The COVID-19 testing site at Church of Incarnation / Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, in Minneapolis, has two people to help with check in. The ones wearing green vests can provide Spanish interpretation. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Since the start of the pandemic, Thang Le and his elderly parents have been attending Sunday Catholic Mass from their Brooklyn Park living room.

Normally, they would go to St. Anne–St. Joseph Hien Church in north Minneapolis, where Mass is celebrated in Vietnamese. These days, they still stand during the prayers, sing the hymns and sit during the first and second readings and the priest’s homily. Only they’re doing it all via YouTube.

Their church reopened in June following months in shutdown, but Le and his parents aren’t planning on going back anytime soon. At ages 77 and 68, Le’s father and mother will wait for a vaccine before they return to church in person.

Some things are different, of course. Since no priest is available to consecrate the bread and wine, there is no communion. The priest gives his final blessing before that part of the Mass. And  “there’s no kneeling at home,”, says Le, 33, who came to the U.S. with his parents in 1992.

The entire family did, however, stop by another Minneapolis church last weekend for a different reason. Across the street from the Church of the Incarnation/Sagrado Corazón de Jesús in south Minneapolis, the three were among more than 300 people who showed up for free COVID-19 tests. They did so as a precaution. 

Among them was Le, who works in annuity operations for U.S. Bank, who said he was looking for a free test partly because he wasn’t sure that his insurance would cover it. His mother’s health insurance would only cover one test, and she already got one a few months ago. 

“We just don’t want to pay out of pocket,” Le said. 

The Le family’s experiences highlight some of the ways in which Catholic churches that serve large immigrant populations are responding to the pandemic. Across the Twin Cities, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has developed protocols for all churches to follow in order to stop the spread of the virus. That includes making sure hand sanitizer is available and that congregants are following Governor Tim Walz’s executive order on the use of facemasks. 

The order, issued in May, instructed religious gatherings not to exceed 25 percent of a building’s capacity. Parishes are instructed to limit attendance at Mass to this number, or to 250 people, whichever is less. Catholics who aren’t going to Mass also shouldn’t feel guilty.

“If the faithful feel safer at home, the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days continues to be dispensed,” Archbishop Bernard Hebda wrote publicly in May

Free COVID-19 tests show high positive rates among Latino parishioners

Incarnation, which holds Masses in Spanish and serves a majority Latino population, has helped host two free COVID-19 test days this month in partnership with the Minneapolis Health Department. Hennepin Healthcare took charge of processing the tests.

At the event, half of the people assisting the free COVID-19 testing were volunteers and members of Incarnation. The other half were staffers with the city health department. 

Nearly 400 people took advantage of the first free testing event on August 1. Of them, 58 tested positive for the virus, a rate of 12.5 percent. Minneapolis Health Department’s specialist Evalyn Carbrey described that result as significantly higher than the overall figure across the state, which hovers around 5 percent. 

The city health department did not collect demographic data on the people who obtained free testing that day, Carbrey said. But it did later conduct “a closer analysis by surname” and concluded that more than 20 percent of those with Hispanic last names tested positive for the virus. 

Carbrey said several reasons factor into the high positive rate for Latinos, among them that many in the community work frontline jobs in workplaces like warehouses, grocery stores and restaurants that could expose them to the virus. 

“Many don’t have the luxury to work while sitting at home behind their laptops like other people do,” she said. 

The free tests also offer opportunities for those who may not want to go to a health clinic because of their immigration status, Carbrey said. The city only collects names, birthdates and phone numbers of people who take the test. 

Alfredo Galvan was among those who came to take a free test last Saturday. Galvan had a fever four days before and hadn’t worked at his job as a car mechanic at Intermaco Auto Service since then. 

“Right now I cannot work because my boss thinks I have the virus,” Galvan said. 

Galvan also doesn’t have health insurance. But he heard about the free testing while listening to Radio Rey, one of two Spanish-speaking radio stations in the Twin Cities. The Minnesota Health Department paid for announcements on both the radio and local Univision TV station. 

After getting his test, which he said went smoothly, Galvan walked across the street to admire the towering brick exterior of Incarnation, which is more than century old and under historic designation. Galvan is not a member of Incarnation, but he said he’s been meaning to visit the building for some time.

As Galvan stood near the church’s front steps, Daniel Rodas walked up, clad in a blue dress shirt, blue slacks and a matching blue mask. 

Rodas was getting ready to attend his granddaughter’s confirmation ceremony, a Catholic sacrament that children generally receive by their early teens. Rodas, who is originally from Ecuador and has been living in Minneapolis for 20 years, also isn’t a regular congregant at Incarnation. But he had been to this church before for the confirmation of another grandchild. 

Rodas said he was happy to have something to celebrate during the pandemic, even if the ceremony would be a little different because of social distancing. 

“We have to follow our guidelines from the Bible,” he said. 

Inside the church, a statue of the Our Lady of Quinche stood near the altar. Every other pew was roped off to enforce social distancing. Only members of the same family were allowed to sit together, holding one pew for themselves. 

Confessions leave the booth: placing a fan between priest and penitent

Father Kevin McDonough, the pastor at Incarnation, has been holding only in-person private Masses during the weekend for children celebrating their confirmations and first communions. He holds public Sunday Mass virtually for congregants to stream. He still has been holding daily weekday Masses, which draw lower attendance than Sunday Mass. All of these are an effort to keep attendance around 100 people or less.

McDonough had been hearing confessions that afternoon at the altar instead of inside the confessional. He sat in one chair and the congregant sat in another with a fan between them to blow their aerosols away (if not their sins).

McDonough, who would confirm 18 children at Saturday’s Mass, stepped outside to greet families arriving to attend the Mass. As they gathered, he stopped them and gave the guidelines for the evening. 

“Usually we have two main goals,” McDonough, speaking Spanish, told the congregants near the front stoop. “One, to worship and adore God; and two, to observe the Sacraments well. Today, we have a third goal: to not kill anyone with coronavirus.” 

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...