The pew and flu: Midlands churches taking precautions

At St. Joseph's Catholic Church, anti-bacterial hand sanitizer now resides near the altar, a nod to societal anxiety over the swine-flu virus.

As part of the daily Roman Catholic Mass ritual, the Rev. Richard Harris said he now takes a second to squirt a bit of the cleanser on his hands as part of his preparations for administering holy communion.

"It's just a quick thing," Harris said. On Friday, during the 8:15 a.m. Mass for St. Joseph's Catholic School, a student poured water over Harris' hands as part of the ritual cleansing, and then Harris walked a few steps to a niche in the chancel wall where he keeps the sanitizer, just within view of some parishioners.

For now, too, the communion cup will no longer be offered at St. Joseph's Mass as potential threats from the H1N1, or swine, flu and seasonal flu dominate health news and loom large in the minds of some parishioners.

"We are not offering the common cup ... to the people at this point," Harris said. "We offer the consecrated host."

Like other Midlands congregations, St. Joseph's is weighing the threat of an outbreak against the comforting traditions of worship - from the exchange of the sign of peace to the sip of wine from the common cup that represents the blood of Christ shed for the sins of mankind.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, as in many Protestant faiths, the taking of the wafer alone represents full communion.

Harris said St. Joseph's suspended offering wine during holy communion four months ago, when the congregation moved into the adjacent St. Joseph's Catholic School gym during renovation of the Devine Street sanctuary.

That decision was mainly due to the size of the Mass crowds and the lack of sanitary facilities to purify the vessels after Mass, he said. After the congregation returned to the renovated sanctuary in early October, "The committee and I decided to just hold off and see how severe the flu will be."

Other Midlands houses of worship are taking seriously the warnings from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, especially the caution that swine flu is more dangerous to infants, children and teens.

Shandon Baptist Church has installed stand-alone sanitizer stations throughout its Forest Drive facility.

"Once this obviously became a public concern, we went out and bought these things," said Shandon's business manager, James Bagwell.

He said they "swarmed the children's area" with the stations and are teaching children to "take a dab of it" when they are engaged in activities.

Shandon Baptist also is working with DHEC to serve as a site for the administration of the H1N1 vaccine once it becomes available, Bagwell said.

Shandon Presbyterian Church, just down the street from St. Joseph's, also has installed hand sanitizers at church entrances and near elevators and restrooms.

The Rev. Agnes Norfleet said she and Shandon's child-development center director, Carol Holt-Cooper, and other church leaders decided to take additional precautions after researching the virus on the CDC Web site.

"Because the virus lives on hard surfaces longer, we decided you could just as easily pick it up from hymn books, or a door knob or a pew railing," she said. She said four or five parishioners have spoken favorably about the additional measures.

At All Saints' Episcopal Church in Cayce, parishioners during communion may receive the consecrated bread and then cross their arms when the cup is passed to indicate their refusal.

If they decide to partake of the chalice they may sip, or hand the wafer to the chalice bearer who will dip it, a process called intinction, and place it on the parishioner's tongue.

A notice in the church's bulletin notes that congregants may "intinct yourself, taking special care to only barely touch the wine with your wafer (NOT your fingers!)."

In a letter to clergy, Bishop Dorsey F. Henderson Jr., leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina, which comprises the Midlands and the Upstate, made clear his preference, based on longstanding medical advice.

"Reduced to the simplest expression of that medical counsel: one hand in the chalice (that of the chalice-bearer) is much less likely to spread anything contagious than the many hands of those receiving," he wrote.

He noted the chalice-bearer is required to cleanse his or her hands immediately before the Eucharist, and is trained not to dip fingers into the consecrated wine or touch the lip of the cup.

He also suggested that churches could use a separate cup for intinction.

All Saints' member Barbara Robinson said there has not been much talk about the virus, but she believes parishioners are "comforted" the church is addressing the issue.

"It really comes down to personal responsibility," she said. "The persons who serve always wash their hands, and if I go to the rail, if I have been sick, I don't take the cup."