‘Church is the people’: Philly’s Catholic faithful return, saying they need Mass more than ever

Jennifer Ballard (left) accompanies her children (from lert) Allan and Allyson Ballard, and their friend Joselyn Turner, as they get ready for their First Holy Communion. (Ximena Conde/WHYY News)

Jennifer Ballard (left) accompanies her children (from lert) Allan and Allyson Ballard, and their friend Joselyn Turner, as they get ready for their First Holy Communion. (Ximena Conde/WHYY News)

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Jennifer Ballard, like many other members of St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church in North Philadelphia, likes to say, “church is the people,” meaning congregants don’t need to be in the physical building with wooden pews and stained-glass windows to feel a connection with God.

Still, Ballard and fellow churchgoers said there’s something momentous about coming back to in-person services after months of having to attend virtual Masses.

“This is so much a part of our neighborhood and our community, especially for those who have lived here at least over 30 years like myself,” said Ballard, who along with her 8-year-old twins, was having an extra special Sunday at the church at North 23rd Street and West  Lehigh Avenue.

For the second Sunday since restrictions were lifted, Catholic churches in the Philadelphia archdiocese gathered for in-person services. (Ximena Conde/WHYY News)

Her twins Allan and Allyson Ballard had their long-awaited First Holy Communion in front of about 100 people. They had to wait for about a month because of COVID-19 church closures.

The children’s all-white attire, which included immaculate white face masks, offered a small hint of how services would be different as long as the state is requiring churches operate at 50% capacity.

Not all houses of worship in the region have resumed services. At St. Martin’s, other signs served as a reminder that a pandemic was ongoing, including hand sanitizer at the door, laminated signs reminding congregants to social distance and avoid hugs, as well as cordoned-off pews meant to give attendees space.

Though the changes require some getting used to, parishioners like Gary Kemper said he felt the Holy Spirit inside the church just the same.

“I could feel the angels here,” he said.

Kemper said he was able to feed his spiritual needs by going to virtual Mass and helping the elderly in his community during the pandemic, but others expressed a much harder time.

For Rebecca Bly, the reopening of the church couldn’t come soon enough. She’s a senior without access to a computer or virtual Mass. Bly said she felt different without church services in her life.

“I need to hear the word,” she said, adding she is less afraid of COVID-19 than she was at the onset of the pandemic.

Adding to the need for church community are the ongoing protests calling attention to racism in the U.S.

A week ago, Archbishop Nelson Pérez offered the homily at St. Martin de Porres for the first Mass since COVID-19 shutdowns.

Pérez addressed the protests sweeping across the country and offered a message of hope. He told attendees “racism is a moral problem that requires a moral remedy.”

Joy Lee and her mother Sheila Lee
Joy Lee (L) and her mother Sheila Lee returned to Saint Martin de Porres Catholic church Sunday after months of attending virtual Mass. (Ximena Conde/WHYY News)

For Sheila Lee, coming to church reinforces the message that everybody is a “child of God.”

“No matter what they look like, no matter what they do for a living — everybody is God’s child,” said Lee, who attended Mass with her daughter Joy.

Bly, the senior who couldn’t access online Mass, said she’s heard members of the church have been talking about the protests, many with different opinions about what’s happening.

“It was different,” she said. “It was a good different.”

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