Why my church grew during the pandemic

My church grew during the pandemic; we can’t find seats. The pews are full.

This has been my family’s experience at St Rita Catholic Church most Sundays since the pandemic began.

Some weeks, there’s barely enough standing room in the vestibule.

When other churches were shutting their doors, ours remained open. Sure enough, the faithful flocked.

I recently asked one of our three priests, Father Nicholas Schierer, what explains St. Rita’s dynamism.

He was in front of the church greeting parishioners, and I’d been outside for a few minutes, bouncing a whiny 10-month-old while my wife wrangled our other children in one of the back pews.

More than a few mums and dads were outside with me.

It’s another sign of a thriving parish: The dissonant choir of kids, which often drowns out the priest and competes with the organ in volume.

Father Schierer smiled.

Ordained to the priesthood in 2018, he was assigned to St. Rita’s in the fall of 2020, after the boom had begun.

He immediately saw what drew so many people, saying that the parish practised what it preached.

The church says Holy Communion is the “source and summit” of our faith, he told me, so we moved heaven and earth to make the sacraments available to the people of God.

Father Daniel Gee led St Rita’s through the worst of the pandemic.

As the pastor in charge of the parish since 2010, he had no intention of limiting access to the Lord.

In March 2020, following a statewide mandate, the local bishop banned public Masses. Father Gee complied, moving St. Rita’s Mass online.

Yet in-person Mass was the only part of the parish he shut down.

Along with two other priests, Father Vincent Bork and Father Karol Nędza, Father Gee continued to hear confessions every day of the week.

He also instituted a daily eucharistic adoration, giving parishioners a chance to be in the presence of Jesus Christ.

When the bishop allowed outdoor Masses in May, Father Gee immediately began celebrating them in the parish parking lot.

Virginia began reopening in June 2020, at which point churches were allowed to hold indoor services at 50% capacity.

Father Gee’s approach was simple: “Everyone who wanted to go to Mass could go to Mass,” he tells me.


Ours was a vibrant parish before the pandemic;


now it is flourishing even more.


In a time of sickness, it offered spiritual health.


In a time of darkness, it offered the light of hope.


In a time of loneliness, it offered a tangible, intentional Christian community.

To squeeze people in while complying with the law, he increased the number of weekend services by half.

Parishioners could come to one of two services held on Saturday evenings, as well as every hour from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday.

That’s nine Masses total two Latin, two Spanish, five English.

Father Gee says the busy schedule “nearly killed us,” but the parishioners welcomed the return to Catholic life.

While the faithful came rushing back, it wasn’t only the usual crowd.

With other parishes shrinking the number of Masses or requiring sign-ups for limited slots, Catholics travelled to St Rita’s from throughout Northern Virginia.

One family told me they drove from Great Falls, 35 minutes away in light traffic, and another from McLean.

Even my non-Catholic parents started joining us most weeks.

People heard about the church that kept the doors open, and that’s where they wanted to be.

Nationwide, in-person church attendance is as much as 50% lower than it was two years ago.

Yet Father Gee estimates Mass attendance at St Rita’s is as much as 20% higher than pre-pandemic levels.

Other parishes have since fully reopened, but many families have opted to stay here.

Collections for the poor also have gone up, while other parishes have seen declines. “If you’re not having Mass, you’re not getting money to help the most vulnerable,” says Father Gee.

Other signs of life abound. Continue reading

  • Stephen Ford is a parishioner at St Rita’s Parish, North Virginia.
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