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Voices from the Valley: Church congregations weather the pandemic in their own unique way

“The impact of COVID-19 on Quebec churches remains to be seen,” states Andreanne Jalbert-Laramée, cultural heritage advisor at Quebec’s Religious Heritage Council. Church communities that were struggling to survive before the pandemic are feeling additional financial strain now, with fundraising and social events cancelled and offering plates sitting empty within closed, empty churches. It seemed important to check in on our own small rural church congregations to see how they are handling these difficult times. Within this small sampling, the individual spirit of each church community shines through.

It’s Sunday, Aug. 2, and the rain is beating down on the small clapboard building that is Rockburn Presbyterian’s church hall. Through the open windows and doors the synthetic strains of the electrical piano can be heard. Today is the first indoor service for Rockburn Presbyterian Church since the start of the pandemic in March. Rockburn is the only Protestant church in the area to reopen so far. This service is held in the parish hall and not the church because the hall is large and the chairs (rather than pews) make it easier to social distance.

 

A candle of hope that is part of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Sunday night online posting. PHOTOS Yvonne Lewis Langlois

 

Rockburn has been holding outdoor services since July 5, after the government lifted the ban on church gatherings as of June 22. Protestant churches individually made the decision on whether to reopen. Rockburn’s Church of Session met and decided to hold outdoor services when the weather permits. Everybody must bring their own deck chair and mask to celebrate on the church lawn. When the weather turns bad, the service is held in the church hall, where space limits the attendance to 27 people as per social distancing. Within the church hall, singing is not allowed but parishioners hum and clap in time to the music. Suddenly Norm Rennie gets up and walks two rooms over to safely sing a solo. “You don’t know how much I needed this!” exclaims one parishioner.

After being closed for 100 days, Catholic churches are open and celebrating mass. When government restrictions were eased, the order came down from the bishops that churches could start resuming services. It is almost business as usual at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Huntingdon, with masses taking place on the same schedule as they have been for the last 50 years or more. But there are changes. Parishioners must wear masks as they enter the church but may take them off when seated. Social distancing is observed and at communion time parishioners must remain in their seats as the host is brought to them. When they are leaving they are required to put on their masks.

As of June 22, government rules permitted 50 people to attend indoor gatherings, and that number was increased to 250 this month. At St. Joseph’s, the church can seat 430 people elbow to elbow, but with social distancing it can comfortably accommodate 150 to 170 people. The number of parishioners attending is down, however, as people are still very much aware of the virus. Weddings, funerals and baptisms are all taking place while respecting the government restrictions. “With time we will get used to it,” says the parish priest, Father Gabriel Clément. “There is a spirit here in this community. People like to get together. Maybe they like it more than the service itself,” he chuckles. “They come half an hour before and stay half an hour after, and in between they have a service.”

Father Clément points out that the community is happy to be back to pray and sing. Ten to 15 choir members are allowed to sing in this vast church. Unlike many churches that are feeling further strains on already fragile finances, St. Joseph remains strong. “Rural people are spontaneously generous. People seem to see that we need money, so they give it,” Father Clément says. The congregation recently raised $34,000 to fix the hall roof and is now organizing a sidewalk sale and spaghetti supper for late August to raise money to repair the roof over the church bell. “There is a strong sense of community here,” he adds.

 

The interior of Rockburn Presbyterian Church in happier times when the church was open. PHOTO Yvonne Lewis Langlois

 

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Huntingdon has remained closed throughout the pandemic. No weddings, funerals or events have taken place there. Lynn Harper, the church organist, thinks that many funerals have been held privately or through the funeral homes. “Not being together for Easter was really hard,” Harper says, and the church felt a need to reach out to the community, so Sunday services are posted online. The church chimes ring out and every Sunday night at 7 p.m. photos of candles are posted on Facebook. This Little Light of Mine, as it is called, is a collage of photos of candles that anyone and everyone can post to make a connection to the community. St. Andrew’s is looking forward to its annual Sunday in the Park, which will be the congregation’s first actual get-together since March. It is scheduled to take place on Sept. 6 in Prince Arthur Park in Huntingdon. For now, Facebook live-streams will have to be enough. “People are attending virtually,” says Harper.

The bells at St. James Anglican Church in Ormstown ring for 10 minutes every Sunday at noon. Members of the small congregation have been taking turns ringing the bell since the pandemic began. “It’s a good workout!” exclaims parishioner Diane Furey. Pre COVID-19, the congregations of St. James and Christ Church of Franklin met once a month but the church has been closed since March. At 190 years old next year, St. James is one of the oldest churches in the Valley. There are no online services but this church prefers the old-fashioned method of reaching its congregation. Quarterly newsletters are hand-delivered, which presents the opportunity to touch base personally with the congregation. As to the bell ringing, Furey says, “We will keep doing this until the church reopens.”

Before the pandemic, the churches of Rennie’s United Church and Athelstan Presbyterian Church shared the same minister and their congregations would alternate between the two churches. Since COVID-19, both churches remain closed. Rev. Mher Khatchikian was posting online services but those posts stopped when he went on vacation. The small and mostly senior congregation will have to wait until September for their churches to reopen. But Rennie’s church angel, which was usually lit only on special occasions, is shining every night in the window until the church reopens.

At the Church of the Nazarene in Franklin Centre, it was decided to also keep the church closed until mid-September. Online services are posted weekly on Zoom, Facebook and YouTube. Even when the church reopens, the online services will continue. The pandemic “is teaching the church to adapt,” says Rev. Randy Barrington, assistant district superintendent. “We are reaching more people like this,” he adds. “We have broken outside of our walls for the first time in years to actually reach people where they are.”

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