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‘Felt like homecoming’ - Forsyth County churches begin to gather again amid coronavirus
St. Brendan the Navigator Catholic Church gathers for in-person mass on Monday, May 25, 2020, the first time since the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta temporarily suspended services due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy St. Brendan the Navigator Catholic Church)

On Monday, Father Matthew Van Smoorenburg felt like a proud father at Thanksgiving.

As St. Brendan the Navigator Catholic Church gathered in person for mass for the first time in more than two months, the senior priest of the South Forsyth church relished seeing church members together again.

“It felt like everybody was home,” Fr. Van Smoorenburg said. “They call us father, and that’s because our role is a fatherly role. I’m sure a father on Thanksgiving feels great when everybody’s home for the Thanksgiving dinner, right? You’re glad to see everybody there. You’re happy to see them safe and healthy.”

The church off Shiloh Road in South Forsyth was one of the very first in the area to resume regular in-person worship services after months of connecting virtually during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Fr. Matthew Van Smoorenburg conducts mass at St. Brendan the Navigator Catholic Church on Monday, May 26, 2020. (Photo courtesy St. Brendan the Navigator Catholic Church)

A few weeks after Gov. Brian Kemp signaled churches could resume in-person services, several in Forsyth County are starting to finally announce their plans to gather again. 

This Sunday will be the first that Parkway Presbyterian Church gathers in person, with measures to comply with social distancing guidelines. First Redeemer Church released its “regathering plan,” with additional services and several safety measures in place to resume in-person services June 7. Mountain Lake Church unveiled a phased approach to resuming regular services in August. 

Georgia churches were never officially ordered to temporarily stop in-person services, but Gov. Brian Kemp urged them to, and they complied. 

St. Brendan followed orders from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta on March 16 for all member churches to suspend in-person masses. 

The church quickly transitioned to virtual religious services and had parishioners within their ministry teams make phone calls to stay connected.

“You do what you could,” Fr. Van Smoorenburg said. “And that’s what you had to be happy with.”

About a month later, Kemp gave places of worship the OK to resume in-person services with restrictions. Most hesitated to do so; they needed more time to think through how to implement all the proper safety measures. 

Two weeks ago, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta announced member churches could resume in-person masses on Monday, May 25, and Fr. Van Smoorenburg decided St. Brendan would.

St. Brendan the Navigator Catholic Church gathers outside for in-person mass on Monday, May 25, 2020. (Photo courtesy St. Brendan the Navigator Catholic Church)

He had been watching the coronavirus numbers from the Georgia Department of Public Health and following the latest understanding about how the virus spreads. Fr. Van Smoorenburg noticed the case count in Forsyth County was relatively low, and none of St. Brendan’s members had been diagnosed with the virus. He also considered the need many parishioners had for social interaction after months of sheltering in place.

“We’re social creatures,” Fr. Van Smoorenburg said. “God made us to be together, and so to be kept apart like that is hard on peoples’ spirits.”

So Fr. Van Smoorenburg decided it was safe for St. Brendan’s to gather for mass again, albeit in a different fashion. 

For now, masses will be conducted outside in the church parking lot (weather permitting). Parishioners and guests bring their own chairs and face coverings and space out six feet. Others can sit in their cars and listen to the service on the church’s Facebook account. No wine is used during the sacrament of Eucharist. 

Fr. Van Smoorenburg still noticed the limitations. It was odd to see members wearing face masks, he said, and chat with people while also keeping a safe distance.

But, for the time being, it was enough.

“It felt like a homecoming,” Fr. Van Smoorenburg said.

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