Archdiocese Local Parishes

Rural pastor celebrates Mass ‘with his parishioners’

Father Nathan Haverland, pastor of St. Gregory the Great Parish, Marysville, and St. Malachy Parish in Beattie, celebrates Mass with photos of his parishioners in the pews — an idea he got from a story about a priest in Italy that he saw on social media. PHOTO COURTESY OF FATHER NATHAN HAVERLAND

by Marc and Julie Anderson

MARYSVILLE — Mass cancellations. Suspensions of public gatherings. “Stay at home” orders. How does a Catholic priest make himself available to his congregation? And how can he unite the parish family despite social distancing guidelines?

While many parish priests are turning to streaming Masses on a daily or weekly basis, Father Nathan Haverland, pastor of St. Gregory the Great Parish in Marysville and St. Malachy in nearby Beattie, took it one step further.

He discovered a way to celebrate Mass and still “see his parishioners” in the pews.

The answer?

He asked parishioners to send him a digital photo of their families. He then printed the pictures, one per piece of paper. Then, he taped them to the pews in St. Gregory Church.

That way, he could still see the pews “full of people,” united in prayer. Mass is then aired on television and streamed on the parish’s Facebook page.

The pews of St. Gregory the Great Parish in Marysville are full again — with pictures of parishioners and wider community members taped to them.

About 500 photos of various families from St. Gregory and St. Malachy, wider community members and more poured in through social media, leading the priest to admit he used a lot of ink and paper.

And he regrets not a bit of it.

“It is such a beautiful testament to all of humanity coming together in this moment where we all want to be together and have some hope,” he said.

Father Haverland is quick to admit, however, that he cannot claim credit for the idea.

“I got this idea from a post I saw on social media about a priest in the hard-hit area of Italy who asked his parishioners to send in pictures for him to print and put in the pews,” he said. “When I saw that post, I knew that was what I needed to do!”

Father Haverland is able to pray for parishioners in a special way during Mass with their photos adorning the otherwise empty pews.

It might seem a little bit unusual, but the pastor said it’s important for everyone to stay connected with their parish families.

“There is such a sadness among everyone about not being able to gather with our friends and family, but even more so that we can’t gather together as faith families,” he said. “We take it for granted that we can gather together each Sunday and now with that not a possibility, we begin to long and desire it more than we ever would have otherwise.

“I can’t take away that pain of not being able to gather together, but I wanted to do something to help make people feel like we were all still in this together.”

As he celebrates Mass each week, Father Haverland said he finds it edifying to him to be able to see his parishioners and know they are united in prayer as if it were a normal Sunday, even though they are not physically present.

“Nothing really prepares you for a moment like this,” he said. “I’ve had some unusual moments in my priesthood, but this one tops them all.

“Everything about Sunday Mass without the people felt incredibly awkward. At the same time, it was really touching to know that in countless homes, families were gathered together in prayer with me.”

Father Haverland even utilized the choir loft at the church to hang pictures of his parishioners and wider community members.

“As tragic as this is,” he continued, “I can’t help but think of all the amazing fruit that’s coming from this situation. Families are spending more time together than they ever have, and people are longing to go to church more than they ever have.”

The creative approach, said Father Haverland, reminds him of saints and their fearlessness in ministering to all those under their care. Citing such examples as St. Gregory the Great, who reigned as a pope when a plague afflicted Rome, and St. Maximilian Kolbe, who ministered during the Holocaust, the priest said their lives provide witness to the hope of Christ.

“I can’t help but think of the many saints that have come before us who have lived during some really tragic times like this,” he said. “Instead of shying away in fear, they rose to the occasion with their talents and creativity to somehow make humanity better and get through those challenging times. “I have always looked up to them in admiration. And now I realize that we have the opportunity to do the same.”

About the author

Marc & Julie Anderson

Freelancers Marc and Julie Anderson are long-time contributors to the Leaven. Married in 1996, for several years the high school sweethearts edited The Crown, the former newspaper of Christ the King Parish in Topeka which Julie has attended since its founding in 1977. In 2000, the Leaven offered the couple their first assignment. Since then, the Andersons’ work has also been featured in a variety of other Catholic and prolife media outlets. The couple has received numerous journalism awards from the Knights of Columbus, National Right to Life and the Catholic Press Association including three for their work on “Think It’s Not Happening Near You? Think Again,” a piece about human trafficking. A lifelong Catholic, Julie graduated from Most Pure Heart of Mary Grade School and Hayden Catholic High School in Topeka. Marc was received into the Catholic Church in 1993 at St. Paul Parish – Newman Center at Wichita State University. The two hold degrees from Washburn University in Topeka. Their only son, William James, was stillborn in 1997.

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