“Move your hair, Nida,” advises Father Raymond Decipeda as a woman approaches a row of temperature scanners outside a church parking lot.
“Now, place your forehead in front of it,” he says. “There you go!” Digital numbers flash green: 98.6.
The woman adjusts her face mask, rubs sanitizer into her hands, and moves through the gated lot at St. John of God Church in Norwalk. Inside, masked parishioners sit quietly at picnic tables arranged around a towering stage. Candles flicker atop an altar, a hymn plays from a loudspeaker, and the rising sun casts shadows across the blacktop as morning Mass begins.
The service is among the hundreds of outdoor Masses now offered weekly throughout the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Churches, which were shuttered in March due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions, began to celebrate indoor Mass again in June under strict public health guidelines.
But on July 13, indoor religious services were once again prohibited by Gov. Gavin Newsom as coronavirus rates spiked dramatically in Los Angeles and other California hot spots.
The keyword in the governor’s directives this time, however, was “indoor.” With gyms, restaurants, and other businesses finding ways to safely (and legally) serve customers outdoors, couldn’t churches do the same?
The same day, parishes in Los Angeles, Ventura, and Santa Barbara counties received an email from the archdiocese encouraging them to move Masses and other liturgical services outdoors. The memo emphasized that “the risk of coronavirus is real, and it is dangerous,” and that parishioners must wear face coverings and practice social distancing, even outside.
Fortunately, Father Decipeda was among a handful of other pastors in the archdiocese who had already begun outdoor Masses before the second closure. In May, he had invested in picnic tables, umbrellas, canopies, a stage, temperature scanners, cleaning supplies, and a hardwired sound system, all part of his parish’s 20-page plan for outdoor Masses.
“At St. John of God, our parishioners know we keep them safe,” he said. “They appreciate that we have worked really hard. And everyone here is coming forward to help. Everyone wants to be part of this effort.”
St. Anthony of Padua Church in Gardena also had been offering outdoor Masses for weeks, but with a twist: Churchgoers stay in their cars and listen to the live service through their radios, drive-in-movie style. “We are fortunate to have a parking lot that’s about the size of a football field, which is rare in this area,” explained Msgr. Sabato Pilato, pastor. “We offer weekday Mass, plus five Masses every weekend, with up to 75 cars per Mass.”
He added that senior citizens, who are at the highest risk for COVID-19 complications, feel especially safe at the drive-in Mass. “The elderly feel protected because they are enclosed in their cars,” he said. “People are coming from all over because they prefer the drive-in format.”
Msgr. Pilato has utilized the school’s outside lunch area for three first Communion services and one baptism. He even created a drive-in space dedicated to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. “We have a window next to a parking lot on our northeast corner,” he explained. “So I thought: Why not place the Blessed Sacrament there, behind the window?” He sanded down two tables, found an extra tabernacle, and lit a red vigil lamp. Every day he sees people praying there from inside their cars.
“Did you ever think we’d be doing this?” Msgr. Pilato said with a chuckle. “But it’s a lot better than being in the catacombs.”
At Our Lady of Refuge Church in Long Beach, Father Gerard O’Brien recently launched a fundraising effort for outdoor Masses. The pastor, who during the shutdown had been livestreaming and filming Masses for his parishioners, was happy to finally celebrate public indoor Masses for a few weeks. Now, like many other pastors tasked with moving outdoors, he needed new equipment to hold Mass in the church parking lot.
“Within a week, our parishioners came together and raised enough money for what we needed — tents and a new sound system,” he said. “The people of this parish are very generous. God always provides.”
Father O’Brien, who grew up in County Kerry, Ireland, said outdoor Masses are very common in his home country. “I love outdoor Masses — they are just beautiful,” he said. On Sunday, Aug. 2, the parish was able to celebrate its first Mass in the church parking lot. “People were so happy and content. Everyone really enjoyed it,” he added.
In the heart of downtown Los Angeles, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, outdoor Masses are now offered every Sunday on the Plaza in both English and Spanish. Tucked under the colonnade, and sitting at umbrella-covered tables borrowed from the adjacent cafe, Massgoers are sheltered from the summer heat as well as the noise from the 101 Freeway.
Father David Gallardo, the cathedral’s pastor, said many attendees have expressed gratitude for the outdoor Masses. “Last Sunday, a man approached me who had driven to the cathedral all the way from the Inland Empire,” Father Gallardo said. “He told me, ‘Thank you for this Mass. Thank you for the opportunity to receive the Eucharist.’ ”
Maribel Ramirez, a lector and parishioner at St. John of God Church, also was deeply grateful for her parish’s efforts to bring Mass outdoors. “For me, it was very hard not being at Mass,” she said. “I was watching it online, but it felt like something was missing.”
Ramirez said that, when she finally was able to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist, tears came to her eyes. “It had been so long — I don’t have words to describe the feeling,” she said. “I just prayed: Here I am. I am with you. I want part of you in my soul.”
It’s an experience many Los Angeles Catholics can relate to.
“This is all new for everybody,” said Msgr. Pilato. “But our faith is much more than a building. It is based on Our Lord Jesus Christ. He will provide us the light. He will help us overcome all darkness.”
For more information about attending an outdoor Mass, visit your parish’s website for site-specific hygiene protocols and capacity limitations.