Mass for Shut-Ins: Old School Virtual Services

In 1963, when Nate Nathanson, owner of CJCB radio and television, approached Rev. Frank Abbass with a plan to broadcast Mass for those unable to attend in person, I doubt either of them

Rev. Frank Abbass and Nate Nathanson

Rev. Frank Abbass and Nate Nathanson

imagined the program would become the longest-running TV production in the country. Certainly, neither could have envisioned a day when virtual services like Mass for Shut-Ins, as they called their broadcast, would become the norm rather than the exception.

Nathanson, who established CJCB Radio in February of 1929 and CJCB TV in 1954, died in 1966, not long after the first Mass for Shut-Ins broadcast. But Abbass, who died in 2019, lived to mark the program’s 50th anniversary in 2013, by which time it had gained a wide audience here in Cape Breton and beyond.

In the beginning (so to speak), Mass For Shut-Ins was broadcast live, air time having been purchased by the Diocese of Antigonish, but 18 years in, producers began taping the Mass on Tuesday evenings at the CTV station on Mira Road for viewing the following Sunday.

The list of those who assisted with the production is a lengthy one, including the Knights of Columbus (KOC, also a sponsor of the production), pastors and parishioners and choirs from all around the diocese, and volunteers, most whom have served for many years. Rev. Frank Abbass was the first producer of the program, followed by fellow clergy: Charlie W. MacDonald, Regis Holloran, Bedford Doucette, Tom MacNeil, Paul Abbass, Gerald Campbell, Jim Oliver and Patrick O’Neil.


O‘Neil, who became producer of Mass For Shut-Ins in 2015, was running the show in March 2020, when COVID-19 restrictions were first introduced. He also often serves as celebrant, and so was faced with taping enough Masses to finish out the season, which ended in May. By October, with the start of a new season, he had moved the entire production to his parish of Our Lady of Fatima in Sydney River, which, in a way, seemed a perfectly reasonable solution, given that Mass is usually celebrated in a church. Tapings are done on Saturdays for viewing eight days later and as of now, the church site offers space for a congregation of about 100 people. The number actually involved in the celebration itself is limited to four – the celebrant, a musician, a reader and long-time director and cameraman, Darryl Reeves.

Mass for Shut-Ins studio taping

Mass for Shut-Ins studio taping

Reeves who had four cameras at his disposal for the 40 years or more that he had done the filming at the TV station, now films with three cameras. He then edits the tape at his home, a process that takes 6-7 hours, before sending it off to Toronto to be made ready for country-wide viewing, either via CTV or satellite. Reeves saw the TV Mass as an important and worthwhile addition to the lives of the many shut-ins in the area and decided to remain as director after the TV station was closed.

Mae Rowe, an administrative assistant with the Sydney Diocesan Pastoral Centre, is coordinator for the TV Mass, scheduling pastors, parishioners and various groups, such as Catholic Women’s Councils from around the area, youth groups, etc. for the Saturday tapings — not an easy task these days with fewer priests available. Over the years, of course, both priests and parishioners, including parish choirs, have been very obliging, driving long distances, often in inclement weather, to form the congregation for the liturgical production. According to Rowe, Mass For Shut-Ins has been drawing an even larger audience since COVID.

The televised Mass would not be possible if not for a wonderful group of volunteers, who for many years, have attended to whatever needs to be done to keep the production “up and running” as they say. People like Michael Morykot, Vince Boutilier, Anselm and Marie Doyle, Doug and Margaret Mombourquette, Rod and Sophie O’Toole, Everett and Mona Walker, Peter Burke, Terry and Anne Campbell, Stephen Boutilier and Allan Brown.

For years, Margaret Cusack and Lil McIvor provided the set at the CTV station with beautiful decorations, especially for the Christmas and Easter seasons and other important feast days. (The setting at Our Lady of Fatima Church, of course, provides the perfect backdrop.)

