When a man from New Jersey named Richard Hollingshead opened the first drive-in theater in 1933, he could have never imagined that the concept would be strangely reinvented in 2020. The many restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including an extended shelter-in-place, have taken a stressful toll on people of all ages. For many Catholics, daily prayer, weekly Mass, receiving the sacraments and saying the rosary are a way of life. When faced with the fear and even grief of a global crisis, the church can be a beacon of hope—unless the doors are locked by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for the greater good.
Fr. Raymond Bryce, OP, parochial vicar at St. Vincent Ferrer, 1530 Jackson in River Forest, began reading even more voraciously over the past several months, hoping to learn what other archdioceses were doing across the country to connect with congregations during the crisis. Conflicting information and protocols across the country made worship impossible and confusing—how is it that church services must be suspended but a barbecue, limited to 50 with masks and social distance, falls within the parameters of “safe?” “We are a cross section of the nation,” reflected Fr. Raymond. “The demographics of St. Vincent parish ranges from young parents with infants to high school students to active seniors to more frail elderly individuals whose confusion has been worsened by the media. Some wonder why wear masks at all, others reason that it’s better to be safe than sorry and still others who are high-risk are deathly afraid and won’t even consider coming to church even as the new phases have rolled out.”
St. Vincent, like almost every other parish, moved to live-streaming Masses but Fr. Raymond was intent of finding the complex answer to a simple question: if indoors is a problem, why not outdoors?
When Fr. Raymond came upon an article in First Things magazine entitled “The Case for Drive-In Masses,” written by a fellow Dominican priest, Gregory Pine, OP, based in Washington, DC, he knew almost immediately that one of his many prayers had been answered. “Ideally, the sacred space of a church is best for bringing people together for Mass, to pray, to sing but in unprecedented times it is the “praying together” element that is accomplished through the innovation of our new drive-in Mass.” After much deliberation and training, some practice and very little expense, St. Vincent Ferrer launched its first drive-in Mass on Sunday, July 12. With the purchase of a small radio transmitter the size of an iPod that transmits on radio frequencies, Mass had moved to the sprawling parking lot and, by simply adjusting the radio dial to 88.3 FM, the priest and parishioners are finally together again. “At long last, people can 1) come to Mass, 2) come to Mass together, 3) stay in the car to ensure their safety. In this way, we are all present to the experience,” said Fr. Raymond gratefully. A small group of well-trained and masked volunteers assist the face shield-wearing priest, distributing hand sanitizer to Communicants as they navigate from car window to car window. “Even though we’ve moved the Mass outdoors, we continue to follow the strictest guidelines,” he added. “We are taking great joy in the small successes in a stressful time.”
Others are taking great joy in this innovative idea as well. Fr. Raymond has received many happy calls and emails from the faithful who not only appreciate the parish’s work to create a safe environment for celebrating Mass but who are also just really impressed with the extra efforts. River Forest resident and parishioner Donna Fantetti-Slepicka, owner of River Forest Chocolates, is thrilled with the concept. “The drive up service is lovely,” Donna told Neighbors magazine. “It allows all to reflect privately and comfortably during these uncertain times. The audio through your car radio works perfectly. It is such an inspiring, hopeful and gratifying opportunity to be able to worship once again.” Fr. Raymond gives abundant credit to the volunteers who helped make the transition possible. “We owe a huge thanks to a really dedicated group of volunteers who have gone through extensive training aside from their jobs and their lives to ensure safe seating when we are in church, flow in the worship space and in the parking lot.” Current Mass schedule is:
- Sunday Drive-In, 7:30 am
- Monday-Friday Drive-In, 6:45 am
- Saturday, Drive-In, 8 am
- Sunday In Church, 11 am (also Live-streamed)
- Sunday In Church, 5:30 pm
- Saturday Confession, 3-4 pm (and by appointment)
In addition to the Masses, Fr. Raymond invites area residents to join those who pray the rosary on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7pm. “All are welcome pray the rosary for an end to the pandemic and for your own intentions. We meet at our Lady’s statue located at the southwest corner of the school.” All three priests, Fr. Simon-Felix, Fr. Steven Kuhlmann and Fr. Raymond, together with staff and the parish council have dedicated their days to calling all parishioners in the database during these trying times to not only check on their well-being, particularly the elderly, but to stay connected and let them know about the developments being made. “Not everyone has access to the internet, not everyone has time to scroll through Facebook,” Fr. Raymond explained. “All of our lives have changed dramatically but we will forge on together in faith. All of us continue to just put one foot in front of the other.”
(Article written by Tina Valentino and originally published in Neighbors Magazine, September 2020 Issue)