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Churches serve as major hubs and gathering places for Minnesota’s immigrant communities. But as social distancing and staying at home become the norm for the foreseeable future, churches are grappling with how to continue serving their communities while also keeping them safe.

After Governor Tim Walz issued a shelter-in-place order last week, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis (which includes 23 parishes serving Latinos, many offering Spanish-language services) canceled all in-person masses and large church events for at least the two weeks Walz’s order will be in effect. 

In the meantime, the Archdiocese encouraged Catholic churches in the Twin Cities to hold online masses and keep buildings open “when possible.” Fulfilling these edicts can prove challenging.

Fr. Kevin McDonough, who is pastor at the Church of the Incarnation in south Minneapolis, a predominantly Latino and immigrant parish, said he keeps his church’s doors open during regular 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. hours. This is mainly to provide “pastoral care,” which McDonough explained means “helping people face their trauma and their needs.” 

Part of this care includes hearing confessions, which for now don’t take place inside the traditional confessional box. Instead, McDonough hears them from the altar facing a parishioner who is seated seven to eight feet away. “We pray together that way,” McDonough said. 

If other people happen to be in the church at the time, they must stay back in order to comply with social distancing requirements and to give the confessor some privacy. 

Incarnation’s staff therapist remains available to parishioners, though she mostly speaks to them by phone, McDonough said. The church also still holds its usual Sunday food drives. 

Other local Catholic churches serving immigrants have taken different approaches.

Holy Rosary Church, located in Minneapolis’s Phillips neighborhood and attended by many Latinos, has kept its office closed for the past few weeks. Staff there are responding to phone calls and emails when they can. 

During a few recent Saturdays, Holy Rosary’s pastor, Fr. Jerry Stookey, held drive-through confessions in the church’s parking lot. He stopped this practice recently because he said some parishioners had been picked up (under separate circumstances) by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and he didn’t want to create a situation that could put them at risk.

“It endangers folks more along the lines of the police than COVID-19,” Stookey wrote to the Sahan Journal in an email. “If they don’t have a driver’s license, or proper papers in the car, or immigration documents in order—it could invite disaster into their lives. No confessions, no detention center!” 

Though he’s not conducting online mass, Stookey holds a daily mass with his “small community of Dominican friars” in the church’s small priory chapel. The daily mass, Stookey wrote in a March 31 bulletin, is meant “for the parishioners of Holy Rosary Parish and for their intentions, and for all our family and friends, during this difficult time.”

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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...