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Boston churches partially reopen for second Easter in the shadow of COVID-19

Boston’s churches celebrated Easter for the second time during the COVID-19 pandemic Sunday, with some churches moving toward in-person services as more people are vaccinated and the weather warms.

old north church in boston
Old North Church. Some Boston churches held modified, in-person Easter services Sunday, while others offered remote ceremonies. COURTESY OF ADAVYD VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Boston’s historic Old North Church held a 9 a.m. in-person, outdoor Easter service for 25 pre-registered parishioners, said Matthew Cadwell, vicar-in-charge. The main 10:30 a.m. service was pre-recorded and streamed on the church’s YouTube channel.

“We felt like it had been such a long time since people had seen each other and that Easter is the most important celebration in the church year,” Cadwell said. “It seemed like it might be a doable thing.”

Cadwell said the church stayed remote for most of the pandemic, then opened briefly for outdoor and some indoor services last fall before returning to remote programming in December. 

“You miss the vibrancy of community life, you miss the opportunity to sing and to have live music,” Cadwell said. “We encourage people to sing along at home, but it’s not the same, obviously, as doing it in the church.”

The 9 a.m. Easter service marks the beginning of the Old North Church’s return to in-person events, though with reduced attendance. Cadwell said in years past, the church saw hundreds of parishoners join its Easter services.

Cadwell said the church took COVID-19 safety precautions this year, including capping the number of in-person attendees at 25, not offering wine during communion and requiring masks and social distancing.

Cadwell added that as an Episcopal church, Old North Church must abide by the COVID-19  rules outlined by the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts’ bishop’s office, which Cadwell said can be even more cautious than the state government’s at times.

“Even once the state had allowed people to come together, be together, in church,” Cadwell said, “the Diocese still told us we weren’t permitted to do that.”

Cadwell said each Massachusetts Episcopal church that wanted to do in-person services had to be fully reviewed by the bishop’s office. Old North Church went through that process when it initially re-opened last fall.

“They’ve figured out how to do this, they’re not doing this for the first time,” said Paul Beninger, an associate professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University.

Beninger added that the COVID-19 risks of in-person church services are similar to that of restaurants, but churches are generally well-ventilated and further benefit from their high ceilings.

For churches that are just starting to return to in-person services, Beninger said he recommended connecting with those that already have experience.

“They don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Beninger said. “There’s no reason for them to try and figure out how to do this all by themselves, there are plenty of churches out there that are actually very active.”

However, Beninger said the safest way to have in-person events, especially those involving eating, is to have people vaccinated.

“I think that the rabbis and the ministers, the priests, they should all be talking up vaccinations because I think that that level of encouragement is really key,” Beninger said. “They’re trusted individuals, so they’re people who can help address the vaccine hesitancy that’s out there.”

The Old North Church itself was a vaccination site from February until Tuesday. Cadwell said some days, the church would vaccinate as many as 90 people.

But not all Boston churches are taking Easter as an opportunity to return to in-person services.

“Our members are patient,” said Nancy Taylor, senior minister at Old South Church. “They want to see more vaccinations before we return in person, and the numbers aren’t going quite in the right direction as much as we’d like in Massachusetts.”

Sunday marked the second remote Easter for the Old South Church. Unlike in previous years, it offered just one Sunday service and was pre-recorded and live streamed, Taylor said.

“It’s challenging,” Taylor said. “None of us were trained for this.”

Currently, all regular Old South Church services are held remotely, and Taylor said the remote services have improved in the past year.

“When we look back at them, we wince,” Taylor said. “It was pretty rough.”

It took some time for the church to adjust to remote programming, but Taylor said the congregation still found the services — newly beamed into living rooms and kitchens — “meaningful.”

“Our services are better than last year because we’ve learned a lot,” Taylor added. “We now all have tripods and microphones and light rings, and are better editors than we used to be.”

Taylor said Old South Church hopes to do a soft opening during the summer and then fully re-open after Labor Day.

Taylor said Old South Church is increasing its one-off, in-person events — including folding paper cranes — that are socially distanced.

“We decided because this has been such a painful year,” Taylor said, “we invited members of our congregation to fold paper cranes as signs of hope and new life.”

Taylor said the church was aiming for around 500 paper cranes and ended up with “well over 2,000.”

“This past year, with a virus of biblical proportions, as our country is facing a reckoning on race,” Taylor said, “there is actually some hope in this.”

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