Spiritual Life

Local parishes celebrate indoor services after conflicting court rulings

Local churches are again breathing a sigh of relief after the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed its position Feb. 26 allowing indoor worship.

The court had ruled in a 6-3 vote Feb. 5 that churches could allow for some indoor capacity. Santa Clara County initially resisted the decision. A U.S. District Court decision Feb. 8 overruled the county, allowing for 20% indoor capacity. The Ninth District U.S. Court of Appeals then sided with the county before the Supreme Court stepped in again.

The decision resonated with the Diocese of San Jose.

“Banning indoor worship and yet allowing people to gather at airports, personal-services establishments and retail shopping is unconstitutional – and the Supreme Court has said so several times,” said Bishop Oscar Cantú of the Diocese, following the latest ruling.

Los Altos is home to three Diocese of San Jose churches: St. Simon, St. William and St. Nicholas. The Rev. John Poncini, pastor of St. Nicholas and St. William, said the churches will offer parishioners three options to celebrate Mass: livestream, outdoor and indoor.

“This will allow our parishioners to celebrate a sacred encounter with Christ in the manner that is safest for them,” Poncini said.

St. Simon released a similar statement, noting that it will begin offering indoor Masses while maintaining livestream and outdoor services.

“Our parishes will continue to abide by state and county public health orders following capacity and singing restrictions, mandated cleaning protocols, social distancing and face-covering guidelines,” Cantu said.

Step toward normalcy

Local resident Dustin Owen, a longtime parishioner, was pleased with the news.

“St. Nicholas and St. William have done a great job offering virtual Mass for anyone who needs it,” he said. “For our family, it has been invigorating to come to Mass and see Father John and the community again.”

Churches everywhere have had to change the way they serve their communities since the shelter-in-place orders were enacted in March 2020. They pivoted to livestream and outdoor Masses with no singing, no altar servers and drive-thru confessions. They had to change what they had been doing for centuries and come up with a new playbook.

“This ruling brings us one step closer to normalcy,” Owen said.

County officials continued to discourage indoor gatherings.

“Religious institutions have successfully carried out alternatives to indoor worship services for months, and are encouraged to continue doing so to avoid putting their congregants and the community in danger,” public health officials said in a statement.

Local churches have struggled since the COVID-19 restrictions went into effect.

“The hardest part are the funerals; we only can have a limited number of people in person,” Poncini said. “People want to mourn the loss of their loved ones. Couples have also struggled at what to do with their wedding plans; some have chosen to move forward with modified plans, while others wait.”

In addition to churches and parishioners transitioning to livestreaming services, they have held Masses in outdoor tents. St. Nicholas and St. William have been offering six outdoor Masses and one livestreamed Mass each weekend, along with weekday services and once-a-week drive-thru confessions.

“The costs we had to incur for technology to run our livestream Masses plus tenting and equipment to move outdoors has been a lot, but we have been lucky to make it happen,” Poncini said.

St. William and St. Nicholas have long served the Los Altos community with Masses, celebrations, weddings, funerals and other events. Reimagining how to conduct such activities to ensure safe outreach has been a struggle, but “the community has been so supportive of our efforts,” Poncini said.

For more information on St. Nicholas and St. William, visit stnicholasandstwilliam.org.

For more information on St. Simon, visit stsimon.org.

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