Few aspects of life have been left untouched by the global COVID-19 pandemic. How people worship has been no different.
In Ontario, all churches have been closed for group worship, and social gatherings over five people anywhere in the province are against the law. But that hasn't stopped local congregations from staying connected.
A growing number of local churches have embraced technology, as a way to stay connected with parishioners, including Facebook livestreams, Youtube postings and Zoom.
“The response has been incredible. Very positive," said Diane Clifford, minister for the Church of the Holy Spirit. "I'm excited that we can reach out in different ways.”
Clifford has been livestreaming meditations and services over Facebook for her congregation, and is looking into Zoom for board meetings, with the possibility of expanding it to study groups, like she's seen in other congregations.
She's found the technology has allowed the church's message to reach more people than a physical service. People unable to attend, due to disability, age, illness or life circumstances are able to participate in the service, and new people have also appeared.
“I think there are people out there searching. Maybe in isolation, they're realizing that materialism isn't fulfilling them,” she said.
She has also found a shift of attitude within her own congregation. Although they're happy for the chance to stay connected through the service, they've developed a deeper compassion and caring for each other, and have taken it upon themselves to reach out to each other.
“I think all this isolation has made us more aware of other people's circumstances. There are people who live with this isolations all the time," she said. "Now people are reaching out to each other. Checking in. Making sure they're alright.”
“There's a silver lining," she added. "We can't change it, but how do we make the best of it.”
Although she misses her congregation, and the busyness and noise and interaction of a church community, she's looking forward to incorporating technology into her church for the long-term, even after regular services resume.
For Frances Flook, minister for the Knox United Church of Emo and Stratton, technology has been a mainstay of the church for the past three years. So when physical services were closed, it wasn't hard to adapt. To serve the three churches she ministers to, she recorded services to be played in her absence, while she ministered in person on rotation through the three sites. She's been able to continue, but posts the video sermons online for all to see. She's been able to add music as well, thanks to a temporary lifting of copyright on songs her congregation enjoys.
She's found the response to be amazing, and enjoys watching how far her message has spread.
“We have a very small congregation, but I'll check and we'll have 225 views. That's about eight times what we usually get in a service,” she said.
Once church services resume, she's hoping to continue incorporating technology, to serve that larger audience.
“Some people aren't necessarily going to go to church on a Sunday, and it's not that they aren't interested,” she said. Those who are elderly or sick would benefit from more online services. But she feels young families, with busy schedules, might also find value in connecting online.
“People are very busy, and Sunday is often a day to get stuff done,” she said.
Although Flook is comfortable with online services, she's looking forward to getting her congregation back together. Until the church reopens, she's staying connected to her congregation through phone calls and texts.
“I miss seeing faces. I miss the community aspect of it. That's part of the experience," she said. "This isn't ideal, but at least it's something.”
Schalk Naude, minister of Knox United in Fort Frances is a newcomer to technology. He's been making and posting videos on Youtube since churches closed. He also sends his sermons out by e-mail and hardcopy for those who don't have access to the video. He's also been busy on the phone, to stay connected to his elderly congregation members.
He tries to keep his videos short, and has been pleased with the positive feedback so far.
He's been embracing the down time and quiet introspection that COVID-19 has brought.
“It's really a blessing. A time for silent meditation and reading," he said. "I think Mother Nature has asked us to be calmer. To be human,” he said.
This Easter is bittersweet for Catholic Priest Bigu Mathew. This is his first Holy Week at the priest to St. Mary parish, having just taken the post at the end of December.
“It's a sad time,” he said. But he reassures his congregation that he continues serving on their behalf. He has been posting Mass on Youtube for his congregation, and although the seats are empty, he knows they are attending in spirit, allowing them full grace during this difficult time.
“Their Priest will be offering Mass and praying for them and they will be there spiritually," he said. "This is an occasion for us to go back into ourselves and be closer to God.”
Holy week is the most important week in the Christian calendar, and celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many local churches have online services throughout the week, including Maundy Thursday, Good Friday,and Easter Sunday. Most churches are checking phone messages and e-mail regularly. If you're interested in a church's online accommodations, call them, or send an E-mail of Facebook message.