St. James Rooftop Mass on Ascension Thursday

STRATFORD — After weeks of being separated from the Eucharist, parishioners from St. James Church came in their cars to a “drive-in” Mass on the Feast of the Ascension, which Father Peter J. Adamski celebrated on the roof of the sacristy, 18 feet off the ground at an altar borrowed from a mausoleum at Gate of Heaven Cemetery.

It was the first public Mass for the parish since March 15 when the coronavirus restrictions began. As Father stepped to the altar, situated in front of a window with an image of the Holy Spirit, he raised his arms in exultation and proclaimed, “Praise God!”

To get to the altar, he and Deacon Joe Koletar ascended and descended on a scissor lift at the side of the church, or as Father described it, “I ascended on the Ascension.”

When the liturgy began, they looked out at a parking lot of 50 cars. Drivers had turned their radios to WSJR (91.5 FM), “Radio Free St. James — the Home of the Holy Spirit” and could hear members of the music ministry singing the entrance hymn.

Above the celebrants was a cloudless blue sky. The altar linens fluttered in the gentle breeze, and Father held the pages of the Roman Missal in place with clips. A news crew from NBC taped the Mass, while pedestrians paused to watch. Across the street, two young girls were seated on chairs and observed the celebration with their father.

In his homily, Father said, “The work of salvation is not done until everyone has an opportunity to be saved…Like the disciples, we are awaiting the Lord’s return in glory, but we also know that in ascending to heaven, he is not just sitting up there on his hands, seated at the right hand of the Father. He and the Father are preparing to send the Holy Spirit to the Church…. Christ’s mission did not end with his Ascension, but rather the Apostles’ mission, and hence our mission as adopted sons and daughters of Jesus Christ, begins with Pentecost and continues to this day.”

Father also adjured the faithful to rejoice in the blessings they have received.

“I know some of you may find it a little difficult to rejoice during this pandemic, but if you stop and truly reflect on these past days and open your hearts and minds to those grace-filled moments we have all experienced as a result of this COVID-19 scourge, you will find things to rejoice in….If you don’t feel you’ve received any special blessings this Lent and Easter, it may be that you are not looking hard enough.”

Then, Father, a former corporate executive and CEO, urged his parishioners to “pray to the Man in Charge like you have never prayed before.”

“Usually when you have a problem that involves customer service, there are layers and layers of intermediaries running interference for the man in charge,” he said. “Every call is screened to see if it can be resolved by someone lower down on the ‘food chain’ of responsibility.”

He said that many companies hope people won’t even try to contact a human being and urge callers to “read the instructions” or “search the knowledge base” while they struggle with a phone system that is “a seemingly endless maze.”

“With our Lord, you have the Man in Charge entirely at your disposal, 24/7, with an infinite attention span because He is God,” Father said. “He is in complete unity with the Father, so there’s no risk of interference whatsoever. The only catch is that you must listen. You may not get the answer you want, but you know it is always the right answer.”

At Communion, parishioners wearing masks came forth from their cars, one at a time, directed by the volunteer ushers, and walked across the parking lot while maintaining the appropriate social distance. Father and Deacon were wearing clear plastic face shields and distributing Communion.

They paused six feet away as Father said, “Body of Christ” and then they responded, “Amen,” and releasing one side of the mask, took the Eucharist in their hands and stepped aside and put it in their mouths.

Photos by Amy Mortensen

At the conclusion of Mass, Father stood at the edge of the roof, and said, “Oh my friends, God bless you all! My heart is full right now, seeing you out of your homes being physically with me on this Ascension Thursday.”

Drivers honked their horns in appreciation, and Father responded, “Praise be to Jesus Christ!” Responses of “Now and forever!” could be heard from the cars.

“My friends, this has been an arduous journey from the middle of March, and here we are on May 21 being able to gather for the first time together and receive physically the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.”

“This isn’t over yet, and we are far from out of the woods,” he said. “We need to continue to pray fervently so that scientists and medical researchers can come up with a vaccine that will save us and the world.”

He thanked them for their continued support during the crisis and said, “Know that I love you all deeply, and I pray for each of you every day. I so look forward to the day when this will be behind us. We’ll be back in that church shoulder-to-shoulder, filling that church, God willing. We’ll throw open the doors, lift up the windows and let the breath of the Holy Spirit flow amongst us, between us and in us.”

Commenting on the celebration, Deacon Koletar said, “It’s a perfect day for Ascension Thursday. Father is trying to appeal to the masses, you could say. We really miss our parishioners. Live-streaming Mass in an empty church is just not the same, and it was heartbreaking at Easter.

Father Adamski said, “What a grace-filled day. My heart was pounding at the beginning of that service just looking out at that parking lot full of cars, knowing there were souls in those cars who have been yearning to be present as a community and to be able to receive the Holy Eucharist. It was palpable for me and I was so nervous making sure I had a good grip on Jesus as I held him up because at our rehearsals this week, there were 30 mph wind gusts up there. The paten I had the host in had Saran Wrap on top so there was no chance of a gust of wind coming along and having Jesus go flying.”

He also expressed his appreciation to those who provided music for the Mass, John J. Masi Jr., organist and director of the Music Ministry, along with cantors Kate Gloss and Dante DiFederico.

Jim Travers, a volunteer usher who has been a parishioner since 1988, said, “Father Peter is brand new, and he has been phenomenal. He and Deacon Joe have been keeping the boat afloat these past few months. This Mass was amazing. We all had a room with a view. I was so hungry for the Eucharist, and that is what I was looking forward to the most.”

Elaine Sansonetti happened upon the Mass and decided to stay. She was visiting the church to drop off items for the food pantry. “I wasn’t going to be coming today,” she said. “But then I said, ‘I’m here anyway, and I’d rather be here in person.’ I am so thankful to Father Peter for what he does.”

Madeline Anderson, a lifelong parishioner, said, “This is amazing. I never thought we could do anything like this. I give Father Peter a lot of credit for keeping the parish going these past few months. This is a wonderful parish, and I’m so glad I belong to it.”

Debbie Griffin, who was baptized at St. James and a lifelong parishioner, said, “I am a devout Catholic. I watch Mass on TV, but it is nothing like being here in person. This was just wonderful.”