By Natalie Romano
It was the moment Jamie Ochoa was waiting for since the Covid-19 shutdown began...the moment when she could sing again in Mass.
Effective Monday, March 15th, the Diocese lifted its ban on live music and by Sunday the choir director was back in business.
“I cried on the way here. I cried through practice. I thought I was going to cry through the whole Mass,” says Ochoa, a choir director at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church in Yucaipa.
But Ochoa, accompanied by her husband, Gaston, did make it through the 11 a.m. Mass that served a small and socially distanced crowd. The Diocese amended its live music policies after state guidelines allowed San Bernardino and Riverside counties to go from the purple tier to the less restrictive red tier. Counties switch tiers based on their COVID-19 positivity rate. The updated diocesan rules state singers performing indoors must maintain six feet of physical distance from each other and 12 feet from parishioners. No more than ten singers can share the stage and face masks are mandatory. Outdoors, masks are not necessary if singers are 12 feet apart and unlike indoors, parishioners may sing along if wearing a mask. Diocesan officials hope the return of performers will mean the return of more parishioners.
“I think the live music experience will cause people to go into church and not just watch it on a live stream video,’’ says Ann Marie Gallant, Director of the Diocesan Office of Emergency Operations Collaborative (EOC). “Especially at this wonderful time of the year; spring, summer, Holy Week, Easter - all of which means so much to the Catholic Church.”
Nancy Locurto was inspired to come to Mass with her husband and three children. “It was lovely, so nice,” says the St. Frances parishioner. “Music enhances the experience. We enjoy it and the kids enjoy it.”
When the changes were announced, Diocesan officials say excitement quickly spread among church worship leaders.
“The parishes are so excited about these new protocols,’’ says Chris Estrella, Coordinator of Liturgical Music in the Diocesan Office of Worship. “They are hitting the ground running; prepping music, starting rehearsals. They have to get their choirs together out of nowhere.”
Estrella adds that choir directors are “strongly encouraged” to have their members get COVID-19 tests prior to Mass. Performers should also skip sheet music and opt for using digital devices instead. Then there’s the challenge of singing with something over your mouth.
“I had to make a lot of adjustments singing with a mask,” explains Ochoa. “I felt like I had to sing louder.”
Yet many say they are willing to do what’s necessary because singing hymns is so deeply tied to their faith. Throughout the pandemic, Estrella gave “Worship Wednesdays” concerts on the Diocesan YouTube channel but now looks forward to singing at his parish, Our Lady of Assumption in San Bernardino.
“There’s a saying when you sing you pray twice,” says Estrella. “Music helps people dive deeper into the message...I love that.”
He also notes that besides changing the altar’s color scheme, music “defines the season” of the Church calendar. That’s exactly why on her first day back, Ochoa wanted to sing the hymn “Into the Desert.”
“We had practiced that song but to sing it live,” Ochoa’s voice breaks off as her eyes tear up, “It just really speaks Lent to me.”
Ochoa normally leads the youth choir but this first time back, she decided to start slowly and safely. She and her husband are both teachers and have already been vaccinated. Gaston Ochoa enhanced the day’s hymns with African drums, shakers, and rain sticks to get parishioners “in the mood.” He says it felt great to be back.
“I don’t get by on non-spiritual music. I just don’t,” Gaston admits. “It’s my Christian music, it’s my cultural music, it’s my Spanish Catholic jams.”
When asked how he filled the void of no music in Mass…
“It’s got to be singing in the shower,” he laughs.
When the final song was sung and Mass had ended, parishioners showed their gratitude by clapping. Some like Gloria and Bill Thomas made a point of personally thanking the performers. The couple accompanied three developmentally disabled men who love music.
“We all thought it was uplifting and joyful,” says Bill Thomas. “We appreciate their (performers) extra effort and that they stayed the course. That’s what we all need to do.”
His wife says she was emotional just walking inside the parish. It was her first time back since the pandemic began. Adding to her joy was seeing her priest, Father Augustine Ochoa, and hearing the music.
“New beginnings, that’s how it feels,” explains Gloria Thomas. “It’s wonderful.”
Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and a parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.