As people start entering St. Benedict Abbot on 1300 Lehman St., they encounter blue tape and signs meant to enforce social distancing. Everyone is encouraged to wear masks and avoid being close to those outside their household, among other precautions.
With a diminished number of churchgoers, a volunteer sets up a tripod and a phone. In a second, a hundred people start joining through the official Facebook page, creating the peculiar new reality of this church during the pandemic.
Built in 1906, St. Benedict Abbot is one of eight Catholic parishes in Lebanon County, and the only one to offer services in Spanish and English. Father José Elías Mera Vallejos is the priest, officiating in both languages.
Having closed for COVID-19 back in March, the church leapt into social media, where they have since broadcasted religious services.
“We started the liturgy on Facebook, through the internet, to be connected with our people,” said Mera Vallejos. He admitted the challenge was to explain the pandemic “not with fear, but with seriousness, so we would take care of one another.”
Guadalupe Barba, a regular church volunteer, emphasized the church’s commitment to safety: “We don’t do anything that would put people at risk.”
Mera Vallejos also knows that the Spanish-speaking community faces a distinct cultural challenge.
“It’s not just about coming to Mass on Sundays, it’s a family atmosphere,” he elaborated. “It has affected us. Not being able to hug, to say hello.”
Mera Vallejos is glad, however, that they have reached people they couldn’t before.
“The church started leaving the temples and going to the houses,” he said.
The ongoing pandemic has also had an impact on the church’s finances. Office hours have been reduced in half, and the Parish has tried to reduce expenses and programs. Future events are planned but with caution, as nothing seems certain.
Even so, Mera Vallejos remains hopeful.
“There is no evil that lasts a thousand years, nor body that can resist it,” he said. “God will prevail after this pandemic. I want to encourage people to appreciate life over material things. Appreciate your family. Appreciate God. Don’t lose hope.”
In the meantime, St. Benedict will continue with its newfound online presence. And for those who attend physically, there is an additional request from Mera Vallejos after Mass has ended: “Please help us disinfect the church if you can.”
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