COVID took a harsh toll on South Florida houses of worship. A priest and 2 pastors died

©Miami Herald

MIAMI — Like many things since the coronavirus pandemic took hold, South Florida houses of worship have had to make dramatic changes. In the Miami Archdiocese, parishioners don’t hold hands as they recite the Lord’s Prayer, pews are emptier and the holy water has been put away.

The archdiocese also says that in the earlier days of the pandemic six out of 253 priests tested positive. One of them, Father William Muñiz of St. Henry Catholic Church in Pompano Beach, died of COVID-related complications in late July. He was 85.

All but one of the cases, the archdiocese said, occurred after it suspended in-person Masses mid-March and moved services online. Two months later, the archdiocese opted to lift that suspension while still taking precautions to safeguard churches from COVID-19.

“We need to be with one another and so virtual relationships just don’t do it,” said Archbishop Thomas Wenski. “They’re a good stopgap, but they’re not sufficient for coming back and encountering, not only the Lord, but encountering one another.”

“Christianity is a religion of community,” he said.

The same could be said for Judaism, Islam and other religions.

Since Florida is one of the states that considers religious services essential and exempt from social distancing mandates, houses of worship were never ordered by the state to close their doors or to limit their capacities, unlike in states like California, where shutdown orders were unsuccessfully challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead, religious leaders were left to decide how to best respond to the crisis unfolding around them.

The Miami Herald learned of churches that continued to meet in person throughout the pandemic. At least two experienced spread of the virus among parishioners, although church officials would not discuss those outbreaks.

The Herald reported last week that a Florida Lauderdale Baptist church pastor, Marcel Métayer, 63, and one of his assistant pastors, Féquière Espérant, 65, both succumbed to the virus.

While some churches stayed open for in-person worship throughout, many did not, and across South Florida yard signs have popped up like mushrooms after a forest rainstorm, beckoning the faithful to log onto virtual services.

Miami-Dade suggests that people attending religious services socially distance and meet in smaller groups, but that’s not a requirement either. And masks aren’t legally mandated inside Miami-Dade religious institutions. Broward County, however, does require social distancing and masks at church.

As a result, religious leaders across South Florida have adopted varying worship conditions to maintain their faith communities and address their congregations’ safety concerns.

“As we move to reopen, prudence — the ability to govern and discipline ourselves by the use of reason — must govern our actions,” Wenski wrote in a letter to parishioners announcing the return of in-person Mass.

It’s prudence that led the archdiocese to mandate that all parishes institute social distancing, sanitize between services and have hand sanitizer readily available despite having no legal obligation. Parishioners are also asked to wear a mask, though they may take it off to receive communion.

Still, only about 25% of the parishioners have returned to participating in-person, Wenski said. The rest are still watching live streams of Mass, which has not been easy on the parishes’ finances. With the combination of parishioners not being physically present to put their offerings into the collection basket and many experiencing ongoing job losses, some churches have “taken hits,” an archdiocese spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Wenski said, innovations in camera equipment and increasing sanitizing efforts have come at a cost.

But it’s not just the archdiocese that has innovated with coronavirus precautions. Other faith communities have developed their own approaches.

Saint Benedict’s Episcopal Church in Plantation has done drive-in services for the past five weeks. “People drive into our parking lot, park under the trees and I bring the altar out to them,” said Father Alberto Cutié, its rector.

As part of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida, which stopped in-person services at all its churches in March and hasn’t reinstated them, Cutié’s church was meeting for online services seven days a week before he decided to try something new.

“What we’ve accomplished is that those who feel completely unable to leave their houses continue to view our services online and participate that way,” he said.

Pastor Thad Thomas at Abundant Living Ministries in Pembroke Pines had a harder time striking a similar balance. He thought his congregation was ready to head back into the sanctuary for socially distanced services in July. But that turned out not to be true for everyone.

Some members still chose to listen in via radio from the parking lot, where the church had been holding drive-in services since March. For a while, Thomas addressed the varying levels of comfort by encouraging members to make their own decisions.

“If you feel comfortable coming in here and social distancing in the sanctuary, that’s fine. Just make sure you have your mask on and follow the guidelines,” he said. “If you prefer to stay in your cars, you’re welcome to stay in your cars.”

Eventually, the scale tipped: More members felt comfortable outdoors than they did in. So he decided to take everything back outside.

“Our key thing is safety, security and satisfaction here at our church,” he said.

The archdiocese obituary on Muñiz described him as a “father in every sense of the word.” A native of Nicaragua, he had three adult children and five grandchildren from his past life working for Pan Am and other airlines before he heeded the call to join the priesthood.

“He just decided to do more of God’s work instead of the rat race,” said William Muñiz, who would accompany his father as he took part in food and toy giveaways for the poor.

———

©2020 Miami Herald