SPRINGFIELD — Christ Church Cathedral, the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, will reopen for in-person services beginning Sunday, April 11, as well as continue to offer them remotely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are reserving 30 spots and then we’ll gradually increase from there,” said the Very Rev. Tom Callard, cathedral dean, of capacity at the 10 a.m. Sunday service in English that will launch the return to onsite worship. “I’ve had both vaccinations for more than a month and so have all of the other clergy on staff.”
Callard added that after months of remote only worship it “brings me all the happiness in the world to minister directly with people again, in their presence and in their midst.”
“I was not trained to be a camera technician or a Zoom expert,” Callard said.
“We have had to learn a lot in the last year, and I am happy to have new skills developed during COVID-19. But in my heart, I am a priest because I love God and I love interacting with people, and that’s so much harder to do on the phone, on Facebook, and by text. And I am also so happy that others are going to be returning to worshipping together in person.”
Callard said that it has “been hard to say, ‘No,’ to people who want to go to church.”
“It’s much more fun to say, ‘I hope to see you on Sunday,” he said.
He added that there are “people who are concerned about being in large gatherings.”
“I know people who have not been with anyone except their families since the pandemic began, and others who have not gone out except to the grocery store and gas station,” Callard said. “People may be apprehensive, which is fine and normal. We expect that it will take a while to return to ‘normal.’”
The cathedral transitioned to online services about a month before Easter last year as the World Health Organization declared the highly contagious novel coronavirus out of China a pandemic and the commonwealth issued public health emergency mandates to help reduce its spread here.
Capacity limitations closed many houses of worships temporarily last March. Many turned to remote services as well as outdoors services with some reopening several weeks later in May in accordance with the mandates.
Others have continued to hold online services only as the state moves through is final phase of allowing businesses and others to reopen and efforts accelerate to immunize Massachusetts residents against the respiratory virus that has killed more than one-half million Americans.
Parishes in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield have been holding in-person as well as virtual services for several months under capacity limits and infection control measures.
Some six clusters associated with 26 confirmed cases of COVID-19 were traced to houses of worship between Feb. 28 and March 27. The most clusters during that time period – 6,932 associated with 17,688 confirmed cases – were traced to households, according to current data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
The Right Rev. Douglas Fisher, bishop of the Episcopal diocese here, noted in a March 24 communication to clergy and staff in his diocesan churches that “there is reason to hope we can gather together indoors after Easter, in small groups and in some church contexts,” while adding he supports parishes that did not feel ready for this transition.
“I fully support those church leaders who cannot have indoor worship at this time,” Fisher said. “You know your context. Your church building might be too small to gather safely. Perhaps it does not have proper ventilation. Your community might be an ‘at risk’ population. Your priest might not yet be vaccinated. There might be anxiety about doing this now.”
He added, “Given these concerns, it is better for some of our congregations to wait.”
He also thanked his clergy for ministry through the pandemic that to date has killed 17,325 in the commonwealth and infected some 646,220, saying, “History will remember the lives you saved and the grace you conveyed.”
“Some church leaders have told me they will continue with outdoor worship or live streaming until the fall,” Fisher said. “That is a good and wise plan, too.”
Callard said the decision to reopen the cathedral for in-person worship was a collaborative, but “difficult” one with many people “calling for extreme caution at the same time.”
He said that caution was a factor in not reopening the cathedral for Easter as the feast day central to Christian faith in its celebration of the resurrected Christ draws large attendance.
“This decision to reopening to in-person worship was very emotional and it seems like few people were impartial about the decision,” Callard said. “That made it more difficult than most big decisions we have had. Everyone had a strong opinion one way or another.”
He said the decision was made by cathedral and diocesan leaders and that the “congregation seems generally to be in agreement.”
“There are some who we know will not come until things have settled down with the virus, and there are others who are waiting to be vaccinated,” Callard said. “But everyone seems generally happy to know that we’re opening to people again. They know other churches have been doing it, and they know how much people need it.”
He said a number of measures are in place to address potential community spread of the virus and comply with state regulations. These include the cleaning of services and wearing of masks.
“People need to stand and sit separated from each other, so we have lines on the floor indicating where to stand and line up, and pews are roped off so no one can sit in them,” Callard said.
“We are not using the chalice but only hosts for Holy Communion, and people are instructed in how to consume them carefully. And no congregational singing. That’s a hard one. People can hum, though.”
Callard said the cathedral will increase capacity, in accordance with state guidelines, “slowly as long as the COVID numbers allow us.”
“With increases we hope to be able to accommodate most, if not all the people who want to come to services,” Callard said. “We will also start with one service and then add another one earlier in the morning. Once we get going, every service will be held in person. And we will also continue to broadcast every service on Facebook Live and YouTube. We imagine we will continue broadcasting live from here on. That’s been one of the gifts of the COVID era.”
Callard said that since people “have not been worshipping in our building, people have been realizing that God can be found in more places than the pew where they always sit and the ritual which they pray on Sundays.”
“Humans tend to limit God, but once we find God outside of our little box, it can be transformative,” Callard said. “People have found God in their families, in nature, in compassion for those who are sick, in Zoom conversations, and in their hearts. I think more people have become contemplative mystics because COVID-19 has encouraged them to focus on the presence of God wherever they are.”