Texas church cancels masses following death of priest possibly from coronavirus

Five other members of the religious order also tested positive for COVID-19.

May 18, 2020, 9:35 PM

A Texas church has canceled public masses following the death of a priest who was suspected of having the coronavirus.

Holy Ghost Parish in Houston had resumed masses on May 2, just as Texas started to loosen its stay-at-home restrictions. But the parish canceled services indefinitely as of May 14, a day after one of its priests, Father Donnell Kirchner, passed away, church officials said.

The Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Houston is seen here.

Five other members of the church's religious order also tested positive for COVID-19.

In an update on its website, the church said it was possible that Kirchner had contracted COVID-19 and that "one or more of the community might have been exposed" to the virus. The cause of death is unknown, but Kirchner was diagnosed with pneumonia before passing away at home on May 13, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston said.

Kirchner shared a residence with seven other members of the Redemptorists religious order, who following his death were all tested for the coronavirus. The church stopped mass while awaiting the test results.

Over the weekend, the church announced that three members of its Redemptorists religious community had tested positive for COVID-19 so far. On Monday evening, the Archdiocese announced that a total of five members had tested positive for COVID-19, including two priests who had been active in masses since May 2.

"If anyone has attended masses in person at Holy Ghost Church since the reopening, we strongly encourage you to monitor your health for any symptoms and be tested for COVID-19, as a precautionary measure," the church's pastor, William Bueche, said in a statement.

The members who tested positive are asymptomatic and are in quarantine in the parish's residence along with the rest of the community, church officials said.

Traffic moves along Interstate 10, April 30, 2020, near downtown Houston during the coronavirus pandemic which shut down much of Houston's economic activity.
David J. Phillip/AP, FILE

Gov. Greg Abbott's stay-at-home order, which was in effect April 2-30, exempted churches, congregations and houses of worship. The Archdiocese had suspended all weekday and Sunday masses starting March 18, though it allowed churches to remain open for private prayer at their own discretion.

After the state's stay-at-home order expired on April 30, the Archdiocese allowed parishes to resume mass on May 2 as long as they followed state guidelines, including having all congregants wear masks and sit in alternate rows. The timing coincided with the state's phased reopening, starting with retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls on May 1.

According to the Archdiocese, in-person attendance at the 900-seat Holy Ghost Parish had been "closely controlled," with the Sunday masses never exceeding more than 179 people.

However one former member of the Holy Ghost parish expressed disbelief at the Archdiocese's decision to allow mass.

"It flies in the face of all medical advice from our community," Houston resident Tiffany Tyler said in a Facebook post. "I believe it was an irresponsible decision and that the outbreak in this parish will not be the last."

Harris County has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Texas, with 9,635 cases in the county and city of Houston combined, according to the Harris County public health department. Texas has seen a steady rise in cases and fatalities since reopening. On Monday, the state had 48,693 confirmed cases, up from 909 the day before, and 1,347 deaths, a one-day increase of 11.

The state continued its phased reopening Monday, with some personal service businesses, childcare services and offices able to open. On Friday, bars and recreational facilities like bowling alleys will be permitted to reopen at up to 25% capacity, and restaurants will be allowed to increase their dine-in capacity to 50%.

COVID-19 cases have been linked to other places of worship as states begin to reopen.

A church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, suspended in-person services last week after a case of COVID-19 was linked to it, according to ABC affiliate WTVC. The local health department was investigating three cases tied to the church, WTVC reported. Gov. Bill Lee allowed houses of worship to reopen May 1, with limited capacity and face masks recommended.

More than 180 people may have been exposed to the coronavirus at a May 10 religious service held in violation of California's stay-at-home order. An attendee at the service in Butte County tested positive for the virus the next day. California began reopening select counties, including Butte, this month, but public gatherings of any kind are still not allowed under the state's stay-at-home regulations.

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