Edmonton faith leaders ready to celebrate Christmas virtually

Today is one of the busiest days of the year for churches as many get ready to celebrate Christmas. But this year, many will have to do so at home.

'We'd all love to go to an in-person service but it's not practical'

Many churches, including St. Joseph's Basilica which is pictured here, will be doing online services for Christmas eve. (Supplied by Lincoln Ho)

Today is one of the busiest days of the year for churches, but this year, many people won't be able to attend services in-person because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some Edmonton churches will allow a limited number of people inside while others are opting to do everything virtual. 

"This year for Christmas Eve, everything is online. We're not doing any in-person services," said Dennis Varty, lead pastor at Celebration Church on 75th Street and Argyll Road.

"Of course we'd all love to go to an in-person service but it's not practical, so virtual is really the only way to go." 

Provincial health orders limit the number of people allowed in a place of worship to 15 per cent of fire code occupancy. 

Physical distancing between households must be maintained and masks are mandatory for faith gatherings.

Many of the holiday traditions, like choirs and live music, are still allowed inside places of worship. 

In some cases, churches have been hosting online services for months, allowing hundreds of people to tune into their Sunday services via social media.

Many faith leaders are expecting just as many, if not more, tune in for Christmas Eve services.

Adapted services

With limited capacity for in-person services, Father Mark Blom with Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton is already thinking about how to accommodate those who may not be aware of the health restrictions.

"One of the challenges is when people don't come regularly or they don't watch on the broadcast, they're not sure and they just show up at the door," Blom said. "We've had to be more firm, especially in the last two or three weeks since the new regulations came."

Many churches in the province have been broadcasting their services online during the pandemic. (Axel Tardieu/Radio Canada)

The church encourages people to watch the online broadcast in their cars. Communion can even be brought out to the vehicle on request, he said.

"We're trying as best as we can to help everybody participate and not feel shunned or left out because they didn't know they were supposed to do this." 

Faith leaders say most people in the province have been understanding of this trying time and the reduced in-person service.

Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday that "the large majority of faith communities regularly respect the public health orders."

"The golden rule of all religions and spiritual traditions is to take care of others, and I hope all of the faith communities do that this Christmas," Kenney said in French at a COVID-19 news conference. 

His response followed news about a pastor at an Edmonton-area church who was handed a $1,200 ticket Sunday for contravening the orders of Alberta's chief medical officer of health.

AHS officials had issued an order to GraceLife Church and Pastor James Coates, directing them to immediately begin complying with COVID-19 restrictions.

According to the order, some staff, volunteers and attendees at the Parkland County church were unmasked, and people were socializing and not distancing in the lobby.

Messages of hope

Faith leaders say it's been important for many to stay connected to their faith during the pandemic. 

Many say this year's service will address the tough year 2020 has been.

"I think the message is there's still hope. Although everything has changed in 2020, just to realize that we're not done here," Varty said.

"This is a very small chapter in the book that is your life."