stressful even in there,” said Lori Soileau, a recent convert and parishioner at St. Mary Church in El Centro.
“I think it’s nice (being back at church), I just don’t think is going to happen though for another few weeks, regularly,” she said. “It’s a very sad situation.”
Richard Diaz, a parishioner of St. Margaret Mary Church in Brawley, said he missed public Masses.
“What can I say? We’ve just got to be safe,” he said.
Diaz said that though the stay-at-home order feels like being on house arrest, the faith is seeing him through.
“(It’s) the thing that keeps you going, or else you would figure there would be all kinds of suicides and other negative issues that… if you don’t see the little light at the end of the tunnel,” Diaz said.
“If it wasn’t for our faith, I don’t know where we’d be.”
_The Southern Cross