Eric and Donna Ervin unfolded two beach chairs, positioning them on the concrete outside St. Raymond of Penafort Roman Catholic Church in Mount Airy.
The couple take their faith seriously and had been back to worshiping at St. Raymond for months, often inside. But with Philadelphia reinstating its indoor mask mandate, the Ervins chose to take advantage of their parish’s outdoor option Sunday, sitting close enough outside the church building on East Vernon Road to hear the speakers.
“I don’t want to wear the diaper on my face anymore,” said Eric Ervin, who lives in Abington but still worships at St. Raymond, where he grew up and served as an altar boy four decades ago. “I just can’t breathe with that thing on.”
With the Sunday return of weekly, in-person Mass obligation after a 15-month COVID-19 reprieve, some area Catholics remained cautious, distancing in pews and sharing the sign of peace via waves instead of handshakes. Others said they chose instead to continue life much as it was pre-pandemic.
Inside St. Raymond, more than half of the crowd of over 100 worshipers wore masks.
The church’s singers stood socially distanced, with plastic partitions separating them. While some people remained unmasked, despite the city’s rule, the church reserved its choir loft for those who choose to only be around those who were masked.
The Rev. Christopher Walsh, the church’s pastor, said it’s been a balancing act since the beginning of the pandemic.
“As a pastor, it’s a tension between trying to be understanding that everyone’s experiencing this pandemic differently, and wanting people to be able to practice the faith and not be crippled by fear,” said Walsh. “We’ve tried within our space to accommodate the different preferences of people in that space, and do it charitably.”
St. Raymond has twice-weekly COVID-19 testing and offers weekly COVID-19 vaccination clinics. Walsh has hosted talks with Catholic medical ethicists about why it’s acceptable and encouraged to get inoculated. Generally, St. Raymond parishioners have been eager to be vaccinated and take pandemic precautions seriously, Walsh said.
The church still livestreams Mass, with multiple cameras set up and one confessional retrofitted to be a streaming studio. More than 100 households were tuned in Sunday to the 10 a.m. service. (The Archdiocese of Philadelphia permits virtual attendance for those who can’t worship in person because of health issues or caregiving responsibilities. Archbishop Nelson Pérez also said in a statement that those who have “serious anxiety about being a part of large groups at this time” are free from the obligation.)
Absent a dispensation, skipping Mass otherwise is considered a sin by the Roman Catholic Church.
With the delta variant and a rise in COVID-19 cases, crowds at the church’s COVID-19 testing events are growing again, said Walsh, who during Mass encouraged those who were not vaccinated to mask around others. During prayers, Deacon Bill Bradley remembered those who work in public health roles.
“Help us to think of the needs of all citizens as we seek to defeat this virus,” Bradley prayed.
Later, Walsh echoed the message.
“Please, let’s be respectful of others and get through this,” the pastor said.
Donna Adams is happy to wear a mask — she chose purple to go with her dress and necklace — at church, and anywhere else inside, she said.
“I’m vaccinated, but I wear my mask for the comfort of everybody else,” said Adams, who drives from Delaware to St. Raymond, a predominantly Black church that draws worshipers from across the region.
Though the archbishop just reinstated the in-person Mass obligation, Adams has been making the trek to St. Raymond most weeks for months.
“I just really want to be here, among other people,” said Adams. “I feel comfortable.”