NEW ORLEANS — The Rev. John Restrepo was dressed in his vestments and offered penance to those seeking forgiveness for their sins on Friday morning.

It was business as usual -- as much as it can be these days -- in an unusual setting at St. Dominic Catholic Church in Lakeview.

The sins were heard not in the privacy of a dark confessional but outdoors, in the sun and steps away from Harrison Avenue, on the front steps of the church.

“I came out this morning because I didn’t want to sit in my office and do what?” Restrepo said.

The coronavirus outbreak has upended much of daily life, including religious services.

New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond has stopped public Masses for now, but Restrepo still celebrates it daily in a thoroughly modern way: live broadcasts on Facebook.

The flock has gone digital.

“It’s strange preaching to an empty church,” Restrepo said.

While he can’t control when he’ll be able to say Mass in front of a live congregation again, he said he knew he could still help the faithful during a trying time.

So he set up shop under the soaring marble breezeway at the church in between morning and evening services. You can find him in a chair in front of a kneeler and another chair.

“People walking by. ‘You hearing confessions?’ Yes I am, come on by,” he said.

And they did. On the first day alone? Twenty-seven people by 2 p.m.

“I had a child who’s making his First Communion, hopefully by the end of April, and he said, ‘Can I make my First Confession now?’ And I said, ‘Well, sure.’ And he did much better than I thought,” Restreop said.

But there is downtime, and he makes the most of it. 

“I’m reading the biography of George Washington while I’m sitting out here,” he said.

And when people do show up to speak, confess or seek his guidance, he’s there for them -- but social distance is the order of the day.

“We keep our distance here,” he said. “Six feet.”

In addition to the crucifix and oil for any appointments on a small table next to him, Restrepo keeps another necessity. 

“I have my Purell and my crucifix.”

Restrepo said he’ll sit in front of the church until things go back to the normal everyone used to know. But even for someone who aims to serve others, the moments to himself are as valuable as ever.

“Personally, it’s a good thing for me to help me focus on who’s in charge,” he said. “And it’s God ultimately. And we’re going to get through this.” 

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