When Fr. Phillip Bogacki stands in the sanctuary of Christ King Parish in Wauwatosa at the end of a long day, he’s just like every other priest in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee right now: staring at rows of empty pews where the faithful once gathered to assist in the sacrifice of the Mass.

Christ King Parish has kept its doors open during the ongoing health crisis to allow individuals to pray. (Submitted photo)

But what Fr. Bogacki can see in those pews still brings a smile to his face. It’s not a congregation, exactly, but it’s something close: a little orange card left in each space where someone that day has come to pray.

The card system was implemented by Christ King and St. Bernard of Clairvaux Parish, where Fr. Bogacki is also pastor, when the COVID-19 crisis began. Just like they were before the pandemic, the Christ King and St. Bernard church buildings are unlocked until 8 p.m. on weekdays and people are welcome to stop in for private prayer or to gather their thoughts, while maintaining safe social distancing.

But visitors are invited to take a card and leave it on the pew where they sat, to signal to subsequent visitors surfaces with which others have come in contact and to alert cleaning staff where they need to focus their disinfecting efforts.

It’s a practical system that has an unintentionally poetic effect. Those small cards embody the lingering spirit of the disciple who knelt in prayer.

“It is powerful, at the end of the day, to see an empty church but full of orange cards where people had visited over the last day,” said Fr. Bogacki. “It is a reminder of the vibrancy and beauty of the Body of Christ, which is present and alive, even if we cannot see another particular person at the moment.”

While public health concerns surrounding the emergence of COVID-19 compelled many parishes to close their doors to the public, some churches in the archdiocese made the decision to stay open.

Christ King parishioner Sue Schmitt said she is well aware how lucky she is that her parish is so accessible to her, even during the suspension of public Masses. “I’ve talked to some other people whose churches are not open and they seem very surprised (that mine is),” she said. “They all say, ‘Boy, you’re lucky.’”

St. Bernard parishioner Sofia Bambulas-Thorn echoed Schmitt’s sentiments. “I know people who walk by shuttered churches on their daily walks, so that they can kneel on the sidewalk and pray close to the Blessed Sacrament,” she said.

Staying open isn’t the right decision — or even a feasible option — for every parish, acknowledges Fr. Howard Haase, pastor at Holy Angels in West Bend. In fact, said Fr. Haase, he and his staff very much “wrestled with the pros and cons” of keeping the church open for prayer. They found themselves walking a fine line between concern for their parishioners’ physical well-being and care for their spiritual health.

Ultimately, said Fr. Haase, they made the decision to stay open.

“Symbolically, the fact that the doors aren’t locked says that we need God,” he said. “This is a sacred space. This is where people have celebrated baptisms and funerals and everything that’s part of their lives. We just didn’t want to close it off and say, ‘It’s no longer here for you.’”

But once that decision was made, the staff at Holy Angels realized they had to also make a commitment of time and resources to ensure that the environment was safe. They decided to do a trial run, checking on a regular basis to see if there were larger groups gathering or if social distancing rules were being ignored. They restricted the number of pews and entrances that could be used, disinfected all surfaces regularly and installed hand sanitizing stations.

“If the numbers had been large, or people were gathering in groups, I would have had to rethink what I was doing — am I encouraging people to come out when really it may not be safe to do so?” said Fr. Haase. But the numbers remained small, and so the church has been able to keep its doors open.

“I feel, from the notes that I’ve received, that it’s been a real positive for our community,” said Fr. haase. “They may not come, but a couple people in their notes said that just knowing they could come was reassuring for them.”

At St. Dominic Parish in Brookfield, the church has continued to remain open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for private prayer. Chairs are set up to ensure that no more than 10 people are in the church at any given time.

“The people that come really seem to ‘need’ to come,” said Fr. Dennis Saran, pastor of St. Dominic. “Many say they stop by daily and it is the one thing that gives them peace for the day.”

Fr. Bogacki said he has received notes and emails of thanks both from parishioners and from non-parishioners — in particular, medical personnel who work at the nearby Froedtert/Medical College of Wisconsin complex have urged him to keep the doors open.

“This has been, for some, an oasis of comfort and a connection with God,” he said. “People are afraid of their future and here is one simple way to reach out as a church. Not locking the doors.”