Some La Jolla churches get ready to reopen in-person services; others are waiting

Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Church has blocked off every other pew and added signs on the doors to indicate new guidelines for returning to the church for in-person services.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

With houses of worship being given state guidelines to reopen in-person services following a weeks-long closure due to coronavirus-related restrictions, several in La Jolla are planning to do so. Others, though, are holding off, citing steady attendance for online services and concern for older congregants seen as more vulnerable to the virus.

Gov. Gavin Newsom released guidelines May 25 outlining safety steps churches and other places of worship must take before reopening.

Among them are:

• Limit attendance to 25 percent of capacity, or 100 people

• Require masks

• Perform thorough cleaning of commonly used surfaces

• Establish physical distancing by limiting the length of services, using partitions to keep visitors at least six feet apart, discouraging handshakes and other physical contact and discontinuing food or beverage service.

The full document can be found on the California Department of Public Health website at

At Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Church, daily Masses will resume Monday, June 8, said pastor Pat Mulcahy, with Sunday Masses resuming June 14.

“We’ll do it safely,” he said. Masks will be required, hand sanitizer stations set up and every other pew cordoned off to keep parishioners distanced.

“We will also discourage chatting and group gathering before and after,” he said.

Mulcahy said he is “excited about having people come back. We’re glad to meet their needs. The church is like their second home.”

Mary, Star of the Sea will continue to provide online services, as it has since stay-at-home orders began in March.

“We’re not going to be encouraging people in the vulnerable populations to come back to church; we want them to be safe,” Mulcahy said. “We want to continue outreach to people who are homebound or taking extra precautions.”

As San Diego County moves further into allowing business reopenings as coronavirus restrictions ease, owners and customers in La Jolla are adapting to a modified business as usual.

La Jolla Christian Fellowship’s in-person services will resume June 14, said pastor Adam Stadtmiller.

“We want to make sure that we come back in a very safe and responsible way,” Stadtmiller said last week. “How that looks will change dramatically over the next two weeks.”

The church will watch others’ reopenings and keep track of official guidelines to help firm up details, he said.

Meetings throughout the week will use a “cafe model,” which means groupings will look more like restaurant seating, Stadtmiller said.

Online services will continue. “We want to be relevant to our community,” he said.

St. James By-the-Sea Episcopal Church intends to resume in-person services Sunday, June 21.
St. James By-the-Sea Episcopal Church intends to resume in-person services Sunday, June 21.
( File)

The Rev. Mark Hargreaves said St. James By-the-Sea Episcopal Church will begin in-person services Sunday, June 21, following the lead of Bishop Susan Brown Snook. A task force has been assembled to oversee a safe return to the building, Hargreaves said.

“It’s clear that there will have to be some significant changes to the way that we have done things in the past,” he said. “For example, we will start by worshiping outside on the church patio. Also, numbers will be limited, people will have to sign up online before attending a service. Sadly, we won’t be singing together as a congregation, and our wonderful choir will not be singing for some time yet.

“We are very grateful for the clear and helpful advice that we’ve received from various bodies regarding hygiene and the safety measures, and we are following those closely. Our return to the building will be measured and in stages. We will proceed cautiously with the health and well-being of our parishioners our primary concern.”

On its first open Saturday since a 10-week shutdown began because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Westfield UTC mall was bustling with signs of life May 30.

Some La Jolla houses of worship are in no hurry to open their doors just yet.

Philip Wood, senior pastor at La Jolla United Methodist Church, said, “We are not resuming services until we, as a United Methodist church, meet the guidelines which are being produced under the supervision of our bishop Grant J. Hagiya of this area, the California-Pacific Annual Conference.”

La Jolla Presbyterian Church senior pastor Paul Cunningham said services there will not resume anytime soon.

“Our leadership team unanimously decided we would not be able to offer everything that’s required by the California Department of [Public] Health,” he said.

The church will “reassess in four weeks” and continue its online services for now, Cunningham said last week. “We will continue doing that until we feel we can offer a safe environment for people to come back on our campus.”

La Jolla Lutheran Church plans to limit services to online for the foreseeable future.

La Jolla Lutheran Church also is holding off on in-person services, choosing to offer worship online “for the foreseeable future,” pastor Mark Dahle said.

Church financial secretary Diane Owens said, “We have begun having meetings on Zoom led by Pastor Mark to discuss how this reopening will all unfold for our church. All members are invited to attend and express their thoughts.”

The Rev. Tim Seery of Congregational Church of La Jolla said the church closed in-person gatherings March 15 and began online services.

“We knew that it was the prudent thing to do,” he said. “All but a small handful of the congregation are over 60 and the average age is in the mid-80s. Even if we were to return to the building, it wouldn’t be safe for the majority of the congregation to join us. … We’d need to remove pews, require face masks and monitor it so that we could be sure we had 100 percent compliance.

“However, I am aware this isn’t realistic. People want to hug, they want to great each other. … We are in no rush to go back.”

Nevertheless, he added, “right now we are still the church and still doing church; we just aren’t meeting in our ‘meeting house.’ I think all Christians have been guilty in recent decades of focusing on their buildings too much and forgetting that the church is the people.”

Similarly, Mount Soledad Presbyterian Church has not picked a date to resume in-person worship and is focusing on sermon videos and online services.

Pastor John Moser said the church will continue to offer the online videos after social distancing restrictions have been lifted.

“We’ve seen this reach people in the community who had not yet attended worship at Mount Soledad, and it is also helpful for members who will be traveling or unable to attend on a particular Sunday,” he said. “Our children continue their learning through weekly at-home lessons, songs and crafts as well as a weekly online meet-up, and our adult Bible studies have actually grown in number of participants while online.”

Furthermore, the church has created what it calls its RISE plan:

• “Reopen public worship when it will be as good and healthful as our online experience.”
• “Invest in new ministries that will flourish in the COVID-19 era.”
• “Support the vulnerable with caring and assisting services.”
• “Engage our community by meeting their needs.”

La Jolla’s Congregation Beth El is in the planning phases for reopening and would do so only for Saturday services as of now.

“We are guided by the Jewish value of caring for the health of those in and outside our community,” said Rabbi Ron Shulman. “Responding to evolving circumstances, adhering to current government directives, consulting with medical advisers in our community and, with an abundance of caution, we are now planning for how we will reopen our synagogue campus.”

Over the summer, Shulman said, CBE will “phase in our schedule of other in-person prayer gatherings,” but “our clergy and lay leaders are taking a go-slow approach. All of our prayer services will adhere to the complete health and safety protocols established by the state of California.”

“Though some of us will gather in person, we will continue to urge our members to take individual care and precaution,” he added. “We encourage and appreciate their choice to stay home and to join with us online for the time being.” ◆