When the rest of the state was shutting down in the middle of March 2020, churches also needed to embrace social distancing due to the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic.
Churches, mosques, temples and synagogues all closed their doors to worshippers. For the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Catholics were given dispensation from the requirement to attend weekly Mass.
That dispensation ends July 1, Bishop John Quinn wrote in a June 3 letter to Catholics across southern Minnesota.
"I hereby revoke the dispensation from CIC can. 1247 and reimpose the obligation of the faithful to participate, in person, in the celebration of the holy sacrifice of the Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation," he wrote.
He said Friday with medical experts saying the risk of COVID-19 transmission decreasing, it's time for Catholics to return to Mass on a regular basis. Quinn credits the increasing vaccination numbers along with the decreasing number of new COVID-19 cases.
"As our parishioners feel safe — and that’s happening — I have noticed an increase in numbers," he said. "And people will say, yes, I’m back, because I can worship safely. There’s also this deep desire for the Eucharist."
Catholics aren't the only ones heading back to their house of worship.
Rashed Ferdous, board chairman of Masjed Abubakr Al-Seddiq in downtown Rochester, said when the pandemic hit, Muslims took to more solitary prayer for their daily devotion.
"We had social distancing," he said. "How we pray at the mosque, we are supposed to stand close to each other, shoulder to shoulder, toe to toe. Everyone would bring their own prayer rug."
Instead, during the pandemic, adherent Muslims would enter a mosque and have their temperatures scanned. Everyone was required to wear a mask, and taped spots on the floor marked where people could stand and kneel.
To prepare for a return to normal before Ramadan, the mosque held a vaccination clinic to allow more people to gather and participate in Ramadan activities.
"We're still recommending people wear masks, but we're not enforcing the masks right now," Ferdous said. "If you're vaccinated and wearing a mask, you can come closer."
Ferdous said other than second prayer on Friday, most of the five-times-daily prayers at the mosque only take about 15 minutes, so the time of each prayer gathering is shorter. And while some people who have underlying health concerns will still be cautious despite the vaccine, he expects attendance at prayer will return to the pre-COVID levels quickly.
"We’re not concerned that people are not coming," he said. "We are now back to holding two prayer services on Fridays. Back to close to capacity now."
Ferdous said returning to in-person prayer services is important because faith is helped by the gathering of the community.
"I’m overjoyed," he said. "This year’s Ramadan, we were able to come to the mosque and pray together. Last year, we were not. You’re fasting together, praying together. People were emotional. They were crying — our imam was crying."
Ferdous said he thanks God for the opportunity to return to normal. He's not alone.
At Zumbro Lutheran Church, Directing Pastor Vern Christopherson said since his church has relaxed social distancing a bit — they are down to 3-foot distancing from 6-foot distancing — each week, more and more families are returning to weekly services and getting back into that routine of making church part of their weekend.
"It’s nice to think there are deep spiritual hungers, but I think it’s going to take a while," he said. "To not have that fellowship, to be just plugging into the TV set, I don’t think it’s going to feed us in quite the same way."
Quinn echoed that hunger for community.
"I’ve been amazed at how our people, even in the depths of the pandemic, did find ways to connect," he said. "The communal and sacramental aspects of our faith are so deep."
When social distancing was the norm, there were many people taking advantage of livestreamed Mass, Quinn said, which also showed that the faithful were determined to make that connection, both with the community and with God.
Steps not taken
There are parts of Mass that have not returned. Quinn said they'll consult with medical experts before reintroducing the sign of peace, where parishioners shake hands, or distribution of the Precious Blood, along with the Eucharist.
Christopherson said they are asking questions about the same things at Zumbro Lutheran Church.
"We haven’t passed the peace," he said. "We’re not passing the offering basket. We’re not looking up hymns in a hymnal. Communion is different. We'll use pre-filled cups of wine or grape juice, and simply drop the wafer into the hand."
Quinn said even with the lifting of the dispensation, he wants people to feel safe before returning to Mass. In addition to the weekly TV Mass program that predates COVID, most parishes will likely continue their livestreams.
"We could have a spike of the (COVID-19 case) numbers," he said. "We could have a wave of flu. There are factors we can’t anticipate yet."
At B’nai Israel Synagogue, Rabbi Michelle Werner said there is no rush to return to in-person services, and, in fact, the plan is to move to a hybrid system first, where people can either attend at synagogue or via Zoom.
"Some of our family celebrations over the summer might admit more family members," she said. "For the bulk of our gatherings, we'll offer Zoom. We might plan some outdoor events over the summer."
Werner said because so much of her congregation is spread around the region, learning to hold services via Zoom has been a silver lining during the pandemic.
"We’re moving it to something new and even better," she said of the hybrid model. "We'll keep doing this, and it's nothing to do with COVID."
The key, she said, is to open up their place of worship responsibly.
"For family celebrations, unless everyone was vaccinated, we wore masks," Werner said. "When we get together with our children, unless they’re vaccinated, we’ll all wear masks."