GREEN BAY — As the snow began piling up for what became a record snowfall of two to three feet across the Diocese of Green Bay on the weekend of April 14-15, parishes began to cancel Masses.
“None of us priests likes to cancel Mass; we only do it if we have to,” explained Fr. Joel Sember. “We wanted to encourage people to stay home. We were under red alert here, which means emergency travel only.”
Fr. Sember is pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Oconto, St. Patrick Parish in Stiles and St. Anthony Parish in Oconto Falls. And he, like most pastors that weekend, canceled the Masses.
Yet he still celebrated Mass with nearly 400 people on April 15.
He did it through social media and using Facebook Live streaming. With the download of an app “and pushing two buttons” on his cellphone, Fr. Sember was able to celebrate Mass in the parish chapel at 10:30 a.m.
It wasn’t Fr. Sember’s idea. Fr. Edward Looney, administrator of St. Francis and St. Mary Parish, Brussels, and St. Peter and St. Hubert Parish, Lincoln/Rosiere, is a friend and Fr. Looney was planning to use Facebook Live for his Saturday Vigil and Sunday morning Mass.
“My first reaction,” said Fr. Sember, “was that was a really dumb idea.”
However, as the snow added up on Saturday, he thought about it again and tried streaming live on Saturday to ask his Facebook friends what they thought of the idea.
“Before I knew it, 15 people were watching me,” he said. “I was asking people if they thought it was a good idea — everyone thought it was a great idea. That changed my perspective.”
Fr. Looney explained that he has been trying to connect his parishes through social media since his arrival there in 2017. That has included using Facebook Live during Mass before, including this year for Easter Sunday Mass, “until the battery on his phone died during Communion,” he said.
“It’s never an easy decision to cancel Mass,” he said, “but there are a number of factors one has to make. My parishes are all rural. People drive great distances on country roads to attend Sunday Mass. Will the side roads be plowed?”
He also had to worry about his parking lot. “At the time of our 5:30 Vigil Mass, there was no place for cars to park because we were not yet plowed out, and the road was beginning to narrow because of drifting,” he said.
It’s a safety issue for priests as well, since many of them have more than one parish to cover. Fr. Sember’s parishes have five Masses each weekend, with the help of a retired priest. “It’s a 30-mile round trip to cover all the Masses,” he said.
So, with the help of about seven people who braved the weather to come to the parish office and its chapel, Fr. Sember celebrated Mass with his Facebook followers. People attended from Appleton, Clintonville, Little Suamico, Shawano, Darboy, Oshkosh, Green Bay, Crivitz, Stiles, Florence, De Pere and Dale, as well as out of state.
“Welcome to Mass in the middle of a blizzard,” Fr. Joel greeted everyone before Mass started.
One person watching from Suamico was Jenny Walske, with her parents and her son, Adam. They watched the Mass, she said, in her parents’ sunroom with the birds chirping and the snow falling.
“I was able to relax and still be present,” Walske said. “We were able to participate in the Mass, but only a different way — writing our responses in a chat environment. I found that we were all still very quiet and often had to remind ourselves that we could speak to one another if we needed to.”
Kyle Gigot, a member of Nativity Parish in Ashwaubenon, watched from home with his wife, Mary Beth. “I felt a spiritual intimacy that I don’t usually experience in a large-group setting,” he said.
The chat portion of the streaming Mass allowed viewers to offer petitions during the prayer of the faithful, adding to the sense of shared closeness, and to wish each other peace during the “Sign of Peace.”
The response surprised Fr. Sember.
“I expected to reach my parishioners and a few friends. It was surprising how many people were there,” said Fr. Sember, adding that he saw a tally of 385 viewers as he ended the Mass.
The next day, he learned more about those he had reached. For example, one was “a friend from a different state — she was home with a migraine and was able to watch me on Facebook,” he said.
Then he went into the cellphone store and a woman there told him she had seen him on Facebook — “and she’s not even Catholic.”
By three days later, the site with the recording of the Mass had received more than 9,000 views and 577 comments.
Fr. Sember knows that the Facebook Mass fit a unique need during the storm, but added that “it’s also a good reminder that there are a lot of events at a parish that could go on Facebook Live. It’s another tool to reach out.”
“We have a wonderful Catholic community, and I think it’s good to find ways to keep that community connected and to support each other. I would say, ‘Stay tuned.’”