About two and one-half months after public Masses were halted due to safety precautions against the spread of the coronavirus, parishioners came home to Mass on May 31 in a country church that many consider home, Our Lady of the Wayside in Chaptico, Maryland.

And celebrating that Pentecost Sunday Mass with them was Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory, presiding at his first public Mass since the coronavirus shutdown in mid-March.

“I’m delighted to have my first Mass with you,” said Archbishop Gregory, who has been celebrating livestreamed Masses since the shutdown.

Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory smiles as he delivers his homily at Our Lady of the Wayside Church on May 31, Pentecost Sunday. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The archbishop smiled as he addressed the congregation of about 40 people in the white-frame country church with a steeple that on one side has a backdrop of towering pine trees.

Catholic churches in Southern Maryland began celebrating Masses that week as local leaders began reopening those jurisdictions and eased limits there on the sizes of public gatherings. In the District of Columbia and the nearby Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland – which have been hard hit by the COVID-19 outbreak -- gatherings as of that date were still limited to 10 people or fewer.

A sign posted on the door of the St. Mary’s County church reminded Mass-goers to “make sure you have your face mask on, upon entering, please use hand sanitizer, (and) keep your distance,” with the last reminder including a safety symbol noting that people should practice social distancing, staying six feet apart.

A view from the choir loft at Our Lady of the Wayside Church shows people sitting in alternate pews. Families could sit together, and the other Mass-goers maintained social distances. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

People obeyed those safety guidelines recommended by the Archdiocese of Washington, with all those in the congregation wearing facemasks and sitting six feet apart, except for family groups allowed to sit together. They also sat in alternate pews, with every other pew roped off.

Before the Mass, Father Michal Sajnog, the pastor of Our Lady of the Wayside, said offering public Mass again meant a lot to him. 

“It’s a great consolation. I’ve been looking toward this moment for a long time. It’s good to see them all back,” he said.

The day had special meaning for him, too, because early in the COVID-19 crisis, Father Sajnog, who is 39, lost his sense of taste and smell, two of the symptoms for having the coronavirus, and he tested positive for it. The priest had a mild case of the virus, and recovered fully. During the shutdown, he celebrated daily livestream Masses for his parishioners, so they could remain connected to the Mass and the parish.

Father Sajnog said it was fitting that Our Lady of the Wayside Parish was able to resume its weekend public Masses on Pentecost Sunday, “Because Pentecost was the day the Church was established, and today is the first day we reopen. The Feast of Pentecost, it’s a sign of hope. The Lord chose today to reopen our church.”

Archbishop Gregory celebrates the Pentecost Sunday Mass at Our Lady of the Wayside Church, joined by Father Michal Sajnog, the parish's pastor. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The public Mass also was held on a week when protests erupted in cities across the country following the death of George Floyd, an African American man, after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck during an arrest. During the prayers of the faithful, Archbishop Gregory said, “Let us also pray for peace in our nation, for compassion and understanding, for reconciliation among races, among peoples. Let this nation live out its call to unity and peace.”

Archbishop Gregory, the first African American Catholic archbishop of Washington, has often spoken out against the evil of racism, and later that day he issued a statement on the death of George Floyd and the aftermath of the nationwide protests, noting, “This incident reveals the virus of racism among us once again even as we continue to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.”

In his statement, Archbishop Gregory also said, “This moment calls us to be the Church of hope that Jesus Christ created us to be in a world full of pain and despair.”

 The archbishop concluded that statement by saying, “We pray for a new Pentecost:  a renewal of love, justice and truth in our hearts. We are called to do justice and love goodness in order to walk humbly with God. Since we are confident that the Father always hears our prayer for reconciliation, together, we join in peaceful, non-violent protest, action, and prayer for the balm to cure all forms of racism starting today. Please join me in asking Our Father for the balm of love, justice, peace, compassion and mercy to end racism and hatred now. Come, Holy Spirit, Come.”

During the Pentecost Mass at Our Lady of the Wayside Church, a prayer was also offered for all those who are suffering from the coronavirus, for their caregivers and for medical workers.

