A trickle of St. George Catholic Church parishioners arrived at the sanctuary’s entrance for Sunday morning Mass as volunteers in face coverings and yellow vests reminded them to put on their masks.

Collection baskets were placed at the sanctuary entrance to avoid germ spreading, ushers showed arrivals to socially distant pews and a cleaning crew later embarked on a disinfecting mission before the next service that evening.

For churches, it was a step toward normalcy.

“Everybody is just so happy to be back in church,” said St. George Communication and Development Director Ashley Fabre. “Everybody’s coming with a smile — you can’t see the smiles, but you can feel it.”

Many houses of worship on Sunday decided to welcome their flocks, with some limits, after having shut down during the height of the coronavirus outbreak in mid-March when the state limited gatherings to no more than 10 people.

Louisiana moved into the first phase of reopening after Gov. John Bel Edwards relaxed some restrictions Friday following a decline in new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations statewide.

A handful of churches in the Baton Rouge area had asked worshipers to RSVP by downloading tickets on the days they plan to attend. At St. Jean Vianney, the church set up color-coded tickets that represent the time parishioners wish to attend.

It’s an effort to ensure they don’t exceed the state’s new requirement capping capacity at 25% inside buildings, as well as to avoid having to turn away parishioners or risk having them gather in large numbers outside.

State leaders have urged houses of worship and businesses to create space inside their buildings so people can stay 6 feet apart, as well as recommending people wear masks.

Mark Warrington, a 43-year-old parishioner of St. George, said that after weeks of live streaming services in his living room, returning to church in person was “restorative.”

He said one quote from The Rev. Paul Yi’s homily stood out to him, spoken by Pope John Paul II: "Let us remember the past with gratitude, live the present with enthusiasm, and look forward to the future with confidence.”

“That summed it up really,” Warrington said. “We just weathered through the past two months and now we’re all sitting in this church again.”

Attending Mass for Kathy Amedee, 70, was “a longing to get back home,” she said, even though the new changes to stem potential spread of the virus come with shifts in how Mass is celebrated.

“The only thing I missed was the singing,” Amedee said. “They asked us not to sing.”

Parishioners were asked to stand 6 feet apart as they formed the communion line, then stepped to the side to remove their masks and take the Body of Christ that a Eucharistic minister placed in their hands.

The church has encouraged parishioners to weigh the risks of attending services, especially those vulnerable to complications caused by COVID-19, such as older adults and those with chronic health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.

After announcing Masses would resume, Bishop Michael Duca announced he’ll continue his exemptions for Catholics’ requirements to attend Mass.

He said in an interview Sunday he hopes all 60 churches in the Baton Rouge diocese will be able to hold Sunday Mass by next weekend and in the future do away with ticketing once churches can gauge their attendance.

“It’s really part of the great experiment to make sure we begin to chart … moving around as safe as possible,” Duca said. “Slowly, we’ll find a rhythm that works for us.”

Overall, attendance across the dioceses' churches was lighter, and the bishop said he was reassured that older adults continue to attend Mass through the church's online and TV streams. 

Yi, who celebrated Sunday’s late-morning Mass at St. George, said he has seen between 100 and 200 parishioners at each service since Saturday evening, compared to some 1,000 people who attended before the pandemic.

“I can definitely sense a lifting up of the spirit,” Yi said. “I asked people at the end of both Masses, ‘Do you sense anything different?’ And everybody’s nodding.”

As last-minute stragglers scurried to their pews Sunday morning and the Mass began, Yi observed the sea of faces before him.

“We are not made to be alone,” he said simply. “We are to worship God together.”

Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com, and follow him on Twitter @youssefrddad