The leader of Maine’s Catholic community says that a new executive order from the governor updating the gathering size limit in places of worship is “unacceptable” and will increase capacity levels in only a handful of Catholic churches.

Bishop Robert Deeley Photo courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland

“This ruling is unacceptable and does nothing to provide relief to our parishes and parishioners,” Bishop Robert Deeley of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland said in a news release Thursday. “Many Maine Catholics who were frustrated by the previous limits are now perplexed and upset. The governor must reconsider this and go to a percentage model.”

Deeley was responding to Gov. Janet Mills’ executive order last week that updated the gathering size limits for houses of worship to 50 people or five people per 1,000 square feet of space, whichever is greater. The previous limit was 50 people.

“As she has done throughout the pandemic, the governor strives to balance the need to protect public health with other important considerations,” Lindsay Crete, the governor’s spokeswoman, said in an email. “The executive order issued last week expands the capacity limits in houses of worship from a cap of 50 to a percentage that is based on square footage of space. The executive order applies this standard in a fair and equitable manner consistent with public health restrictions on other venues across Maine, namely retail space.”

Currently, Maine is in the minority of states that have indoor gathering size limits specific to places of worship, according to Becket, a nonprofit advocating for religious liberty for all faiths. More than 30 states don’t have restrictions specific to gathering sizes at places of worship, while 15 have limits based on capacity percentages and two have numerical caps. The most common percentage capacity limit is 50 percent.

The group currently lists Maine’s limits as “approximately 13 percent of capacity,” though it was unclear where that number came from. A media relations contact did not respond to a phone call or an email.

Of the state’s 141 Catholic churches, fewer than 10 will see an increase from current capacity levels under the governor’s new executive order, according to the diocese. In an interview, Deeley said the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, which can seat about 700 people, will be able to increase capacity to about 75 or 85 while the Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul in Lewiston, with a capacity of about 1,500, will be able to increase to about 105. There are about 250,000 Catholics in Maine.

“Over 30 states have no capacity restrictions for worship,” Deeley said. “We have asked for even 25 percent, but the governor’s office will not engage in a discussion on why that makes sense.”

Crete, meanwhile, said it is false that the governor’s office has not engaged and said they have spoken several times with representatives of the diocese along with other faith communities over the past several months. “Their opinions were heard and taken into consideration; the bishop simply disagrees with the result,” Crete said.

She said the administration is continually reviewing its public health measures. The governor, in concert with the Department of Economic and Community Development, Department of Health and Human Services, and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is considering how Maine’s public health measures, such as gathering size limits, may be adjusted in the coming months to reflect progress in vaccinations and to prepare for the spring and summer tourism season safely.

“As a result, it is possible that gathering limits will be adjusted again in the future,” Crete said. “Those adjustments will be done by taking into account a number of considerations, including equity of application across all sectors, and the governor will make a decision based on science and the best interests of Maine people amid this ongoing pandemic.”

From March to June, Catholic churches in Maine were only offering livestreamed masses, though that changed on June 1 when the diocese began to allow churches to hold in-person services again while adhering to safeguards such as mask wearing, cleaning and physical distancing, as well as the state’s capacity limits. The diocese said there have been no outbreaks at Maine Catholic churches.

However, the Maine CDC did include one Catholic church, Our Lady of Ransom in Mechanic Falls, in a list provided Thursday of 11 places of worship where an outbreak has been reported since the pandemic started.

At the Holy Martyrs Church on Foreside Road in Falmouth, just over 20 parishioners, most of them seniors, filed into the church for daily Mass Thursday evening, a few pausing to reflect on the governor’s new gathering limit order. Holy Martyrs is a smaller church and won’t be affected by the governor’s new gathering size limit.

“I don’t see that the governor’s order will make any difference at our church,” said Joe Pelletier, 67, a Yarmouth parishioner. Pelletier said he would support allowing more than 50 people inside Holy Martyrs, provided that church leaders can maintain 6 feet of distance between worshippers.

Pelletier said the COVID restrictions that have been imposed on places of worship by the state have made it more difficult for parishioners to congregate in person. Holy Martyrs does offer parishioners the opportunity to livestream weekend and daily Masses.

