BEAR — Many parishes in the Diocese of Wilmington have been making Mass available to those at home during the coronavirus pandemic via livestreaming. At St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, they’ve taken things a step further, assembling a small production studio inside the worship space that will remain in operation going forward. The new setup was used for the first time the weekend of Aug. 22-23.
Seton has been offering Mass online since Bishop Malooly closed churches to the public in March. After 11 weeks, when limited numbers of worshipers were allowed to return to the buildings, the parish kept at it. But for those five months, the technology involved a pair of parishioners sitting in the front pews with an iPhone. The primary iPhone cameramen, parishioners Tom Arena and Kevin Meinhaldt, and pastor Father Roger DiBuo realized early on that they could not have someone holding up a phone for an extended period of time.
“The three of us came up with this idea that we think is unique for parishes, maybe for the diocese, of putting the technology in the physical church. We built this tech booth,” he said.
The group worked with various vendors to come up with the equipment. There is a camera mounted on the wall opposite the altar; a dedicated production area that includes two laptops, two monitors and a mixer; and a large television hanging on the wall to the left of the altar that is used to post prayers and lyrics to hymns.
The booth itself — built by Anthony Kokoszka and wired by Bud LeNoir — involved the removal of two pews and a bench along the wall of the church, but it does not affect the flow of people. In fact, Father DiBuo said, it fits so nicely with the church interior that it is hardly noticeable.
“It’s all done in natural oak and the color of the church, and it looks like it’s been here forever,” he said.
Arena said he has a background in marketing, but tech is a hobby of his. Meinhaldt has experience in video. Father DiBuo said they deserve the credit.
“Without Tom and Kevin, we would never have been able to do this,” he said.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton offers three Masses per week, one on Saturday afternoon and two on Sunday morning. The 8 a.m. Sunday Mass is the one livestreamed. It is available on three outlets: the parish Facebook page, a parishioner group Facebook page and the parish YouTube channel. Either Arena or Meinhaldt or both are on hand for that Mass. The other Masses are not streamed, but one of the two is normally there to work the television monitor. Since the pandemic started, hymnals have been removed from pews, so they create PowerPoint presentations with the prayers and song lyrics.
“One of the things we talked about was getting the prayers and music in front of the church. That’s how the idea for the TV came about,” Arena said. “It puts the prayers and lyrics right on the TV.”
The parish’s financial investment in the equipment and software was approximately $7,500. The trio hopes to add two more cameras, one on each side of the church, to be able to cover angles that the lone existing camera might not be able to get. The only blind spot currently is at the baptismal font, which is inside the sanctuary entrance almost directly under the camera.
“We’d like to add two more because then we could get around in here and into the choir, and the same thing from the other side,” Meinhaldt said.
Decisions on whether to make other services available online have yet to be made. Father DiBuo acknowledges there could be interest for a wedding or baptism, for example, from family members who cannot travel to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, or when seating capacity is limited as it is currently. Arena said they would likely have to work to make access to those streams private, but it is something they will explore.
The first weekend went smoothly. Meinhaldt, who has done video work for theaters, bands and sports teams, said they had some sound issues that will be fixed. Father DiBuo said he barely notices the camera, and he got credit for his screen presence.
“He actually took to it very, very quickly,” Meinhaldt said.
Father DiBuo said reaction from his parishioners was “very, very positive.” He made sure they knew beforehand that some construction would be happening.
“We prepared them that this was our plan, to build a technological booth inside the church. Technology and faith are not incompatible, but very compatible, and they can work together,” he said.
In the face of a pandemic that has disrupted virtually every facet of everyday life, he continued, something positive has come out of it. Shut-ins or those who have moved away and miss their former spiritual home can tune in live or whenever they want and be part of the Seton community. He hopes other parishes can follow suit.
“We just want to get the word out to parishes that this is what you can create in the midst of a COVID disaster,” he said.
Arena and Meinhaldt will not be the lone tech people for long. “The plan is once we get comfortable with what we’re doing, we’re going to train a few other people. This way we don’t have to be here for every Mass,” Arena said.
All of the recorded Masses dating back to the first one are archived on the parish’s Facebook page, and now on YouTube as well. Father DiBuo said the parish has created about 10 to 15 other videos for YouTube “just to keep people engaged while they’re not on the property.”
Mass attendance at the parish, which includes about 2,100 families, has been steadily growing, and the number of people watching each week has gone down. But the tech booth, and the live streaming, are at Seton to stay.