From churches to mosques to synagogues, nearly all places of worship in Connecticut have been closed due to the Coronavirus outbreak.
“This is sort of an uncharted territory for all of us,” said David Elliott, the associate director of communication and public relations for the Archdiocese of Hartford. “I can’t point to another time in the Archdiocese of Hartford where the churches have all ever been closed.”
The same is true for across the country and much of the world, including in Rome, where all masses and vigils have been canceled.
In Connecticut, most protestant churches, mosques, and Jewish synagogues, including Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedke Congregation in Chester, are closed to worshipers following guidance from Centers for Disease Control discouraging gatherings of more than ten people.
The timing — with Easter, Passover and Ramadan right around the corner –could not be more challenging for these religious communities.
“Ramadan is expected to start on April 24 and it is a really big deal. Mosques typically host special prayers and meals for all 30 days,” explained Omer Bajwa, the Yale Muslim Chaplain. “It’s an intensely personal time, but also very communal. With our gatherings all canceled, it has sent real disappointment and shock waves through the Muslim community.”
A decision to suspend services is not taken lightly by any religious organization.
“The decision to cancel the masses came with a tremendous amount of prayer and we are reassessing multiple times per day because the recommendations change so quickly and often,” Elliott said. “But this is the right call for the diocese.”
According to several religious leaders in the state, the public sentiment is most akin to the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
“The difference is, with 9-11 we gathered. We gathered in churches, synagogues, temples,” said Anita Schell, pastor at Saint Ann’s Episcopal Church in Old Lyme.
In the case of COVID-19, the mandates for social isolation push up against typical human instincts to come together in times of hardship.
“You can’t commiserate. Normally during a crisis or hardship we try to be there for people in person,” Bajwa said.
The solution for many religious groups has been to move that gathering and commiseration online
“We have to think about alternatives to provide emotional and spiritual well-being. We don’t want social distancing to be emotional distancing. We should remember, physically, is just one way people come together now,” said Sarah Drummond, the founding Dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. “Life does go on. We aren’t pretending like nothing is changing, but we can’t allow ourselves to get into a doomsday mindset.”
Online today you can find resources for nearly every religious congregation in the state of Connecticut. From daily catholic masses to 5-minute prayers from Rabbi Marci Bellows to bible studies on zoom — religious leaders have quickly found ways to keep their congregations connected.
“The community is not gathering in church or outreach programs, but we are still gathering,” Schell said.
Schell and Bellows both underscored that the buildings may be closed to the public, but the phone lines are still very much open, and often ringing.
“Anytime they want to call here, that is more than welcome,” Schell said. “That is a wonderful use of our technology.”
In the Diocese of Norwich, priests are working to ensure that Sunday mass will be available on Facebook Live, as well as by radio, where it has been for more than 50 years, said Wayne Gignac, the director of communications for the diocese.
“We’ve really been working hard to maintain the connections with everybody by using everything we can online from Facebook to Zoom,” Bellows said. “I’m reminding people that they are not alone. They feel like they’re alone physically, but they are not alone spiritually. They are connected, and thank God, by technology. We can talk on the phone, see each other’s faces on the computer and we are able to be a part of each other’s lives in a close and meaningful well.”
Scaling down services
But some traditions can’t be moved easily online.
According to Elliott, at present, confession is still offered in all catholic parishes in the Hartford Archdiocese.
“We are holding steady on confession for now,” he said. “We are not trying to deprive people of their sacraments.”
For other sacraments, including weddings, funerals and baptisms, the church has decided to follow CDC recommendations.
“If you’re fine having a wedding limited to 10 people then by all means have at it,” Elliott said. “We would anticipate that all weddings will be canceled by the couple.”
Funerals, that can’t wait, are more of a challenge.
“All funeral masses are also suspended and wakes at funeral homes should not take place,” Elliott said. “We are allowing priests to celebrate the rite of committal with final commendation at the graveside with participation limited to immediate friends and close family. A mass can be held at a later date if the family desires.”
It is much the same for bar and bat mitzvahs and shivas in the Jewish community.
“Some families choose to hold very, very small services and invite families to watch online, but most choose to move them,” Bellows said. “One of the hardest things right now is funerals. We want to be surrounded by people during our grief, but can’t now, so you’re not going to have a shiva.”
Lamont offers aid
It’s not just the continuation of spiritual life and practice that is concerning to religious leaders, it’s also matter of economic viability for some congregations.
“These organizations that depend on philanthropy are in trouble,” Drummond said. “Philanthropy changes during economic hardships, so anxieties are really on a lot of different levels.”
On Wednesday, Governor Ned Lamont held a conference call for all Connecticut Clergy to discuss an aid package for churches that are financially struggling. The call was filled to capacity.
On a parish level, Schell said, she is encouraging her parishioners to send donations electronically.
For the most up-to-date information on religious services, check your congregation or diocese website.