Holy water fonts have been removed and a parish pancake breakfast postponed at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Baldwinsville. Parishes across the diocese are taking precautions and following diocesan protocols to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. (Photo provided)


By Renée K. Gadoua | Contributing writer, and Katherine Long | Editor 

Diocesan officials continue to monitor the rapidly changing novel coronavirus pandemic after a state of emergency was announced Friday in Oneida County, one of seven counties in the diocese. As of Friday evening, Masses and diocesan events were to continue as scheduled. 

Oneida County’s state of emergency includes closing all public schools until April 14. A statement from County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr. cited the threat from the pandemic and said there were no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Oneida County, which includes Utica, Camden, and New Hartford. 

Ahead of the county announcement, Notre Dame Catholic Schools in Utica announced it was closing through April 14. About 600 students in total are enrolled at the elementary and high schools. 

“We will continue to watch events as they unfold in the state of emergency issued by Oneida County,” said diocesan Chancellor and Director of Communications Danielle Cummings.

Earlier Friday, Bishop Douglas J. Lucia issued a dispensation releasing diocesan Catholics from the obligation to attend Mass, citing concern for the “health, safety, and well-being of our faith community” as coronavirus spreads.   

In lieu of in-person Mass, Catholics can watch on television or online. The bishop also encouraged the faithful to spend time with the word of God, pray the Rosary, or join other Catholics in the diocese in the Novena Prayer for an end to the coronavirus pandemic.

The bishop advised the faithful to take precautions and not go to Mass if they are sick. Mass attendance is not an obligation when Catholics are ill, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Code of Canon Law 1983, c. 1245).

Father Chris Ballard, pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Syracuse, said he and parish staff are cleaning all commonly touched surfaces with one of the disinfectants identified by the EPA for use against the virus that causes COVID-19. (Photo provided)

Diocesan officials have been hustling this week amid rapidly changing conditions to develop a response to the global health crisis. They issued protocols, including not distributing the Precious Blood from the chalice, emptying all holy water fonts, and cleaning the church to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

The pandemic comes during Lent, the holy season that recalls Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and withdrawal into the desert for 40 days. Easter, which celebrates Christ’s resurrection, falls this year on Sunday, April 12.

The Diocese of Syracuse is home to 227,000 Catholics across seven counties: Broome, Chenango, Cortland, Madison, Oneida, Onondaga, and Oswego. In addition to 114 parishes, 11 missions, and seven oratories, the diocese operates six Catholic Charities agencies with dozens of programs; 22 diocesan schools; and 264 offices employing about 3,000 people.

As government, business, and faith leaders considered actions amid the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus coast to coast, many organizations announced closures, cancellations, and plans to move events online. St. Lucy’s in Syracuse canceled weekend Masses. Pastors can seek approval to do so, officials said.  

The Franciscan Villa, including the gift shop and Nun Better Chocolate shop, is closed to visitors until April 12, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities said. About 80 Franciscan sisters live at the senior living facility in Salina. The religious order also placed restrictions on visits to residences in Mt. Vernon and Williamsburg. 

Two Catholic hospitals in the diocese, St. Joseph’s in Syracuse and St. Elizabeth in Utica, implemented visitor restrictions. 

Syracuse’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade Mass, scheduled for Saturday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception ahead of the city’s annual parade, was postponed and the diocese’s IGNITE Catholic Men’s Conference was canceled, following local and state decisions limiting the number of people who could attend public events. 

Le Moyne College announced Wednesday it was extending spring break; on Friday the college announced it would move courses online March 18 through at least March 27, joining hundreds of U.S. colleges with similar plans.

By Friday afternoon, Central New York religious organizations, including Abundant Life Christian Center, several synagogues, and the Zen Center of Syracuse had canceled services or moved them online. The Upstate Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had canceled in-person worship from March 15 to at least March 31.

At least four U.S. Catholic dioceses and several worldwide had canceled public Masses by Friday, according to Catholic News Service reports. The dramatic response followed alarming rates of infection in several countries, including Italy, which this week declared a national emergency, effectively putting most of the country on lockdown. The national restrictions are in place until Friday, April 3, two days before Palm Sunday.

At the Vatican, St. Peter’s Square was practically empty and Pope Francis livestreamed Mass and Angelus prayers.

To develop the diocese’s response to the coronavirus policies, officials are reviewing hundreds of details related to educating children, caring for seniors and vulnerable people, liturgy, formation, and more. The long-term effects and spiritual and financial implications of shutting down churches and diocesan and parish programs are both enormous and uncertain. Closures and cancellations could affect scheduling for spring weddings, confirmations, and baptisms as well.  

Franciscan Father Gerry Waterman, Syracuse University’s Catholic chaplain, said Syracuse University’s coronavirus policy means six students will miss out on a trip to Nazareth Farm, a Catholic service and retreat center in West Virginia. He was unsure if he would continue to celebrate Mass on campus because of the university’s policy banning events of 50 or more people. 

Father Waterman canceled a March 28 Confirmation retreat at the center at 110 Walnut Place. About 120 students from around the diocese were expected. 

Although inconvenient, disruptions are a necessary precaution and a Christian imperative, said Father Waterman, whose age puts him at higher risk of contracting the disease. “We owe each other the respect of taking care of ourselves and not spreading a disease that is going around,” he said.

The Catholic Sun will continue to update this developing story.

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