During normal times, the concrete alleyway behind the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in downtown Sacramento goes mostly unnoticed.
Cars and delivery trucks pass through, crows fly over at dusk and homeless people sleep there at night.
But since July, when California banned indoor religious services in many counties in order to stop the spread of COVID-19, this alley has been a place of worship.
One recent Sunday morning, about a 100 Catholics gathered six-feet-apart in the corridor for a 7:30 a.m. mass.
Some stood in a nearby parking structure. Others were in the parking spaces usually used by church staff. They sang faintly behind masks.
Father Michael O'Reilly preached from a fire escape, three stories above them.
"I'm a little afraid of heights," said O'Reilly, rector of the Sacramento cathedral.
But at the same time, he praised the opportunity. "It gives me a new perspective on the congregation here."
Rather than a choir, a solo vocalist led songs from the second-floor fire escape, far away from parishioners.
Maria Balakshin, who has been attending mass at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament since the late 1990s, misses the beauty of the interior.
"Even though we're in an alleyway, they've made it as attractive as possible," she said.
After California announced in July that counties on the state's coronavirus watch list would not be allowed to have indoor worship services, Sacramento's bishop said Catholics could worship outdoors in affected counties.
Worship and sacred space
Modern-day Catholic worship rarely happens outdoors or outside of a church building. Canon law says the Eucharist must be celebrated in a sacred space, except when specific circumstances require otherwise, such as when large crowds gather to see the pope, or to accommodate migrant workers and soldiers during war time.
But normally, priests need to "make a good case" to offer a mass outside of a church building in the Sacramento Diocese, explains the Rev. Brian Atienza, who helped the bishop write the rules.
"If it's necessary to move it elsewhere, you can seek permission, but you have to make sure that the dignity of the sacrament is preserved, and maintained and respected," he said.
Susan Abraham, professor of theology at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, says outdoor mass is not embraced by the Catholic church during normal times, in part, because there can be many distractions.
"There is a certain precision in the way the rituals and the sacraments are celebrated," said Abraham. "There is a wondering, will the going-to-the-outdoors compromise this precision? And I would say that is a legitimate worry."
For example, she said, most parishioners would be aghast at the idea of the communion wafer getting blown away in the wind or being soaked in a rainstorm.
Abraham, a Catholic herself, says the weekly experience of physically being in a church is meant to remind the faithful of God's holiness. But the pandemic is a good time to rethink that.
"I am not a fan of understanding only the church as a holy place or holy space," she said. "This is a new time for us to think about time and space in a far more expansive way."
During an August Mass behind Sacramento's cathedral, candles burned in the light of day. An organ filled the alleyway with music. Father O'Reilly preached about not letting anything get in the way of being close to God, not even a virus. Some parishioners knelt on the cement pavement as they worshipped.
Maria Balakshin said attending mass outdoors has been a very spiritual experience.
"To me, personally it is more intimate," she said. "The people who are here are really true Christians who want to practice their faith."
This congregation's prayers may be making this alley more sacred during the pandemic. But when California lifts the ban on indoor worship, these parishioners will likely go back to church as usual inside the cathedral.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Houses of worship, of course, are operating differently these days. The pandemic means services are being livestreamed, in some cases taking place outdoors. In many parts of California right now, worship isn't allowed inside. As CapRadio's Pauline Bartolone reports, that's been a challenge for some urban Catholic congregations.
PAULINE BARTOLONE, BYLINE: In an alley in downtown Sacramento, about a hundred Catholics are gathering for Mass.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good morning, and welcome to the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.
BARTOLONE: They're not in the 130-year-old cathedral here. They're behind it in a concrete corridor. In normal times, it's filled with cars, delivery trucks and homeless people. Now it's a worship space.
On a recent Sunday morning, Maria Balakshin arrived just before the 7:30 Mass.
MARIA BALAKSHIN: Even though we're in an alleyway, they have made it as attractive as possible. And it's very, very, very special.
BARTOLONE: When COVID cases surged earlier this summer, Sacramento's bishops said Catholics could worship outdoors, but they had to come to church property. Prior to that, many were watching Mass online. Rather than a choir, they have a soloist who stands far away from others.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing, unintelligible).
BARTOLONE: Parishioners are socially distanced throughout the alley. Some are in a nearby parking structure. Others are in the parking spaces usually used by church staff. They sing faintly behind masks.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Lift up your heart.
BARTOLONE: Father Michael O'Reilly is saying Mass from a fire escape three stories above.
MICHAEL O'REILLY: Do not let anything, any virus, any closed doors, any hunger - nothing should ever get in the way of our relationship with Christ.
BARTOLONE: All told, the service lasts about an hour.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) May your church be (ph)...
BARTOLONE: Afterward, O'Reilly admits the setting is awkward.
O'REILLY: Well, I'm a little afraid of heights, but it's a wonderful place to be, really, in many ways. It gives me a new perspective on the congregation here.
BARTOLONE: O'Reilly says Catholics rarely worship outside in modern times. Canon law says Communion must be celebrated in a sacred space, except in particular circumstances, like when large crowds gather for the pope or to accommodate migrant workers.
SUSAN ABRAHAM: The Catholic understanding of it is once a week, at least, you need to go to a place that reminds you that all creation is created by God and, therefore, holy.
BARTOLONE: Susan Abraham is dean of the Pacific School of Religion in the Bay Area. She's Catholic herself and says the pandemic is a good time to rethink all sorts of spiritual practices.
ABRAHAM: I'm not a fan of fetishizing any particular holy shrine or space as the only kind of - or the purest kind of holiness. I'm willing to say, as a Catholic with an expansive and capacious imagination, that there is more to holiness than what human beings may want to grasp at.
BARTOLONE: During the Mass behind Sacramento's cathedral, some parishioners kneeled on the cement as they worshipped. Maria Balakshin said, in some ways, it's even more spiritual to attend Mass outdoors.
BALAKSHIN: To me personally, it is more intimate. I feel like the people who are here are really true Christians that want to practice their faith.
BARTOLONE: This congregation's prayers may be making this alley more sacred during the pandemic. But when it ends, they'll likely go back to church as usual in the cathedral.
For NPR News, I'm Pauline Bartolone in Sacramento.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.