December 18, 2020
By Bill Doyle | CFP Correspondent
Attendance has plummeted at churches in the Diocese of Worcester due to the pandemic, but parishes have managed to collect just as many, or nearly as many, Christmas presents for those in need.
The state has limited attendance at places of worship to 40 percent of capacity to avoid spreading COVID-19 and many parishioners don’t feel comfortable attending Mass yet, people in the parishes said.
Attendance at Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Brigid parishes in Millbury, St. Columba Parish in Paxton, St. Matthew Parish in Southborough and St. Mark Parish in Sutton, has fallen off by as much as two-thirds from a year ago, but those churches have still collected the same number of Christmas presents as usual.
Deacon Ronald B. Buron oversees the Giving Tree program at Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Brigid with pastoral associate Deborah Blicharz. Deacon Buron and Father Daniel R. Mulcahy, the pastor, spoke about the need to give during their homilies, and the parishioners responded.
Deacon Buron estimated that attendance is only 35 percent of what it was before the pandemic, but all 340 gift tags – the same number as last year – were given out during the first weekend they were available. Parishioners indicated how many tags they wanted as masked staffers distributed them in ziplock sandwich bags.
“I was flabbergasted in a way that all the tags went,” Deacon Buron said. “Normally, when we have them hanging on the tree, it might take a couple of weeks for them all to go. But there were people taking multiple tags when we gave them out. It just warms your heart to know that there are still people out there who care.”
The toys and clothing were donated to the Urban Missionaries of Our Lady of Hope in Worcester and the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society chapter. Both organizations received more gifts than they had requested because people donated gifts even if they hadn’t picked up tags.
After the parish ran out of gift tags, parishioners purchased gift cards for Pernet Family Health Service of Worcester, Why Me & Sherry’s House of Worcester and the Bethany House Ministries of Millis.
When Deacon Buron arrived at Sherry’s House, the sign out front read: “Desperate Need of Gift Cards.” He said that people at Sherry’s House and Pernet cried when he delivered the gift cards.
Mrs. Blicharz admitted she was concerned that the churches wouldn’t collect as many gifts as needed, but she is glad she was mistaken.
“It was very inspiring to have the response be so generous,” she said.
Because of the pandemic, St. Columba accepted only Kohl’s, Walmart and Target gift cards, not gifts, for Pernet, St. Peter Church and St. Andrew the Apostle Mission in Worcester.
Last year, St. Columba collected more than 250 gifts. Father David W. Cotter, parish administrator, estimated that Mass attendance was only about a third of last year, but Susan Stone, who oversees the Giving Tree program, said the parish still managed to collect 216 gift cards. Mrs. Stone said the gift cards were worth a total of $5,400, almost what the 250 gifts cost.
St. Columba promoted the giving program not only to those attending Mass, but to those watching the live-streamed Mass each Sunday, as well as via Flocknote and the church’s online bulletin.
“It makes me realize that even though there’s only a third of people in the church,” Father Cotter said, “the parish is still very lively and people are still very much aware of what’s going on in the parish and still participating. It also reminds me of the generosity of people.”
St. Matthew pastor Father James B. Flynn estimated that attendance has fallen to 30 to 40 percent of what it was before the pandemic, but parishioners continue to give. Karen Fournier has coordinated the church’s Giving Tree with Suzi McGourty for more than 20 years. Mrs. Fournier said the parish collected 175 gifts and 30 gift cards this year, the same as in past years.
St. Matthew collects gifts for families served by Pernet and Father Flynn said the church has also received more than $4,000 in gift cards for St. Jude Thaddeus Church in Waldron, Arkansas.
“I think people are more sensitive to the needs during COVID-19 because of the experience of seeing so many local people enduring hunger and homelessness,” Father Flynn said.
“I just think that people still want to give,” Mrs. Fournier said. “This time of year just naturally has people thinking about other people.”
Father Michael A. DiGeronimo, pastor at St. Mark’s, said attendance is about half of what it was before the pandemic, but parishioners will donate more than 300 gifts, the same as in past years.
“Especially in times of difficulty and stress,” Father DiGeronimo said, “we need to do charity more than ever. My approach was, ‘We’re going to do it. Now we’re going to figure out how and keep people safe.’”
Gift tags were spread out on tables at the church and hand sanitizer was available. Parishioners could pick them up after Mass or whenever the church was open.
St. Mark distributes gifts to local families and the Urban Missionaries. Father DiGeronimo said parishioners have continued to support not only the Giving Tree, but the church’s other ministries, including a nursing home in Haiti and the St. Vincent de Paul Society.