The Dispatch: More from CWR...

Catholics march in protest in Madison, WI after 50-person limit imposed on Masses

“It was made clear that government watchers would be present at parishes, in order to cite offending churches,” wrote Msgr. James Bartylla, vicar general of the Diocese of Madison, in an email to priests.

Rev. Brian Dulli speaks outside the City-County Building in downtown Madison: “What you are doing is clearly wrong,” he said. (Photo by Joseph M. Hanneman)

MADISON, Wisconsin — Outrage over Dane County’s last-minute change of health rules to limit attendance at religious services to 50 people spilled into the streets of downtown Madison on Friday, as nearly 200 Catholics marched from the state Capitol to the City-County Building in protest.

On Thursday, May 28, Dane County health officials notified the Diocese of Madison that it no longer classifies churches as essential operations under its emergency coronavirus pandemic rules. That decision limits Mass attendance to 50 people, regardless of the size of the church building.

Msgr. James Bartylla, vicar general of the Diocese of Madison, said individual churches could face a $1,000 fine for violating the rule. “It was made clear that government watchers would be present at parishes, in order to cite offending churches,” Bartylla wrote in an email to priests. “As such, the Diocese of Madison, under grave protest, now is forced to direct Catholic churches and oratories in Dane County to comply with the 50-person limit for religious services, solely for the reason to avoid citation and punitive enforcement.”

News of the clampdown on religious gatherings spread like wildfire among Dane County’s Catholic parishes. Two priests of the diocese, Rev. Brian Dulli and Rev. Richard Heilman, organized a Rosary rally outside the state Capitol. A procession, led by four men carrying a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, made its way around the Capitol Square and over two blocks to the City-County Building. There, Fr. Dulli had some choice words for county bureaucrats.

“You tried to pull a fast one, and we are not afraid,” said Dulli, pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in nearby Cottage Grove. “We’re not interested in complying any longer with unjust orders.” Speaking through a megaphone, Fr. Dulli aimed his remarks at Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. “Every person has the choice not to be participating in evil. We can say, ‘Enough!’ We don’t need to use a pandemic as a thin excuse to suppress church, to put arbitrary rules in place.”

The about-face by the county left the diocese very little time to react. Masses are set to reopen on Pentecost weekend for the first time since mid-March. Under initial county emergency orders, churches were considered essential operations, so attendance at Masses would be limited to 25 percent of seating capacity. With the strict new limit, priests will be faced with turning people away at the door, or risk the punitive fines.

“They made this up. This is clearly, clearly discriminating against people of faith,” Fr. Heilman said Friday on the Vicki McKenna Show, a popular talk-radio program. “There’s no other way you can look at this.”

Host Vicki McKenna, who is Catholic, likened the decision to send observers to churches to the tactics of the Stasi, the secret police in former Communist East Germany. “They’re going to send observers, I like to call them spies. The church Stasi, let’s call them that,” she said. “The county and city are going to send spies to the churches to count heads.”

“Where are we? Are we in America or some other place on the planet?” Fr. Heilman asked. To which McKenna replied, “Well, this is ‘Planet Madison.’”

Bishop Donald J. Hying declined to comment further on the controversy, or indicate if the diocese would take legal action, said Brent King, a spokesman for the Diocese of Madison.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on May 13 struck down the statewide coronavirus lockdown enacted by Gov. Tony Evers. In a 4-3 ruling, the court said Wisconsin’s “Safer at Home” initiative was “unlawful, invalid, and unenforceable” and struck it down as a “vast seizure of power” that usurped mandatory oversight by the Wisconsin Legislature.

A number of counties immediately enacted their own versions of the state lockdown. Several have since backed off after receiving legal guidance that the state high court’s ruling would also apply to local health officials. However, Dane County has continued to issue rules and regulations to control the re-opening of businesses, restaurants, bars, theaters and other places of commerce. Dane is the only county in the 11-county Diocese of Madison with the strict limit on attendance at church services.

County Executive Parisi this week called on the state to enact new regulations to slow the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus known as COVID-19. “What was lost in the political debate about when and how to re-open is the fact we are in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, where if we lose focus on why we had orders in the first place, people will needlessly suffer,” Parisi said.

Treating churches in a more restrictive fashion than hardware stores, restaurants or movie theaters is not a just solution, according to the organizers and rally attendees.

“Are they sending paid observers to the movie theaters and restaurants, if they’re over the 25 percent limit?” Fr. Heilman asked. “I’ll bet my last dollar they’re not.”

