At St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church, the Rev. Manuel Dorantes recalled his enthusiasm last fall, when the church saw attendance increase from 700 parishioners in July to 1,100 in October.
But like priests across Chicago, Dorantes said his joy was short-lived, with concerns about the alarming surge in COVID cases in December swiftly reversing the North Side parish’s attendance gains.
“We did see a growth of about 26% in attendance in the fall, but now with omicron, we’re back down to about 800 people,” Dorantes said.
Last summer, the North Side parish merged with nearby Our Lady of Lourdes as part of the archdiocese’s Renew My Church initiative — a reorganization and consolidation of parishes launched in 2015 in response to financial difficulties and mounting debt.
Prior to the pandemic, the church attracted 1,100 worshippers every weekend, Dorantes said, offering seven Masses, three in Spanish, and four in English.
But Dorantes said even though the parish reopened for in-person Mass in late May 2020, “people still have all sorts of questions.”
“Even after the stay-at-home order was lifted, we’ve had to prepare our leaders to welcome everyone back safely,” Dorantes said.
Among the COVID safeguards is the temporary conversion of the church’s former so-called crying room — a glassed-in area that pre-pandemic was occupied by families with small children — to a safe space that can be reserved by those most vulnerable to the virus, including the elderly and people with chronic illnesses.
And while Dorantes said families gathered at the church in December for a traditional Las Posadas — a beloved Latin American Christmas celebration — his recent visit to a 4-year-old who is hospitalized with a COVID-related heart condition prompted him to cancel a Feast of the Three Kings festival planned for early January.
“There’s no perfect way of doing this, but as a pastor, my main concern is keeping our people safe,” Dorantes said.