“It has been a lot harder and and it has been inconvenient,” Pelletier said. Despite the restrictions, Pelletier has tried to attend Mass in person throughout the pandemic, but for some the fear of contracting COVID is too great. “A lot of people I know don’t come to church any longer because they are scared to death.”

Ken Rusinek, a parishioner from Yarmouth, said the governor’s new order will have little, if any, impact on Holy Martyrs.

“For us, her order doesn’t change anything,” Rusinek said.

Rusinek has been disappointed by what he perceives to be a lack of dialogue between Mills and church leaders about gathering limits in places of worship. He questions why there can be larger-size gatherings in stores and bars than in churches.

“Mass at Holy Martyrs is very different from a gathering at a bar in the Old Port,” he said.

Holy Martyrs’ pastor, the Rev. Philip Tracey, agrees with Rusinek. Tracey said the church has the capacity to seat up to 400 parishioners, but until now has limited gatherings to 50 people in its sanctuary. Mills’ new order might allow for a few more people to worship, but “it won’t make an appreciable difference for us,” he said.

Tracey said the Falmouth church – he did not know how many square feet it has – has the ability to seat an additional 50 parishioners in an adjacent hall where parishioners can watch Mass on a TV screen.  He would like to see the gathering limit increased beyond 50 people or five people per 1,000 square feet.

“Some people come here and find out there is no room left and have to be turned away. Catholicism is very much about interacting with other people,” he said. “It seems odd to me that you can shop at Lowe’s and not have to worry about keeping a 6-foot distance.”

The 21 parishioners who attended Thursday evening’s Mass sat 6 feet a part. Everyone wore a mask and hand sanitizer was positioned throughout the lobby and the church. But Easter is coming up on April 4 and Tracey is concerned that Holy Martyrs may not be able to accommodate everyone who wants to attend a live service. If demand exceeds capacity, Tracey said he may be forced to resort to a seating lottery.

“We do everything the state has asked us to do, and most people have been understanding, but it has been frustrating at times,” he said.

The Rev. Mark Tanner of the Skowhegan Federated Church said not having the opportunity to go to church is a “mental health issue” for many in central Maine.

“It’s just way too long, and you have people sitting at home thinking, ‘When is it going to end?'” he said. “There’s too much isolation. The loneliness is pervasive. It’s got to end. It’s got to change.”

The updated gathering size limit didn’t change how many people can attend services in the church’s 5,500-square-foot sanctuary.

“The way the mandate reads, it really doesn’t change very much,” Tanner said. “I can have 50 people in here, and it’s just not enough.”

Dennis Perkins, president of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Waterville, said the church’s services are virtual and will remain so until the Universalist Unitarian Society comes out with new suggestions.

“We have been doing virtual Zoom services since the middle of last March, and, to be expected, we miss being next to each other for Sunday services,” Perkins said. “Our take is we want to be the best citizens we can be, and we are absolutely supportive of the things Gov. Mills is doing. We think our job primarily as citizens is to do what we can to protect ourselves and everyone else in Maine.”

Restrictions for places of worship have sparked debate throughout the pandemic in Maine and other places. Last spring, an evangelical church in Orrington filed a lawsuit over restrictions on religious gatherings but a federal judge denied its motion for emergency relief.

The governor filed a motion to dismiss the case last week, saying the church’s original lawsuit took aim at an outdated 10-person limit on all gatherings and it is unlikely the state would return to that. The church responded Thursday by asking the court to overturn the current 50-person limit, saying it violates the First Amendment.

The bishop’s criticism of the current capacity limits is not the first time he has sparred with the governor over COVID-19 restrictions. In November, when the state adopted a 50-person limit on indoor gatherings, Deeley said churches would comply but complained the diocese had been left out of decisions about the pandemic response. At the time, Mills’ office said it had been working with the religious community throughout the pandemic and that the governor understands the importance of faith, especially during hard times.

Ash Wednesday on Feb. 17 marked the start of Lent, a period of intense spiritual renewal for Christians who prepare to celebrate the commemoration of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. Deeley said on Thursday that he hopes the capacity limits might be reconsidered before the Easter holiday on April 4 to allow more people to celebrate in-person. “Easter is six weeks away and I’m hoping the possibility will be there to allow more people to be at Mass before we get to Easter,” he said.

Press Herald Staff Writer Dennis Hoey and Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Greg Levinsky contributed to this report.

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