Nfld. & Labrador

Keeping the faithful: Technology has become pivotal for religious groups during COVID-19

Church buildings are locked and even small gatherings are prohibited — but religious leaders say faith is as important as ever, so they're moving online.

Online mass, service, seders a new reality in N.L.

Bishop Anthony Daniels celebrates the Holy Saturday Easter vigil in a service broadcast on Facebook from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Grand Falls-Windsor. (Diocese of Grand Falls)

In his decades of celebrating services, Bishop Anthony Daniels had never felt anything quite like this. 

The Good Friday service hadn't changed — the readings were the same, of course, and so were the prayers and responses. It was still at 3 p.m, and he was still at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church in central Newfoundland.

But as the bishop looked around during his homily, he saw mostly nothing. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the room was practically empty; everyone else was at home.

"I've been a priest for more than 35 years, and this is the first time that I've celebrated mass in virtually an empty church," he said.

There was still a few voices to respond to his prayers: Some members of the church were inside to sing and lead the readings. But the instant feedback the bishop was accustomed to received just wasn't there.

"There's an interaction that happens between the people and the priest," he said. 

"I think one of the places where that shows itself most is perhaps the homily, where we're speaking to the people, and oftentimes we can see by their expressions if our points are being made. Over the camera, it's just not like that."

Maj. Darlene Burt has been working with the Salvation Army in Lewisporte since July. (Submitted by Darlene Burt)

Instead of filling the pews for one of the most important services in the faith, hundreds of people were watching at home, as the service was streamed live on Facebook.

'It will be God working'

It was a new initiative for the diocese of Grand Falls, which set up a new Facebook page for the service. Daniels said the church has been doing everything it can to keep in touch with its community, despite having had to close the buildings in March.

Daniels called that one of the hardest decision's he's ever had to make.

"I knew that, for many people, I was cutting them off from a very important spiritual support. A place of peace and solace. So yes, having made those decisions, I think it is important that we do all that we can to reach out to our people, in whatever way is still available for us," he said.  

"And I have great confidence that if we do our part, God will do God's part … it won't be the same, but it will be God working."

Church services across the province are moving online, as the necessities of physical distancing and provincial government orders force the closures of church buildings — and prohibit big congregations.

'They need to see that familiar face'

Some groups — like the Evangel Pentecostal church in Gander — have been producing online content for months. But for others, it's a whole new frontier.

In Lewisporte, Salvation Army Maj. Darlene Burt has been broadcasting every few days from her living room, and she says she's just starting to get used to her new reality.

"I'm probably one of the last people that would want to be online, but a wise person said to me, they said, 'Darlene, during this time, people need to see their own pastor,'" she said. "They need to see that familiar face." 

Besides a few people who were reading, singing or helping celebrate the mass, the services at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception have been empty. It's a new experience for Daniels. (Diocese of Grand Falls)

Her broadcasts are getting more and more complex, as she's inviting music and reading submissions from the community to be put into the videos.

She had been getting help from friends, but is trying to take over more and more of the editing and production herself, to get ready for what could be a long haul.

"Every week, hopefully it will get a little better." 

Keeping the faith

Burt said preparing and keeping the regular services — even if they have been moved online — has been empowering, in a time where other things are being taken away.

"It's motivating, in a way, because you are still preparing for your people on a Sunday," she said.

As part of her online services, Burt has been soliciting submissions from the community and inserting them into the videos. (The Salvation Army Lewisporte Corps/Facebook)

Daniels said he is still finding himself preparing for his homilies in a regular fashion, too. He has been celebrating online since April 1.

He's seen a lot of thank-you notes and comments. 

Normally you would reach out and touch them.- Maj. Darlene Burt

"So many notes of thanks and gratitude, and then there are also notes really indicating that they have been able to enter into the celebration, into the spirit of it," he said. "Even though they are alone, they have felt very much the presence of God and the presence of the community around them."

But there are also challenges, too. Burt said she was pained having to perform a burial service, and not being able to comfort a grieving widow in person. 

"Normally you would reach out and touch them. You know, with a hug or, you know a pat on the hand or whatever? But with the social distancing it felt very cold," she said. "So, you know, I said to the lady in apologizing for feeling the way I was and the way they were, that, you know, when this is over we'll get together and talk." 

Daniels said the diocese will still offer confessions and other sacraments for people who desperately need them — taking necessary precautions — but for the time being, it isn't going to take any steps to encourage people to gather in a church.

In a troubling time, Daniels said he wants to reassure his community that God is not harming people by creating the pandemic — that is a natural phenomenon, he said. Daniels said God can be seen among the people, helping those who need help.

"He is in the midst of it bringing comfort and strength and a sense of peace," he said.

A different Seder 

Saturday marked the last day of Passover, which is celebrated with feasts — Seders — for the Jewish community around the world.

This year, Havura, a Jewish community group in St. John's, celebrated virtually, through the Zoom videoconferencing app.

"Passover, as you probably know, revolves around 10 plagues and the first thing that people say is this is the 11th one," Steven Wolinetz, the past president of the group, said with a smile.

As the Jewish community in St. John's is small — mostly what the wind or the university blew in, Wolinetz said — Seders have become a priority for the group, to make sure everyone has a feast to attend.

Matzah is a flatbread that is a staple of Passover Seders. In a virtual Seder, everyone is at home — so everyone has to prepare their own meals. Havura organized a bulk purchase order for people who needed to buy. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

This year, Wolinetz's holiday was a bit different: Because most everyone around world has a lot of time on their hands, he was able to organize another virtual Seder with his family, spread across North America. It was feasts on back-to-back nights, all while staying at home.

It was the first time he celebrated with his family in a while. And the feeling of the nights was different, too.

"There's always the thought, 'Next year in Jerusalem!," Wolinetz explained. "This year, maybe, 'Next year free to actually move about without thinking you're going to cause immediate death in your environment.'" 

He added, "So tasting freedom in different ways."

Other celebrations have moved online too, like the biweekly Shabbat services.

For Wolinetz, it's not the faith and religion that is guiding him through, but the community and connection with other people. That connection and contact helps reintroduce variety into this strange new world.

"Hey, we did it, Hey, we're not just in this strange bubble where every day is like every other day," he said.

Steven Wolinetz is the past president of Havura, a Jewish community group in St. John's. (Courtesy Steven Wolinetz)

While the services in the Catholic and Salvation Army churches are different, feelings of connection and community remain the high priority.

The online services are a useful tool, but Daniels said he is looking forward to the day where the church doors themselves will swing open again.

"We will get through this. We will come back together as communities of faith, and perhaps we will be more joyful than ever," said Daniels.  

"We will by this absence have discovered what we have perhaps been taking a little bit too much for granted, and that is the strength of our communities, especially our faith communities."

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Garrett Barry


Garrett Barry is a CBC reporter based in Gander.