I wanted to share some news that is disappointing, yet unavoidable. We had been planning to reopen the Shrine on Tuesday, Sept. 8, but circumstances created by the ongoing global pandemic require us to extend the closure at least through the fall. We plan to reevaluate the situation around Thanksgiving.
Let me explain the difficulties that we face. By the nature of where we are and what we do, we bring together very vulnerable populations.
First, the friars. There are 26 friars who live at 100 Arch Street. Five of us have full-time duties outside of the Shrine (graduate school, teaching in a Catholic school, and hospice chaplaincy), and another is an intern who recently joined us. The remaining 20 friars are the ones that you have gotten to know over the years. Collectively, we range in age from 60 to 88, with the average at 72. Yes, we are older than we look!
We serve the downtown homeless population at the Shrine. Some partake in the sacraments, some attend our medical clinic, and others are happy to have a place that treats them with dignity. For various reasons, the standard COVID precautions (hand washing, distancing, face masks) are harder if you are homeless.
The population that we attract for worship is also an older group and inherently more vulnerable. Many of our day-to-day worshipers work in the local medical facilities: MGH, Tufts, and doctor’s and dental offices in our neighborhood. If we were to open, we would be bringing together a very complex combination of vulnerable populations who are at high risk for COVID-19. Such a move would not be responsible.
In addition to concern for the vulnerable populations, we can be fairly certain that others who would normally come to the Shrine would not attend at this time. About half of the regular worshipers at the Shrine come from outside of Greater Boston. With people still hesitant to travel, it is likely that a large percentage would not be returning, at least at the outset.
Many downtown workers are still expected to work from home throughout the fall. We draw a significant number of worshipers from people just walking by. The current lack of downtown foot traffic would further limit attendance at the Shrine.
And, we expect that a number of colleges and universities in Boston will be offering online classes, and most Boston sporting events will be held without people in attendance. This will further reduce the number of potential worshipers at the Shrine.
The good news is that we have found alternative ways to do all of our non-sacramental work. Spiritual direction, the food center, counseling, 12-step groups, addiction counseling, homeless outreach, and many other services have all continued despite building being closed. The friars continue to have Mass in community every day, and on Sundays and Holy Days we are live streaming those Masses on our Facebook page. Unfortunately, we aren’t able to offer the sacrament of Confession, as at this point we feel that it carries too many COVID risks.
While we are closed, we have undertaken a number of projects to improve the facility. The $1 million renovation of the Shrine’s medical clinic for homeless women is underway and we will keep you updated on that progress. We are renovating the second floor women’s restroom, and replacing the roof on the 11th floor. We are replacing the kitchen venting system in the friars’ living space.
We are also in the process of upgrading our technology in order to improve the quality of the live-streamed Masses. When we are done, we will have a better building, with improved fire safety, and upgraded facilities and equipment.
Our building may be closed, but the spirit of our worshiping community is very much open. The friars are thinking about you and praying for you in these difficult times. Please keep us in your prayers.
With humble gratitude, I am
Sincerely yours in St. Francis,
Fr. Thomas E. Conway, O.F.M.