Father Tim Pelc tries to stay off social media when possible, but recently, it's become unavoidable. Thanks to the photos from his socially distanced Holy Week service in Michigan, which involved a water gun full of holy water, Pelc has become a meme.
The photos, which were taken by parishioner Larry Peplin, received some attention when they were first posted by St. Ambrose Parish on Facebook in April. But they have recently gone viral on Twitter and even sparked a Reddit Photoshop battle.
The sudden internet popularity has come as a pleasant surprise to Pelc, 70, who's been with the parish in Detroit for 30 years and prides himself on having a "pretty wacky mind and pretty accepting congregation."
"The original idea was to do something for the kids of the parish," Pelc told BuzzFeed News. "They were about ready to have an Easter unlike any of their past, so I thought, What can we still do that would observe all the protocols of social distancing?"
Pelc came up with the idea of using a water gun to bless his parishioners' Easter baskets from a safe distance and consulted with his friend, an emergency room doctor in Detroit, to ensure it was safe to do so.
"He said, 'Not only is this safe, this is fun,' and he came with his kids," Pelc said. "He provided me with all the personal protection stuff that I needed. The sun was out. We had a nice turnout. It was a way of continuing an ancient custom, and people seemed to enjoy it."
Pelc said he's been amazed at how widely the photos have been shared, and how much they've resonated with people all over the world.
"It was a good news story and people were in the mood for something like that," Pelc said.
They noticed that the photos on Facebook had a wide reach.
"It was big in Ukraine, and the Germans are funny — that led to a whole sub-discussion about the types of water pistols," he added. "It even had two hits in the Vatican, which sort of concerned me, but I haven’t heard anything yet."
Christine Busque, who manages the church's Facebook page and posted the original photos, said the response has been overwhelmingly positive, and she's thrilled to see others appreciate Father Pelc's trademark thoughtfulness and creative flair.
“People wanted to have a bright side to the things that are happening in the world right now," Busque said. "They saw that, and I think they saw that he cared about his parishioners enough to want to keep his traditions alive but work [within] the CDC guidelines of being safe."
Pelc said he thinks the photos have taken off online because not only are they fun, they've also provided a bit of optimism for those feeling a sense of hopelessness during the coronavirus pandemic.
"I’m not objecting to it — this whole idea of combating evil is a good one," Pelc said. "When Jesus dies, he doesn’t just lay around doing nothing. He goes down to hell and kicks the doors in. He really wrestles with evil. We all want to believe that the devil is not the most powerful force on the earth and neither is COVID-19."
While the Holy Saturday service was a bit tongue-in-cheek, Pelc said he's happy to see his parishioners and his city taking the pandemic seriously.
"Detroiters are taking lockdown very seriously," Pelc said. "Michigan’s got a public face of a lot of people with their assault rifles protesting, but here in southeastern Michigan that’s not the mood I’m getting."
While his parish may reopen for public Masses as soon as next Sunday, with reduced capacity, Pelc said he's tried calling around for people to help put on and attend the service and been turned down.
"People are saying they don’t want to come out just yet," Pelc said. "There’s still a lot of fear out there, and I don’t blame them."
Michigan currently has the fourth-highest COVID-19 death toll in the United States, with more than 4,800 deaths and over 50,000 cases.
Pelc and the St. Ambrose Parish have been honoring the state's COVID-19 victims with blue ribbons tied around trees on the church's property.
"When the lockdown started we tied a blue ribbon on one of our trees and the first week we had six ribbons, then 60, then 675, now it’s close to 5,000," Pelc said. "Each of those pieces of ribbon represents someone who was loved and had a family. It brings tears to your eyes."
While the parish waits to resume normal services, Pelc has been adapting with a mix of livestreamed and pretaped Sunday services. The church's livestreams have become so popular — with as many as three Masses worth of people watching tuning into a Facebook livestream, Pelc said — that the parish is looking at permanent camera placements to broadcast to people even after the pandemic ends.
"We don’t think we can put the toothpaste back in the tube," Pelc said. "Our broadcasts equal the number of people electronically as I would have on a normal weekend physically, and that tells me that there’s an audience out there."
As for his newfound internet stardom and memeification, Pelc is still getting used to it.
"I'm a little reluctant. If I didn’t have a mask on in these photos, I probably wouldn't be as happy," Pelc said. "But I'm perfectly happy being the masked avenger here."