After leading the attendees in the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, Fr. Dulli decried what he called the county’s “bait and switch” tactics. “What you are doing is clearly wrong, and everybody sees it,” Dulli said. “Everybody knows. There’s no hiding.”

The Rosary rally stretched around the Capitol Square in Madison. (Photo by Joseph M. Hanneman)

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Joseph M. Hanneman 101 Articles
Joseph M. Hanneman writes from Madison, Wisconsin.


  1. I would feel better if they were wearing masks and social distancing.
    The COVID-19 virus is so dangerous.
    By them not showing any sign of understanding the seriousness and reason
    to follow medical guidelines, it gives the gov’t more ammunition for their limits.

    • You can’t tell by the picture, but people were in ‘family groups” 6ft apart from other family units. A good handful were wearing masks. Just not any in the posted photos.

    • As if the government needs more “ammunition” for its limits. Your support for a government gone dictatorial escapes a rational understanding that this is a government already gone beyond its limits, it constitutional limits.

    • Since when do you need a mask outside? That is scientifically justified. Are you a science denier? With air movement and sunshine and distancing, it is practically impossible to transmit it. Also, if the people were sick why would they be there? You cannot transmit a disease when not sick!!!

  2. All of these elected officials need to be voted out of office permanently at the next opportunity. Their utter contempt for religion is quite plain. It’s time to recover our sanity and First Amendment rights or else we will lose them.

  3. Isn’t God everywhere? Plenty of churches are doing online services and worshippers are quite happy with that. Please do the right thing for your fellow citizens and avoid crowds.
    You aren’t being singled out.

    • If you can spend almost an hour in a crowded grocery store, can you not see why people feel that it is ESSENTIAL to receive Jesus in the Eucharist at Holy Mass? Feeding our soul is just as important!

    • Eddie,
      Goodness, I don’t know anyone who’s “quite happy” with online worship. Ive been grateful for it when it was the only option available but Ive felt more alone than happy.
      From what I see, churches are indeed being singled out.
      Ive been extremely cautious during this virus outbreak and disturbed at the attempts by all sides to use it for political gain.

      My brother had Covid last month. My son’s coworker died from it at age 39. I know it’s real and can be deadly to those vulnerable, but people can sense when appropriate precautions are extended beyond a reasonable period of time. And when quarantine orders are selectively applied.

    • You cannot receive holy communion by watching online services. You need to study more about what the Mass is!

      They ARE being “single out.” The county has declared 25 percent of maximum seating is allowed in all facilities EXCEPT church where only 50 people are permitted. Did you read the article?

    • Eddie A. Your response to this situation is confirmation that Catholics have not received proper catechesis for too many years. You claim that people are perfectly happy with watching the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass livestreamed on their TV’s or computers because ‘God is everywhere’. Well, God is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament with His body and blood and, as He Himself said, “Unless you eat My flesh and drink My blood you shall not have life within you.” But I guess you are perfectly OK with Catholics being denied the sacraments and being discriminated against.

    • Plenty of churches may be doing online services, as many Catholic churches are, but that doesn’t mean that the worshippers are “quite happy with that.” It means that they endured it while they thought it was necessary. But now all kinds of places are allowed to open – but not churches.

      There is a vast difference between watching Mass on television or online and actually being there.

      The decision of the county health officials “limits Mass attendance to 50 people, regardless of the size of the church building” rather than the previously announced limit of 25% of the building’s capacity. Unlike other places, which are allowed more.

      Yes, we are being singled out. And even if we weren’t, tyranny against everybody is still unacceptable.

      All of Dane County has had a total of 27 deaths related to the Wuhan coronavirus, by the way

    • Eddie, GOD in person is different than GOD everywhere. When the churches are opened, it is every adult’s choice to be there or not, not the govt. As far as I am concerned I render unto God what is God’s and unto Caesar what is his. If I worship in person, I AM caring for my fellow citizens to the highest. They can stay home if they want to. Thank you brave folks in Madison setting an example for us.

    • Of course God is everywhere. That isnt the point. Are you Catholic? If not you may not understand how upsetting it is for a Catholic to be deprived of Communion for this length of time. TV Mass doesnt cut it. WE are being banned from church. A time frame which seems to be expanding, along with attendant restrictions. The question is why is it ok that there are 25 people in a tiny Dollar Store but you aren’t allowed to put 100 people in a church which can seat 700??? For that matter, as long as social distancing is observed , what right does the got have to abridge religious freedom and tell a church how to do ANYTHING regarding its worships serve. This is not Stalinist Russia. This is not Communist China. At least, not yet. Be VERY careful who you vote for in November. Why are our Bishops mostly silent in the face of this oppression?

