Santa Inés Mission parishioners meet indoors for first time in months
The voices of parishioners reverberated off the walls of the Santa Iné Mission Wednesday morning during the church’s first indoor mass in nearly seven months.
About 30 masked congregants gathered in the Solvang mission’s 200-year-old sanctuary, offering prayers and taking communion. The long wooden pews were sectioned off with tape, directing parishioners to sit in every other row with a limit of two families or individuals per row.
Father Bobby Barbato, pastor of the Santa Inés Mission, greeted congregants as they entered the sanctuary while Father James Johnson, the associate pastor, read from the Bible and led prayers during the mass.
“To look out at the church and just see people there, it was a great feeling,” Father Barbato told the News-Press.
Throughout 2020, the church held outdoor worship services on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays in compliance with orders from Gov. Gavin Newsom that prohibited parishioners from meeting indoors.
These restrictions were recently overturned in a Feb. 5 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which declared Gov. Newsom’s restrictions violated the Constitution’s protections for the free practice of religion. The 6-3 ruling from the high court allows California churches to return to indoor gatherings at a limited capacity of 25%.
Prior to Wednesday, parishioners met outdoors in the Santa Inés Mission’s garden for morning services. As the winter ushered in cooler temperatures, Father Barbato said the “devoted group” of Wednesday morning congregants bore the cold for the sake of their worship.
“It was miserable at times because of the cold,” Bridgitte Lorenz, a 44-year member of the parish, told the News-Press. “It was beautiful in the garden. We have a beautiful garden, but it was cold.”
On Wednesday, it was cold outside, but inside, there was warmth, literally and figuratively.
During the pandemic, Rick and Ninni Lemus, of Buellton, faithfully attended Wednesday morning mass in the garden but said that returning indoors felt like “coming home.”
“We’re grateful that we were able to at least (meet outdoors), but we missed being inside and the ambiance,” Mr. Lemus told the News-Press. “There’s a special warmth and serenity in the house of God that you don’t always feel in the clamor of outside.”
Completing the sacraments proved to be a challenge during the pandemic for many members of the Santa Inés Mission, as physical distancing even prevented the priests from administering communion at the start of lockdown.
In the early stages of the pandemic, parishioners gathered in the church parking lot, listening to a broadcast of church services over the radio and receiving communion through their car windows. Last summer, the church was permitted to meet indoors again, but that only lasted briefly as increased case numbers shut down indoor services once again.
“For me, it was very sad that we could not come to church and worship,” Mrs. Lemus said. “That we could not be here (inside). I love to go and turn the light on over the (figure of the) blessed mother and kneel and say my three daily Hail Marys, which I’ve done since I was 2 years old, and not being able to do that (was sad).”
The church plans to host outdoor masses this Saturday and Sunday and will transition to indoor services the following week. For members who feel more comfortable attending the service from their vehicles, the church will continue to offer broadcasts and online streaming.
“I feel great because I feel that we are following all the protocols,” Father Barbato said. “We are able to be together, and I think that physical togetherness is very important too. (We’re) always trying to balance because we obviously want to help people’s health and follow the protocols.”
Prior to the pandemic, the church lacked the technology to broadcast virtual services and had to adapt quickly, Father Barbato said. Since then, members of the church donated equipment to allow the church to broadcast weekly masses from their Facebook page.