The Rev. Tony Richter gives a homily during Christmas Eve Mass at Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Clawson in 2018.

The Rev. Tony Richter gives a homily during Christmas Eve Mass at Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Clawson in 2018.

Photo provided by Rakhi McCormick


Church Christmas traditions bring light to the season

By: Kristyne E. Demske | Metro | Published December 22, 2021

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METRO DETROIT — Peace and understanding: that is what local churches are asking of their parishioners — and that’s also what they are hoping to offer — this holiday season.

“Even the chosen title for the Christmas service this year reflects the collective need: ‘The Light of the World.’ In a really dark year ... it’s invaluable to have an opportunity to come together and remember there’s reason to hope and there is a reason to celebrate, despite it all,” said Kristin Pelletier, in the media department of Kensington Church. “We’re not negating that it’s been hard. 

“We’re recognizing, in the here and now, things are hard and that’s where people are at. We want to meet them there, but the other thing about Christmas is, it’s this beautiful, universal, transcendent reason to celebrate.”

Metro Detroit churches report that, while more people have returned to Masses and church services over 2021, weekly attendance still hasn’t returned to pre-COVID levels. 

Some parishioners at Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Clawson still aren’t comfortable attending Mass in person, so the church has continued to livestream one of its Sunday Masses each week, said Rakhi McCormick, the coordinator of mission and outreach at the church. 

She said that because of the level of COVID community spread, the church is asking those attending Mass to wear masks and to be “mindful and considerate with one another.”

“Just understanding that everyone has a different comfort level,” she added. “As community spread increases, we can always evaluate what it is we’re asking (of) our parishioners and community.”

Depending on the Mass, attendance is at about 50%-75% of 2019 levels, said the Rev. Jim Bjorum, the pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in St. Clair Shores.

The church has reduced the amount of available seating in an effort to space out churchgoers, but it has made masking optional. Our Lady of Hope was the first parish in the area to put a Mass on YouTube, on March 15, 2020, he said, and it has continued to record Masses weekly for parishioners who don’t feel comfortable attending in-person services. 

“Especially when we were closed down, it was a very important way to keep in touch with a lot of our parishioners,” Bjorum said. “We had hundreds of views back then. We also did a number of devotions, Stations of the Cross. It was a way of keeping connected with the people in the parish.”

Even now, he said, there are parishioners who haven’t come back to Mass because they are healthcare professionals who are exposed to the virus daily. They stay away, he said, in an effort to protect other parishioners from potential exposure.

Attendance across the campuses of Kensington Church, which has locations in Troy, Birmingham, Orion Township, Clarkston, Clinton Township and Traverse City, has increased steadily throughout 2021, but it has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, said Pelletier. The nondenominational church has provided a “really robust online experience” throughout the pandemic, she said, by streaming all services and offering an interactive Facebook Live service, as well.

“The one thing we have noticed (is) there have been a lot of new people that discovered us online during COVID and have now tried out a campus,” she said. 

Masks are not required at Kensington Church, except at campuses that are held in locations like schools that require them, but they are recommended for KKids, the church’s children’s programming, because it is difficult for younger children to maintain distance from each other. 

“Over the past year, (Kensington) has been very vigilant about sanitizing stations, and staff is often asked to wear masks. Some rooms are off limits if they’re not large enough,” she explained.

While much effort and energy was put into the online Christmas experience in 2020, with kits for families and other take-home elements provided, the focus has shifted for Christmas 2021.

“Everyone is taking safety precautions seriously, but they’re also recognizing the need to come together to celebrate Christmas, so it feels like the energy is really about the in-person services this year,” Pelletier explained. 

Kensington Church has always required tickets for its 25 Christmas services because of the potential for too many people to overcrowd one specific service, and 2021 is no different. Free tickets are available at kensingtonchurch.org/christmas.

Guardian Angels Catholic Church, however, is not anticipating having to issue tickets and assign seats for its 2021 Christmas Masses as it did in 2020. 

