JANESVILLE

It was an automatic gesture.

On entering St. John Vianney Church, a man reached out his hand to dip his fingertips into the water of the baptismal font.

But the font was empty, as was about half of the church.

On Sunday, churches around the area dealt with the fallout of the COVID-19 outbreak. Wisconsin had only had 33 cases of the disease by Sunday afternoon, with six of those in Dane County.

However, in an effort to check the spread of the disease, the Centers for Disease Control and state and public health departments are asking people to avoid large gatherings and engage in social distancing.

Earlier this week, Bishop Donald J. Hying issued a decree dispensing everyone in the Diocese of Madison from the obligation of attending Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. In a letter to his parishioners, the Rev. Paul Ugo Arinze of St. John Vianney explained that normally those who are sick, dealing with severe weather or with “other grave reasons” are not bound by the obligation to attend church on Sundays.

“Bishop Hying’s dispensation goes a step further: During this time, because all gatherings carry a risk of contracting and of spreading COVID-19, anyone can in good conscience make the decision not to attend Mass,” the letter said.

Along with emptying the baptismal font, ushers opened the doors to the sanctuary and the gathering area in order to "minimize touch points," Ugo Arinze said.

Parishioners also were asked to "exercise caution" when taking communion to avoid any physical contact with those handing it out. In addition, the exchange of the "sign of peace" was omitted.

About 160 people attended Sunday's 10 a.m. Mass at St. John Vianney. Usually, about 400 attend.

Ugo Arinze had ushers count worshipers as they came in to make sure attendance didn’t pass 250. The Rock County Health Department has asked that gatherings of any kind not exceed that amount.

Ugo Arinze arranged to have the services streamed live on Facebook so people could watch at home.

Other local churches closed. First Lutheran Church and Faith Lutheran Church in Janesville were among them.

An announcement on Faith Lutheran Church’s website said it was suspending services until March 31. Its campus was closed, and all events and meetings canceled. The church's day care will remain open unless there is a confirmed case of COVID-19 among staff or students.

Faith Lutheran Church’s the Rev. Felix Mapica announced on YouTube that many of the church's services and small groups would be offered online. He also offered a service online. Mapica and his staff will meet next week to develop new ways to hold services online.

At St. John Vianney, the Rev. Joseph Baker used his sermon to remind people they had faith in God and hope as an anchor for their souls. Even in the most difficult times, that anchor would keep them steady, he said.

After the service, Ugo Arinze said he thought it was important to keep the church open for those who wanted to come to worship. Prayer helps fill the gaps in hearts and helps to soothe anxieties, he said.

"People are thankful that they can come to Mass," Ugo Arinze said.

For more local coverage on the outbreak of the new coronavirus, go to gazettextra.com/coronavirus.

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