The Rev. Lou Phillips poses from a screened-in porch in the rectory at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Windham, where he will be offering drive-through confessions on Saturday afternoon. A placard shows parishioners how to remain anonymous by standing behind it. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Rev. Bill Labbe has heard confessions in fields, on planes and in airports.

This weekend he will begin hearing them in the driveway of St. Matthew Church in Limerick. It’s part of a growing trend as pastors find creative ways to connect with parishioners at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has led to the suspension of regular church services.

“During this time of separation, when we aren’t allowed to celebrate public Mass, people are hungering for the intimacy of Christ,” Labbe said Friday. “Despite the different nature of confession at this point, we want people to feel that coming to confession is a good thing, and a good part of the Lenten journey.”

Dubbed drive-through confessions, the practice in Maine started with the Rev. Seamus Griesbach, who built a confessional to attach to the window of the rectory in Sabattus. Other priests joined in last weekend, including the Rev. Phil Tracy at Holy Martyrs Church in Falmouth and the Rev. Paul Marquis at Sacred Heart Church in Yarmouth.

“It was very successful,” Tracy said of his initial experience last Saturday. “I was there for almost two hours. There were people from all over; they weren’t just my parishioners. People were very appreciative of the opportunity.”

Tracy said he sat outside behind a folding room divider to allow anonymity to those confessing, but the divider proved to be a little too thick, particularly with traffic noise. This Saturday, Tracy plans to sit in his car with a colored sheet or cloth blocking his view, “so I don’t see who’s coming up.”

A chair was available last weekend, but Tracy said nobody sat in it. “So I’m guessing anonymity is still important,” he said.

In the Roman Catholic church, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and continues for six weeks until Holy Thursday. Traditionally, it marks a time of reflection, solemnity and atonement.

Confession, also known as reconciliation, is one of the seven sacraments recognized by the church.

“It’s one of the ways that people connect to their faith, especially the Catholic faith,” said the Rev. Lou Phillips, who will hear confession from the screened back porch of the rectory at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Windham. “The timing of the pandemic is probably influencing that desire for confession a lot more because a lot of our people go to confession just twice a year, maybe right before Christmas and right before Easter. So this would be the busy season for confession.”

Indeed, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland put out a statement Friday morning listing 15 new drive-thru confession locations in Maine in addition to half a dozen that got underway last weekend. Some are continuing the practice several more days over the next two weeks.

Phillips said his church in Windham is planning to live-stream his Palm Sunday service and likely will continue to broadcast daily Mass, once the camera equipment is in place.

Labbe noted that the pandemic means people are physically distancing themselves from others, including faith leaders, who aren’t even able to attend to the sick unless death appears imminent. Naturally, people are anxious.

“So anything we can do to help them along in their journey through Lent and through this virus and time of confinement and confusion and frustration and anxiety – anything we do to serve them – is just so important,” he said. “Some may simply want to hear a reassuring word or prayer that we will be all right when this all comes to an end.”

The Rev. Jack Dickinson will hear confession beneath a tent in front of the rectory at Notre Dame Church in Springvale. He said it may seem a little odd, “but we’re trying to keep the spiritual life of people going when we can’t have big crowds. Jesus still works in our world. We’re just getting a little creative.”

Dickinson said he’s used to working outside, having been a landscaper in his younger years. He never worked a fast-food restaurant window, so he joked that he won’t be offering the traditional drive-thru enticement.

“No fries for confession,” he said with a laugh.

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