“We’re just trusting that our community has been so generous with one another that they will continue to do so and be mindful of that, (leaving) space as needed,” McCormick said.

Those who are uncomfortable being in large groups have the option to stay in the gathering area or in other overflow spaces during Christmas and other busy times. 

Our Lady of Hope was among the many parishes that used tickets and/or reserved seating for Christmas Masses in 2020, but Bjorum said they are not planning to do so this year either. The church has nearly doubled the available seating from 2020, so Bjorum said he believes two Masses on Christmas Eve and two on Christmas Day will be enough. Extra Masses had been added in 2020.

He stressed that those over the age of 65 and anyone feeling ill or anxious is still excused from the responsibility of attending Mass. No set plans have yet been made, but Bjorum said he expects a Christmas Mass will be recorded and uploaded to YouTube again this year for those who could not attend in person. 

The Archdiocese of Detroit will host Christmas Eve midnight Mass at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, 9844 Woodward Ave., in Detroit. Visitors are encouraged to wear masks and observe social distancing, but the Mass will also be broadcast live on the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Facebook page, YouTube channel and on aod.org. Catholics can find holiday Mass schedules at massfinder.org, with both in-person and live-streamed options listed. 

Local churches say they are focusing on different ways to celebrate the season this year than they have historically or did in 2020. 

“There is a tendency for us to want to do all the things ... nights for reflection and Bible studies. What we learned last year is, pick one thing and focus,” McCormick said. 

The pandemic has allowed the church to take stock of what programs and offerings were truly important and treasured by the community. To that end, the church is adding a Christmas play prior to the first Mass on Christmas Eve for children. It also held an Advent Festival with a craft show before Mass, and then cookies, cocoa, caroling and pictures with St. Nicholas afterwards, along with a fiesta to celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe Fiesta. 

Streamlining the holiday offerings, she said, is allowing parishioners to slow down and enjoy the season. 

“It’s been a mixed reaction. There are people who miss what they used to do, but overall, I think they’re happy we’re returning to having some things in person,” McCormick said. “They’re ready to come together. They’re ready to be together. It’s been a long 18 months.”

Our Lady of Hope used to host an Advent Tea, but it was suspended in 2020. It won’t be held again this year, Bjorum said, because the parish social hall where the tea was held is being used for spaced-out seating for Mass. The Our Lady of Hope Men’s Club has always hosted a pancake breakfast with Santa. That, too, changed in 2020; it was replaced with a drive-through doughnuts event with Santa. It was so popular, he said, that they are hosting it in that fashion again this year.

Bjorum said he feels that protocols put in place by the church are reassuring those attending that their safety is paramount. Eucharistic ministers sanitize their hands and wear masks when distributing Communion. Members of the choir were only invited back to join the group after they had been fully vaccinated and now practice in the church, which has more space and air circulation than the choir room. There is also a reduced amount of congregational singing to limit droplet spread.

“Certainly, we’re a little more comfortable (this year) because of the vaccinations, because we didn’t have that at all last Christmas,” Bjorum said. “That certainly has created a more comfortable environment.”

He said he understands that it’s difficult to continue with the protocols nearly two years later, but he still feels they’re necessary.

“I certainly know that a lot of people are getting weary of it, and that’s why I think some people are throwing caution to the wind,” Bjorum said. “That’s very dangerous, and that’s why we’re continuing to follow the protocols we’re following. I’m not going to let our guard down.”

Kensington Church is putting a larger focus on Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, than it has in the past, Pelletier said, as people are looking more forward to Christmas this year. 

“We are really investing in the whole season leading up to it,” she said, explaining that families were invited to paint an Advent plate during the first weekend of the season. “There’s some comfort in the traditions, in the nostalgia, and we want people to feel that warmth and nostalgia.

“We’re really thinking about, ‘Jesus is the light of the world.’ That a single taper alone can drive back darkness,” she explained.

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