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Virus shifting landscape at churches

Caroline Carlson | Daily Press Father Rick Courier gives the blessing in Sunday Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Escanaba.

ESCANABA — In-person attendance is down in many area churches as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People are being cautious, some are afraid,” said Rev. Rick Courier of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Wells and St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Escanaba. He doesn’t believe attendance will pick back up until at least spring.

Local churches have made technological adaptations and used out-of-the-box thinking to remain connected to parishioners. Many have added online services, and priests and pastors are communicating with those confined to their homes, hospitals and nursing homes by phone instead of in person.

Many churches are adding live streaming of in-person services to their websites, Facebook and YouTube accounts as an online option. Some churches, like Memorial Methodist Church in Gladstone have made the move to online-only services. Cathy Rafferty, the church’s pastor, said the going back and forth opening and closing was too crazy, so the church decided to focus on engaging through technology for services, meetings and Bible study.

The number of views on Facebook and You Tube has been strong, Rafferty said, and are in-fact higher than pre-COVID-19 in person Sunday service attendance. While she said it’s tough to know how many people who watched online were engaged in the content, Rafferty admits the question doesn’t go away entirely during in-person services either.

Moving services to online only has its upsides, Rafferty said. Those among her congregation who routinely leave the area in cold weather for a warmer climate can now remain engaged online, for example. Rafferty has also noticed more family worship, as family members can watch a replay of the service together at a time that works for everyone.

Courier said that before the pandemic, the age demographic of in-person attendance was mixed. Now that the 9 a.m. mass is streamed live on Facebook, however, he said in-person attendees tend to be older adults, possibly due to not wanting to have deal with technology. All in-person attendees to St. Anthony and St. Thomas wear masks and maintain social distancing.

Bark River Bible Church is back to its pre-COVID-19 in person service routines after an eight-week closure in the spring of 2020. Pastor Brad Cochrane said not a lot of people are choosing to wear masks, but there is plenty of room for congregants to social distance. The church is offering an online option as well, though Cochrane said virtual attendance has been hard to gauge. “We’re being careful and doing what we can. We’ve been very fortunate not to have people pass, or many that have been sick.” he said.

As far as other trends, many churches are seeing a drop in donations. Courier said many church members have been generously mailing their donations, and though there has been a small drop, it was balanced by reduced overhead as a result of not providing social activities in addition to church services.

To combat the fundraising challenges churches now face, many are getting creative. Without the availability of in-service collections, Rafferty said Memorial Methodist Church created a tour of congregants’ tabletop nativity sets at Christmas, along with collection boxes to benefit Heifer International. The event successfully raised money while attendees enjoyed the displays and the peace of the decorated sanctuary. She added that it was a great way to allow the community to gather in the Christmas season while maintaining safety precautions.

Ingenuity also helped several churches provide a Christmas pageant in 2020 while maintaining social distance. Small groups went to church on different days, recording their parts in the production on video. The parts were then produced into one video of the complete story. Judy Raygo, secretary at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Menominee said this process worked well for their congregation. “The kids enjoyed doing it. We had people watching it that didn’t even have kids,” she said.

Rafferty, whose church was also among those creating Christmas pageants in segments in 2020, said more kids participated this year than in the past — around 20 — because they did not have to be available on Christmas Eve.

“From what I hear, lots of congregations are doing these things. People have been just wonderful sharing ideas. Everybody leaning on each other has been a big help,” said Rafferty.

The creativity extends into religious education, as well, with instructors not only utilizing online lessons, but taking turns creating videos for their students. Rafferty’s religious educators are incorporating videos of the kids reading scripture into the services for the whole congregation. Administrative Assistant Beth Sviland for both Saint Anthony and Saint Thomas said parents are particularly happy with the confirmation lesson structure, a combination of online videos and workbook exercises, because it provides the parents an opportunity to discuss the lessons with their teens.

Priests and pastors alike have expressed that not being able to visit seniors and those hospitalized in person has been painful for everyone involved.

“When people are going to the hospital for any reason, we can’t go see them, whether they have a COVID reason to be there or not,” said Rafferty. Last spring the members of Rafferty’s congregation threw a parade, driving past the homes of community members with health considerations that kept them the most isolated. The recipients received calls to let them know when the parade would come by. Parade planners planted signs in the yards of recipients as well as brandishing signs from their passing cars with well-wishes, such as, “We’re praying for you, we love you!” Those who were able to sat out in lawn chairs and waved happily at the passing parade.

One sacrament that Father Courier said priests are still allowed to do in person at nursing homes is anointing of the dying. On such occasions, gowns and other PPE are worn. “The nursing home is good about making provisions,” he said.

With regard to other social events, few church weddings have been occurring amidst pandemic restrictions, and those that do are greatly limiting attendance, usually to immediate family. Churches have been holding funerals outdoors as grave-side services when weather permits. Some families are holding small indoor funeral services with immediate-family only, planning to have a public mass in the future when restrictions ease.

More than one church has turned to online streaming of limited-attendance funeral masses to allow extended family to be involved — if virtually — in the experience. “You need people when you’re grieving like that, so that’s what we did. You’ve just got to do what feels right, sometimes,” said Rafferty, whose church has held this type of combined service.

Of the churches asked, none felt that people were moving away from religious worship. Rather, there seemed to be a consensus that people are seeking the connection of spiritual congregation now more than ever.

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