In his homily, Archbishop Gregory noted how on the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered the apostles to share the story of Christ with people of many different cultures, who were able to hear them speaking in their own language. 

The archbishop said that through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Church was established “to be a welcoming place for all peoples and cultures and in all ages. Pentecost is the festival of the Church’s diversity and universality.”

“Pentecost,” he added, “is the celebration of the Church’s birth and our designation as a community that may be quite diverse in our backgrounds and heritages but always one in our faith and through our worship.”

Archbishop Gregory also noted that Pentecost “asks the Church to do far more than simply respect or acknowledge cultural differences.”

“Pentecost is also the challenge that we all accept to become even more perfectly the Church that speaks to the heart of humanity in such a way that the miracle of understanding, acceptance and respect occurs anew in each moment of our history and in every land and nation,” he said.

People attending the Pentecost Sunday Mass on May 31 at Our Lady of the Wayside Church wore facemasks. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The Mass at Our Lady of the Wayside Church reflected other safety guidelines recommended by the archdiocese. No collection was taken up  -- parishes will be placing baskets or other receptacles near the church entrance where people can leave donations, or they can give online. The Mass did not include words inviting people to share the sign of peace, and during Communion, people lined up single file at a social distance, and received the Eucharist in their hands. Hymnals were removed from the pews, and parish bulletins were not handed out.

Archbishop Gregory, wearing a facemask, touches the altar as the Pentecost Sunday Mass ended at Our Lady of the Wayside Church. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Before the Mass, Renee Price and her husband Windell Price reflected on how much it meant to them to return to Our Lady of the Wayside Church for Mass again.

“It is just everything to me… It’s home,” said Renee Price, who served as a lector at that day’s Mass. She and her husband also have served as Eucharistic ministers there, bringing Communion to the sick.

Renee Price, who works for the Department of the Navy, noted that during the shutdown she has teleworked from home, and she has really appreciated being able to watch Father Sajnog’s daily Masses being livestreamed.

“We’ve never been able to go to Mass during the day. We’ve been able to do that in this crisis,” she said.

Windell Price, 58, was baptized in the church and returned as a parishioner when he moved back to the area. He said the parish “helps me keep my faith… It’s great to come back, that I can get Communion (again).”

On one side of the church, a banner was displayed between two trees, with the message, “Our Lady of the Wayside STRONG,” echoing the slogan the state of Maryland adopted as it announced the first stage of its reopening from the coronavirus shutdown. Near the front entrance of the church is a statue of Our Lady of the Wayside, honoring the Blessed Mother whose name graces the church, which is bounded on one side by a country road and on the other side by a forest.

Before the Mass, Frannie Taborek was volunteering at a table set outside the church that had hand sanitizer for the Mass-goers to use before they went outside, and they were also invited to sign their names on a canvas displaying an image of the church, to express their thanks to Father Sajnog for his leadership during the crisis.

When asked what it meant to her to return to Mass at Our Lady of the Wayside Church that day, she said, “There are no words for that.”

She added, “I’ve been coming daily to pray when I can.”

Taborek said that Jesus “is in the tabernacle waiting for us. He is the Bread of Life that sustains us.” In addition to missing being able to receive the Eucharist during the coronavirus shutdown, she said, “I miss the community, my brothers and sisters in Christ and the love we have for our church and for Jesus.”

Before the Mass, Father Sajnog noted that the church is located in a rural area, surrounded by farms, and about 400 people typically attend Mass there on weekends.

“They make it obvious they belong to this place, they love it, and they take care of it,” he said, noting that parishioners take care of the grounds and maintenance work there themselves.

“They feed me, too,” the priest said. “I always find something on the steps.”

Preparing meals for the pastor has been a parish tradition, and he said the food they cook for him includes traditional Maryland delicacies like stuffed ham and crab cakes, and also desserts, including cheese cake (his favorite) and apple pie.

Father Sajnog noted that he grew up in a rural area of Poland.

“That’s why I feel at home here. I love this place, and I love the people. They’re easy to love,” he said.

One side of Our Lady of the Wayside Church is bordered by towering pine trees. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)