At the beginning of the lockdown, Holy Family Parish Priest Fr Rene Ramirez was shocked to realise that he had very few ways of contacting his parishioners. ‘We were efficient with our weekly bulletin, and people coming to church. But then I suddenly realised: how do we get in touch with people?’

The Holy Family Parish covers three suburbs: West Footscray, Maidstone, and Braybrook, and consists of two churches. Together, the Christ the King church in Braybrook and Our Lady of Perpetual Help church in Maidstone draw around 2000 people for weekend Masses.

For Fr Rene, it’s been a busy year. Since March, Fr Rene and Fr Gerald have been celebrating Mass twice every day, at 7:30am and 7pm, and live-streaming each. ‘Using our phones, we would live-stream it on Facebook,’ he says.

‘At the beginning of the lockdown, I asked parishioners to please send us their email address so we could update the parish database and get in touch. I kept telling myself, we should have done that eons ago. But since they were all coming every Sunday, we didn’t feel the need.’

Once he had email addresses, the question became one of how to best connect with parishioners during a time of isolation.

Drawing on his background in social communications – Fr Rene was Director of Social Communications to college-seminarians in the Philippines and studied social communications at the Pontifical Gregorian University – he was well equipped for the challenge.

New tools to connect

Fr Rene discovered an online platform for churches, Flocknote, which facilitates communication between parishes and parishioners.

Throughout lockdown, Fr Rene began sending out weekly emails. ‘We don’t have the printed bulletin anymore. We have a weekly Sunday email to list updates, and share any videos and podcasts which I think would be helpful.’

With the weekly email bulletin, Fr Rene would send poll questions to determine potential interest for new activities. ‘Flocknote lets you poll readers. It also lets you see how many people open the emails. They say a 40 per cent open rate is good, and we were getting more than 60 per cent of people opening the emails. This means we were reaching at least 180-200 people, weekly.’

While brainstorming new tools and techniques to reach out to parishioners, Fr Rene offered people space to just chat.

‘During the curfew, we set up a Zoom meeting on Wednesdays called a “Curfew Cuppa”. It had no formal structure, and was just a way to talk about anything. I was surprised because there was one old lady who was coming, who wasn’t interested in Vespers over Zoom, but she was interested in a catch up.’

Across the Archdiocese, it’s been a year of dropping old habits and adopting new ones; of adapting to new circumstances by retraining ourselves to explore new avenues of reaching out to people.

‘Now that we’ve been forced to use new communications tools like Zoom, we have more ways to reach out to people than ever,’ says Fr Rene.

He recalls something one of his communications teachers said:

‘We have a very good message. We just have to improve on our delivery. For the last two thousand years, the message has been wonderful. But it’s never been possible to reach everyone in the world up until now. Now it’s about delivery. And improving our efficiency is a challenge for everyone.’

New methods of checking in

Currently, Fr Rene is busy coordinating bookings for weekend Mass. ‘We decided to allow phone bookings because parishioners get to talk to someone,’ Fr Rene says. ‘And we didn’t want to alienate older people who usually come to Mass who are more comfortable with the phone and less tech-savvy.’

For weekdays, Fr Rene found that bookings had a margin of error when people didn’t show up. Instead, he began trialling a new initiative that would allow the parish to know exactly who was in the church.

When Fr Rene saw an ID card check-in system used in a school, he wondered if it could work for church attendance. ‘We have to know who is present during Mass, so we set that system up for ourselves.’

‘We provide an ID card with a personal QR code to each person who comes to church, and people check in by flashing their ID to the iPad when they enter the church.’ The QR code is linked to their profile on VPass, an iPad visitor management system.

‘You see people check in and be really proud to check in. It’s simple. And the screen says “welcome Maria” when they check in. I’ve seen it give them a smile,’ he says.

‘We create cards based on demand. Little by little, we distribute the IDs. It was a big job in the beginning, but once they all had IDs, we were able to get rid of the weekday bookings.’

The system has been in place for nearly two weeks. And so far it’s working.

Initially, parishioners reacted with curiosity. ‘When the word went out that we were offering IDs, people were keen to come and see. It was something new, and something people wanted to try. They wanted to see what was happening.’

The parish also allows people to check in at the church using their phones. ‘I was conscious that we needed to bridge the technological divide.’

After one Sunday Mass, Fr Rene estimates they have distributed 500 ID cards already. ‘We should reach more than 1000,’ he says.

New ways to organise space

Like many churches, to maximise the space while adhering to DHHS social distancing guidelines, all the pews have tape, showing people where they can sit. ‘We tell people to make sure there’s blue tape in front of them.’

Space has been a limiting factor determining how many people can attend Mass. So to make sure parishioners still had access to Mass, they added another service. ‘In addition to the 9.30am and 6.30pm Mass in Braybrook and Maidstone, we added 8am Masses to allow for more people.’

‘We’re celebrating more Masses now than we were pre-Covid.’

But this hasn’t resulted in lower attendance. ‘In Maidstone, we have a higher average attendance on a weekday than pre-Covid. I don’t know what to attribute that to. But we’re glad.’

New sense of excitement

Last weekend was the first service Holy Family parishioners celebrated with more than 20 people, and was also the first Sunday of Advent.

Out the front, the Archdiocesan Advent banners are displayed at the entrances for both churches to welcome people for the Advent season.

‘The banners are a simple gesture, but it’s a visible sign to unify the Archdiocese in one single simple but powerful message. When the imagery is repeated in every suburb, it has a real impact.’

On Sunday, according to Fr Rene, the atmosphere amongst parishioners was ‘excited. And emotional.’

‘At the 5pm Mass, we had a choir singing two meters distance from each other. It wasn’t the full choir; just five singers. And when the choir sang the entrance song, I thought: we’re back,’ Fr Rene says.

‘When I said the welcome, after making the sign of the cross, I really had to pause. I was looking at people’s eyes, and felt that we were all caught up in this mixed disposition of relief and gratitude. It’s difficult to put into words but you just feel it cutting through the silence giving you that awareness that somehow, you all understand that you are unified by something unseen.’

‘There was a feeling of relief as well. Everybody was just so pleased to be back. Like, here we are again; we’ve all been through something together. And the thing we’ve been hoping for, suddenly it’s here. And the singing just added to it.’