  4. As far as masks go, we were all outside breathing fresh air. I for one am not afraid to go against the government’s recommendations for any of this since they have not been honest with us throughout this entire pandemic and especially since we are obviously seeing unequal treatment towards religious groups. For governments to defend their actions they would have to defend an argument that the virus is now anti-religion. God designed us to breathe oxygen, not our own carbon dioxide. God also gave us an immune system to fight disease. Even the WHO is stating on their website that healthy people should not wear masks unless taking care of an infected person.

    • I am not afraid of the virus by not wearing a mask and socializing with people within the arbitrary 6′. There is no science to support these tactics, and probably more to prove it’s not effective. If people would only do their own research on this they could allay many of their fears. Think about the recycled air within a mask that is being breathed. We need fresh air, not recycled air. It’s not the virus we need to fear, it’s ignorance and people’s desire for safety at all costs, and what they are willing to give up to achieve their utopian desires.

      My prayers go to those in Madison, that they all find a peaceful solution to their dilemma.

    • Todd,
      Yes, it’s very confusing about masks. You hear conflicting advice.
      I think indoors they probably serve a purpose but afford much less protection than we think. And the benefits are more to the people around us. Most masks afford little protection to the wearer.

      • Not only that, butyou hear conflicting advice from the very same people, who flipflop from “Don’t wear masks, they won’t do any good” to “You must wear a mask!”


    An extract from the given link above.
    Workplaces Another great example is the outbreak in a call center (see below). A single infected employee came to work on the 11th floor of a building. That floor had 216 employees. Over the period of a week, 94 of those people became infected (43.5%: the blue chairs). 92 of those 94 people became sick (only 2 remained asymptomatic). Notice how one side of the office is primarily infected, while there are very few people infected on the other side. While exact number of people infected by respiratory droplets / respiratory exposure versus fomite transmission (door handles, shared water coolers, elevator buttons etc.) is unknown. It serves to highlight that being in an enclosed space, sharing the same air for a prolonged period increases your chances of exposure and infection. Another 3 people on other floors of the building were infected, but the authors were not able to trace the infection to the primary cluster on the 11th floor. Interestingly, even though there were considerable interaction between workers on different floors of the building in elevators and the lobby, the outbreak was mostly limited to a single floor (ref). This highlights the importance of exposure and time in the spreading of SARS-CoV2.
    Other examples are given, as in, Restaurants: Choir: Indoor sports: Birthday parties / funerals: while also giving interesting further information.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

    • The World Economic Forum, huh? I don’t see any reason to trust them any more than I trust the World Health Organization.

  6. They are in perfect order and certainly don’t need masks. I am very proud of them. We need more of this throughout our country.

  7. Finally, BOLD pastors, reminiscent of JPII in his homeland of Poland during communist rule! Wake up brothers and sisters!

  8. We will not get our Holy Mass back unless we fight to defend it.

    We will only fight to defend it if it is the most important thing in the world to us – worth dying for.

    If we do nothing, those who hate us will take everything from us. That is what the Devil does.

    Thank God for Holy Priests who act, and live, their part and lead us to defend our God and our Church.

  9. This is what the democrats are doing. The speaker claims to be a Catholic but she truly is not. Hillary said she intended to close all churches. Biden who knows. This is truly a blant attempt at restricting Catholic services. Democrats do not believe in God anymore. Sad to say. DeBlasio threatened to permanent close churches as did Lightfoot. God we place our trust in you.

  10. fellow catholics. the pandemic is real. my son works in the covid icu. people die of this everyday. wear masks for the sake of others. Jesus died so that we may live. be responsible so that others may live.

    • Greg,
      Absolutely. I live in the most highly infected state in the nation and people are surely dying here but not in the numbers the media wants us to fear.
      I think we all should be respectful of others, especially those most at risk and wearing a mask in public places is at the very least a courtesy. But in a couple of years I think we may look back on this and see what really went on and no matter which narrative we’ve followed we’ll be proven wrong in some way. We just don’t know the answers yet. Nor all the facts. And considering the virus in all probability originated in China, we may never know.

6 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Bits & Bytes |
  2. CATHOLIC HEADLINES 5.31.20 – The Stumbling Block
  3. Wisconsin Churches Threatened With $1,000 Fines if They Hold In-Person Services With More Than 50 People – BCNN1 WP
  4. ‘We Need to Come Back to Sunday Mass’ – Catholic World Report
  5. ‘We Need to Come Back to Sunday Mass’ - Catholic Mass Search
  6. Eucharistic procession in Madison, WI, traverses sites of looting, unrest – Catholic World Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.