Peter Burke has been the altar server for Mass For Shut-Ins for over 30 years, and although the pandemic has meant that the celebrant has taken on some of the server’s duties, Burke continues to prepare the altar for the celebration of Mass, something he enjoys and says he will continue to do. One of Burke’s reminiscences is of visiting family in Calgary and discovering Mass For Shut-Ins being broadcast on a Sunday morning!


Of course, COVID is non-denominational, and for Rev. Peter Rafuse, Parish of The Resurrection in Sydney and Louisbourg, virtual services were “an eye opener as well as an education,” leading him to believe that “such church services will not be abandoned when the worst of the pandemic is over.” As he has done from the start of the pandemic, Rafuse continues to offer services with the assistance of four self-distancing congregation members, a cantor and a piano player with his wife, Mary, handling readings and camera duties. Rafuse has been more than pleased with reaction from the many viewers of their services. When I spoke with Rev. Rafuse in May, he credited the Catholics who pioneered Mass for Shut-Ins “for being so far ahead of the times when CJCB began running it.” He says many Anglicans viewed it regularly, developing a “prayerful connection” between the two groups.

Reverends Dana Feltmate and Peter Rafuse

Reverends Dana Feltmate and Peter Rafuse

Rev. Dana Feltmate, pastor at the United Protestant Church in Sydney River, recalls being quite rattled at his first virtual service when he found himself staring into a camera, rather than addressing a full church. He and his congregation gradually became accustomed to the process and, as with other churches, set up a system of making reservations for Sunday services, having 119 to 120 present while following the rules of self distancing and mask-wearing.

The prohibition on singing, Feltmate says, was a difficult reality but he and his parishioners “made the best of a bad situation” and even those watching from home were pleased to participate in the online services. Various groups still come together and keep in touch with parishioners through phone calls, but Feltmate knows that not being a part of the group who gather each Sunday in the church is a real problem, and people anxiously await the day when the restrictions will be lifted and they can, once again, experience the sense of community that comes from seeing and greeting one another while worshipping together each weekend.


Not all local church goers tune in to local services: some go farther afield. For Sydney resident Marie Urquhart, a phone call each Sunday to Rev. Glen Matheson, pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Scotsburn, Pictou County, connects her and others with a service offering prayer, Scripture readings and a sermon that, as Urquhart says, “often is more meaningful than one given in person.” The half-hour service is available each Sunday at 11 a.m and if you’re interested in participating, you may call 800-974-5902, code 7755518#.

Kay McIntosh, another local church-goer, has settled on a virtual Mass that originates in Lismore, Australia, at 9 a.m. on Sundays, with Bishop Greg Homeming presiding and preaching, as Kay attests, a “very good homily.”

Sunday Service with Bishop Greg Homeming

In fact, one former Cape Bretoner, now living in Halifax, is not at all certain she will be going back to what had for years been part and parcel of her life. A deeply involved Catholic, she has not enjoyed the experience of booking seats for Sunday Mass, and was especially disappointed to be unable to take part in Ash Wednesday ceremonies. Having only been to Mass three times over the COVID period, she finds she’d settled into “a new routine” that might become a regular one for her. That routine, by the way, includes following a virtual Mass from her own parish and taping Mass For Shut-Ins to view later.

There are those, including clergy, who fear that with so many services available online, there will be many like our former church-goer in Halifax who will be reluctant to come back to church in person, when that becomes a possibility. Not so Rev. Feltmate, who feels certain, from what his parishioners tell him, that they will be overjoyed to come together as a worshipping community with no distancing, no masks, no waving to each other across the aisles — gathering to chat as they come or as they leave, grateful that things have finally returned to normal.

Meanwhile, Mass For Shut-Ins continues to fulfil its founders’ vision, offering the sick and shut-ins of the local area and beyond a liturgy especially for them. With the assistance of those who have given of their time and their talents over the past 58 years, Mass For Shut-Ins will maintain its place in the hearts of those who, long before “virtual” became a household word, took their places in front of their televisions each Sunday morning at 11:30 to participate in a liturgy that welcomed them and provided a message of hope for the week ahead.



Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.