NEW ORLEANS – The Rev. John Restrepo, a priest stationed at St. Dominic Church in Lakeview for the last four years, had plans to go visit his family in Atlanta a few weeks ago … but they had other ideas.
“My mom and dad felt that since New Orleans has become such a hotspot that I shouldn’t come – and rightfully so,” he said. “I understood but I felt saddened by it. Out of some frustration I thought, what am I going to do now?”
Masses were cancelled because of social distancing rules and people weren’t coming into the church to seek spiritual guidance so Restrepo decided he’d go to them … or at least make it easier for them to come to him. He grabbed a few essentials – and lots of hand sanitizer – and set up shop in front of the church
“I figured I’d just sit out here, not to hear confessions as much as just to see people,” he said. “So I put two chairs out and put out a kneeler and waited to see what happened.”
That first Thursday afternoon, three TV news stations came out and covered the story. On Friday, there was a line to see him and, by Saturday, the line wrapped almost around the corner of Harrison Avenue and Vicksburg Street.
“People just started coming and since then it’s been a steady flow non stop,” said Restrepo. “I’m guessing between 50 and 100 people per day. At first, I wasn’t taking a lunch break but now I need one … and a potty break.”
COVID-19 safety precautions dictate that people keep a safe distance from one another – but so do the rules of common courtesy when people are making confessions in a public place vs. a secluded confessional. Restrepo said that instinct takes over and people do the right thing.
“People know to stay socially distant,” he said. “If they hear mumbling, they’ll step back and it’s like a domino effect: you see the whole line moving backward. They’re so respectful that I don’t have to say anything. Of course, some people come just to chat. Or they come for some fresh air. Kids who were supposed to make their first communion in a few weeks have come to make their first confession instead.”
Restrepo said there’s no guarantee that he’ll continue to hold court in front of St. Dominic after the social distancing rules have gone away … but there are certainly appealing aspects to the setup.
“It gives people more confidence,” he said. “When they’re behind the screen in there, they can’t see my reaction whereas here, face to face, they see that the church loves them regardless.”