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'We Haven't Gone Away': St. Louis Drive-Thru Confession Offers Absolution And Connection

A congregant pulls up a chair to St. Francis of Assisi's drive-thru confessional on May 11, 2020. Father Anthony Yates and George Staley take turns manning the window three days a week, to provide spiritual solace for parishioners during the pandemic.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
A congregant pulls up a chair to the drive-thru confessional at St. Francis of Assisi Monday morning. Father Anthony Yates and George Staley take turns manning the window three days a week, to provide spiritual solace for parishioners during the pandemic.

The Confession window at St. Francis of Assisi doesn’t look all that different from a fast food drive-thru, except for a tiny sign taped to a traffic cone that reads “The Priest Is In.”

The Archdiocese of St. Louis halted most in-person services in March, as part of an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Soon after, priests at St. Francis of Assisi in Oakville devised a creative way to stay connected with parishioners: a drive-thru Confession window. 

Congregants wait in their cars, pulling up to a small sliding window one-by-one to speak to the pastor. If a parishioner decides to remain anonymous, Father George Staley hears their confession through a jerry-rigged privacy screen that also functions as a virus barrier.

“We put a trash bag on one window to keep it anonymous and plastic wrap on the other window to protect ourselves, as well as the people coming in,” Staley said. “We had to get creative with it.”

Father Anthony Yates sits on top of a stack of chairs, waiting for congregants to arrive at the drive-thru confession on May 11, 2020.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

Though it’s a simple setup, the logistics of opening a drive-thru at the church proved challenging. 

Some windows on the campus grounds were too high, forcing Staley and Pastor Anthony Yates to stand on tiptoes to see out. Others were unprotected from the elements — a no-go during the rainy Missouri spring weather.

After finding their Goldilocks location under a bridge connecting the rectory and church, Yates said they worked out “all the little pieces” to help congregants feel more comfortable. 

“We even have a sign out front that says, ‘Turn off your engine, so Father can hear you,’” he explained. 

Priests George Staley and Anthony Yates chose a protected area under a bridge connecting the rectory and church building for the drive-thru confessional. "We had to get creative with it," Staley said.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

The two priests now take turns manning the window for three hours each week, on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. 

Dozens of worshippers have visited the drive-thru confessional since late March, traveling from Illinois and west St. Louis County. Given its popularity, the drive-thru confession window will remain open for the foreseeable future, even after parishes begin reopening May 18.

For Yates, the strong turnout has been heartening.

“Since they can’t go to Mass, I want them to still feel connected with our Lord,” he said. “They want to know that their parish is still here for them. We haven't gone away just because we're not physically present. It just looks different.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

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