One year ago, Pastor Stephen Stanbery of St. Peter Catholic Church in Archbold presided over Easter services to an empty building. The COVID-19 pandemic had taken its grip, and nearly everything in the community, including places of worship, had shut down.
The Holy Week Masses he performed at the church on North Defiance Street were streamed live online, but Pastor Stanbery had just one word for the experience: “Weird.”
With the blessing of the Diocese of Rome, Pastor Stanbery has proceeded with Holy Week this year but with some minor adjustments to cede to the pandemic. The Thursday service will exclude its traditional foot-washing ceremony, and on Friday congregants will forego the procession with and kissing of the cross. During Saturday’s service the annual Easter fire, from which an Easter candle is ceremoniously lit, will not take place.
“This year, these processions have been eliminated because people tend to get close to each other,” Pastor Stanbery said.
The changes in St. Peter’s Easter celebration in 2021 are reflective of the plans of many denominations throughout Fulton County. While some places of worship are determined to proceed with services on one of their calendar’s most sacred dates, they’ll adjust to recognize that the threat of the pandemic is still present.
Easter Mass on Sunday at St. Peter will be held as normal. Some Holy Week activities will be live-streamed on the church’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.
It’s a blessed relief for Pastor Stanbery after Easter services were eliminated at the church last year as the pandemic grew. Like other businesses and institutions, St. Peter shut down entirely for a couple of months, reopening, by his recollection, in late spring or early summer. But the routine has changed. Now families sit apart from one another during services, some seating is blocked off, and most congregants wear the obligatory mask.
“Next year, it will probably be back to normal, hopefully,” Pastor Stanbery said.
Easter services last year at Swanton Baptist Church on South Main Street were live-streamed on the church’s Facebook page and conducted without congregants by Pastor Kenny Garland in front of a camera.
“It felt a little easier to preach to a camera, but it was very quiet,” he said. “It was kind of a let-down. It was a lot different. Easter did not feel like Easter last year.”
The service will be held with a congregation this year but also live-streamed on Facebook for those reluctant to attend due to COVID-19. Minor changes will be inevitable, such as wearing masks and social distancing. Rather than being passed around, the offering plate will be placed on a table.
Pastor Garland said although church leaders decided to proceed with an Easter celebration this year they remain cautious. “Everyone is social distancing, no one gathers together. No hand-shaking, no fellowship, and I’ve asked people, if they are going to congregate and talk, that they do it outside in the parking lot,” he said. “We aren’t relaxing those standards at all until, probably, the governor tells us it’s okay.”
An Easter egg hunt will go forward but the children will be encouraged to follow pandemic restrictions.
“Most of the kids that go to our church attend public school at Swanton. They’re used to following social distancing rules and wearing a mask,” Pastor Garland said.
He and his wife Tina founded the church six years ago, and were forced to shut it down several months last year after the pandemic emerged. Services were then held in the church parking lot through the summer, resuming inside as the weather cooled. Worship activities have been limited to Sunday mornings and live-streamed online for about half the congregants, who feel uneasy about attending.
Pastor Garland said church members are ecstatic about meeting again for Easter. “We’re very happy, we’re very hopeful. I’d say we’re cheerfully optimistic,” he said.
At Trinity Lutheran Church on Taylor Street in Delta, Maine native Pastor Matthew Voyer is celebrating his first Holy Week with the congregation since he was appointed to the church in 2019. Last year he, too, performed the Easter service to an empty church, accompanied by only an organist and his wife Heather, who delivered the Bible readings.
The service was streamed to the church’s Facebook page, and Pastor Voyer attempted to personalize it by placing family portraits of congregants in the pews, “so I saw them as I looked out.”
Still, he found the experience eerie and anxiety-inducing. “I was losing sleep. It was very difficult,” he said.
This year, he’ll preside over an Easter sunrise service and a second service at 10:30 a.m., both during which Pastor Voyer will wear a mask and gloves while distributing communion. There will also be Easter egg hunts, with children encouraged to wear masks and social-distance.
Trinity Lutheran’s typical Easter breakfast has been canceled.
The number of congregants will not be limited during Holy Week activities. “Our crowd has not been big enough to worry about that yet,” Pastor Voyer said.
He found last year’s cancellations disappointing, “especially given the fact that this was my first Lent and Holy Week Easter with this congregation. It was really a shame that we could not be together for it. It’s been an interesting first year of ministry, that’s for sure.
“But I’m happy to be back. And even though we’re not back at full strength and haven’t opened up to everything yet, there’s this hope in the air now here Trinity. We can start to see a life and ministry after COVID.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.