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‘We turned no one away’: With protocols in mind, a Catholic church cautiously welcomes parishioners for Christmas celebration

Bennett Acheson, 10, held the Star of Bethlehem as he prepared for the Christmas Eve pageant at Central Congregational Church in Chelmsford. With the pandemic, the event was held outside for the first time.
Bennett Acheson, 10, held the Star of Bethlehem as he prepared for the Christmas Eve pageant at Central Congregational Church in Chelmsford. With the pandemic, the event was held outside for the first time.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

STOUGHTON — Christmas Eve Mass was over, and the Rev. Carlos D. Suarez stood at the front of Immaculate Conception Church like a flight attendant, directing his 112 masked congregants to carefully file out through two doors on either side of the altar. The music director played “Joy to the World” on her electric organ. And the work was just beginning.

Another Mass was scheduled in an hour, when a new group of about 100 people who had registered for the service were expected to come through the door.

But before that, with the threat of the coronavirus omnipresent, everything needed to be cleaned.


Volunteers wiped down door handles, the pulpit, a collection box that now sits at the front of the church, so congregants don’t have to pass around a basket. One volunteer, Gregory Goldberg, grabbed a lime-green battery-powered disinfectant sprayer and walked with it through the pews, half of which had been closed off with red ropes.

The organ music was gone, but no singing had been allowed during the service anyway. Aside from some quiet talking, the only sound in the room was the whir of the motor on the sprayer. Instead of the fragrant burning of incense, the church smelled of disinfecting alcohol.

Suarez arrived at Immaculate Conception in September, well into the pandemic. As Christmas approached, he worried about keeping congregants safe, but also about how they would feel if they arrived at the church doors and found there was no more room inside for them.

After the first service Thursday evening, he felt relief.

“We turned no one away,” he said.

When Massachusetts allowed houses of worship to welcome people into their buildings in the first stage of reopening in June, the church had to adopt new protocols. In the months since, some churches have chosen to conduct services remotely through conference call lines and live-streaming.


But some churches, including Catholic parishes, again began welcoming congregants, though at a reduced capacity and with some major changes: No more singing, for one. No choirs. Temperature checks at the door. And the Eucharist could no longer be received as it always had; priests had to gently drop wafers into the cupped hands of parishioners, who then stepped aside and carefully lowered their masks to take it into their mouths.

Among those leading the charge at Immaculate Conception was Sacristan Barbara Sferrazza, whose duties grew from keeping priests’ robes and the altar in good condition to leading a team of volunteers in disinfecting the church after each service.

Gregory Goldberg used an electrostatic fogger on the pews.
Gregory Goldberg used an electrostatic fogger on the pews.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Three days before Christmas Eve, the electrical spraying machine the church had been using to clean the space — the one with the 100-foot extension cord that would carry it to every corner — broke down.

Of course it did, Sferrazza thought.

“I says, it’s gotta be Christmas,” she said, chuckling. “Nothing’s ever gonna be smooth, but you go with the flow.”

They tracked down another machine in time, and used manual spray bottles in the interim.

Sferrazza said she does worry about contracting the virus. She is 80, and her husband is 87. Some of the other volunteers are in their 80s too. But she feels it’s worth it.

“I love what I do, and in doing so it just gives me great pride to see everyone else pitching in,” she said.


Archdiocese spokesman Terrence Donilon acknowledged that some of the volunteers and staff members who have been cleaning churches between Masses are older, which puts them at higher risk if they contract the virus. He said the archdiocese is offering help in trying to get reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for professional cleaning services, PPE, and cleaning supplies.

The Archdiocese Office of Risk Management also created a website that offers instructions and best practices for parishes on topics from taking temperatures and what to do if someone is exposed to the virus to handling finances and doing payroll.

“We have gratefully had no report of volunteer infection or health issues arising from the disinfection operations between Masses,” Donilon said. “We believe this is because everyone from pastors, to staff, parishioners, and volunteers are doing all they can to follow the guidance.”

Sferrazza grew up in the Grove Hall section of Boston, with a Baptist mother and a gaggle of sisters. Her father had a heart attack when he was relatively young, meaning the rest of the family had to take on more responsibilities — her mother, who worked at Keystone Camera Co. in Dorchester, and she and her sisters around the house.

Respite came when she joined her friends, who were Irish Catholic, at their church, Sferrazza said.

As a teenager sitting in those pews, what she wanted more than anything else was to receive the Eucharist. It was the closest, she said, anyone could feel to Jesus.


“It’s a powerful thing if you believe, if you really believe, that’s the body and blood of Christ,” Sferrazza said. “It’s very comforting, very soothing, and very much needed. I need Jesus in me. And I feel it helps me be a more patient, more loving person over the years.”

She became Catholic at 17; now she is a great-grandmother and has been a member of Immaculate Conception parish for 55 years.

What she had been looking forward to, after a year full of grief and fear for most, was seeing the happy faces of her parish community at church on Christmas Eve.

“As long as I see them coming into the church, that’s my day. That’s my day,” she said. “To me, especially in this time of the pandemic, it’s a joy to see the people happy.”

Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.