When the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon New York in March 2020 it landed right before Easter, one of the holiest periods for Protestants and Catholics, a time when family and friends gather in close proximity in their homes and houses of worship to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Safe to say, Easter last year was not the usual affair as stay-at-home orders forced churches to find new ways for parishioners to worship virtually.
A year later, the coronavirus continues to spread, and the Easter holiday will again be anything but traditional — though hope is rising. With COVID-19 vaccine distribution expanding and businesses reopening, some churches are welcoming parishioners back for limited in-person Mass and holiday celebrations.
Last year when the coronavirus hit, Monsignor Luke Sweeney was working at the Holy See in Rome and living in a priest residence house with 24 other American priests. He celebrated Holy Thursday alone in his room and performed an Easter Sunday mass for his family over Zoom. “That will be an Easter that I’ll never forget,” he said.
This year, Sweeney will preside over his first Easter vigil at Scarsdale’s Immaculate Heart of Mary Church (IHM) on Sunday, April 4.
Like last year, Easter services at IHM will be livestreamed, though Sweeney said he’s heard from more parishioners wishing to attend Mass in person for Easter than for Christmas. Parishioners will be allowed to be at Mass in person if they are masked and make reservations for an assigned seat prior to arriving. Families will be seated 6 feet apart from other families in the pews.
“[During] Christmas we were wonderfully full and did not have to turn anyone away,” said Sweeney. “But this time … I’m actually just getting underway to see how many we can really fit in all of our Masses for Easter.”
Sweeney couldn’t estimate how many people were on IHM’s waiting list to attend Mass because people are still signing up.
When the virus hit last year during Lent, churches throughout the village scrambled to set up online worship services for their members.
The Rev. Dr. Kelly Hough Rogers of Scarsdale Congregational Church (SCC) said they weren’t able to set up virtual programming in time and ended up recording the Easter Masses instead.
“During the first weeks of the pandemic, we needed to get used to new technology and learn to prerecord and edit all of the different worship portions. On top of that, several staff members had COVID-19 in March and April and were working while ill, myself included,” she said. “Conducting meaningful worship while sick was a huge challenge.”
SCC did have a stint of indoor worship during the fall, but closed after the congregation decided it was better to wait for the vaccine. There has been no in-person worship in the church since then, though some outdoor baptisms, funerals and fellowship gatherings took place on the Heathcote Road property last summer. Like last year, this year’s Easter celebration will also be an online event, though they’ve added a twist — the church plans to host a watch party on Zoom and members of the congregation were sent an Easter care package to aid in the celebration.
“I find that my faith grows through facing new challenges. Having faith in God was an enormous comfort during my own bout with COVID and my faith has helped me care for the souls of other sick and mourning people,” said Hough Rogers. “I’ve watched this congregation, which I already loved to serve, become a truly giving and generous congregation keeping in touch with each other via phone, Zoom and snail mail.”
Last year at the Greenville Community Church on Ardsley Road in Edgemont, the Rev. Edward Schreur held an Easter service on Zoom. This Easter he plans to welcome people in person into the sanctuary.
“The pandemic has pushed Greenville Church to develop remote access to our worship services and programs, with the [unexpected] silver lining of becoming better connected with members who have moved away or simply prefer to attend virtually rather than in person,” said Schreur.
This Easter will actually be the first time members of Scarsdale’s Grace Lutheran Church on Grand Boulevard will be gathering in person since the pandemic hit last March.
“I imagine it will be a time of celebration of new life and, at the same time, mourning for the ways our gathering together must be different in order to keep our community safe,” said Grace Lutheran Pastor Abby Ferjak. “I joined the community of Grace as pastor in January, so I am excited to worship in person with the community for the first time.”
The church will meet outdoors on the front lawn and has no plans for in-person indoor worship. Instead, online worship has been its staple. Since her arrival in January, Ferjak’s work at Grace Lutheran has been conducted exclusively on Zoom. She said she is less concerned with how many people will attend Mass in person than with finding a way to continue to facilitate a sense of community for both online and in-person worshippers.
“I never expected to be called to serve in this manner, and I am continually amazed at how God works in even the most difficult times of life,” said Ferjak. “The people of Grace Lutheran taught me that community bonds reach across distance. Even though this community hasn’t gathered in over a year, their care and concern for one another remains strong.”
At St. James the Less on Church Lane, Easter will be a limited in-person event and much better than last year’s holiday, according to the Rev. Astrid Storm, who found herself sitting in an empty church staring at a video camera.
“I hope that’s the only time in my career I’ll have to observe Easter that way,” she said.
The church has also invested in an outdoor tent for in-person services, which has become quite popular among churchgoers.
On Easter Day, St. James Church will hold an outdoor service at 9 a.m. and an indoor service at 11 a.m.
The church has also been livestreaming services since the beginning of the pandemic, which has been a process of trial and error with no previous virtual worship experience.
“I can say that most Episcopal clergy never imagined themselves having to stand in front of a camera every week, and now suddenly we’re all televangelists,” joked Storm. “Honestly though, it’s been great to connect with people who feel comfortable tuning in but might not have come to church in the traditional way, whether because of distance or other reasons.”
The Rev. Gordon Naumann at Scarsdale’s Trinity Lutheran Church on Crane Road said his congregants would be able to celebrate Easter together in person this year, though he said he doesn’t expect many to attend despite having missed out on Easter celebrations last year.
“How many, I wonder, said in their heart last year, ‘If we’re allowed to next year, I’m definitely going to church [for] Easter’, and yet will not?” said Naumann. “It’s been a year, right? [It’s] kind of like when we make those New Year’s resolutions and after a few months completely forget them and revert back to our old habits.”
The church has been using livestream services to help worshippers connect which has been a silver lining to the debilitating pandemic.
“What a witness it is that we have been getting together and making the best impact we can out of a bad situation,” said Naumann. “We have overcome, and we have encouraged one another [to] no end. We’ve shared resources and we’ve loved our neighbor as ourselves, as the Lord has commanded. It has been a natural fruit of faith.”