Many return to services on Easter, Passover weekend as COVID reshapes worship


The Rev. Dr. John A. Califano, left, pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Amsterdam, watches as Deacon Bonnie Olendorf lights candles at the Easter Service at the Grace Lutheran Church in Johnstown on Easter Sunday.

FULTON COUNTY – The Grace Lutheran Church community in Johnstown was back together for its Easter brunch Sunday morning for the first time since 2019. There wasn’t sunrise service beforehand — like three years ago — but they gathered for worship just after the meal, all together again.

It warmed church secretary and deacon Bonnie Olendorf’s heart, “like you wouldn’t believe,” to be back together after two consecutive Easter seasons greatly impacted by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Christian and Jewish communities were both just weeks from one of their most important holidays — Easter and Passover, respectively — when the spread of COVID-19 closed houses of worship in March 2020. Churches and synagogues had to adapt quickly and move services online, in most cases to Facebook Live or YouTube. Virtual or hybrid services with the option of tuning in from home continued last spring after a COVID surge throughout the winter.

Melissa Bedell said it was a little nerve wracking being closer together Sunday, but she described the Grace Lutheran congregation as a family. She said they joke that, “Lutherans love to eat,” so meals like the Easter brunch are everything to them. The time with community eating and praising is what brings them together.

Bedell, currently a deacon herself, but nearing the end of the candidacy process to become a Lutheran minister, was set to preach on the Sunday the church closed. She recalled delivering her sermon online and it being different but that the experience of being online taught the congregation a lot.

“It taught us how we can still be together on the internet,” she said. “We just had to learn all this stuff … But, to be together, especially on Easter, is everything, absolutely everything.”

The congregation at Knesseth Israel Synagogue, based in Gloversville, learned the same lessons in 2020. However, their Fulton County community continues to gather solely online each week because of poor ventilation in the synagogue and a membership with a median age over 70, according to Debbie Finkle. That being said, the creation of their “Zoommunity,” as lay leader Suzanne Schermerhorn calls it, has brought back the annual celebration of a community Seder prayer service during Passover for the first time in over 10 years, according to Finkle, who has worked at Knesseth Israel for 40 years.

Schermerhorn loves Zoom and all the platform allows them to do, and it particularly adds possibility during Passover. She said the small size and age of their community, and the need to cook everything in the kosher kitchen at the synagogue has made it difficult to have community Seders in the past but they can do it over Zoom, and the tradition will remain going forward.

“You are commanded to invite people to the Seder, to make room for the stranger, and other people that you know,” Schermerhorn said. “It’s a very welcoming thing.”

It has allowed them to welcome those who may be homebound or feel uneasy about traveling at night, and it has also allowed for friends, family, and former members who have moved away to join the Seder and weekly services. Schermerhorn said the April 2020 Seder service had 35 Zoom windows of people join.

St. John’s Episcopal Church in Johnstown saw a similar uptick in congregants joining services online when COVID came. The church was already livestreaming, but made the transition to Facebook Live. Thirty or 40 people joined Easter service on Facebook, according to Rev. Laurie Garramone, but she was also amazed by the number of people in person.

She said it was the most people they had at a service since the pandemic began two years ago.

“There really was a general atmosphere of surpassing joy and celebration,” Garramone said. “I mean, there were babies, and there were children, and we had an egg hunt, and people were socializing. It really was the first time that we have had some of these activities, since we shut down from the pandemic.”

Garramone, the church’s rector, said roughly 85 people attended Sunday morning in a church which holds 200, and she was glad it wasn’t packed. It felt safer that way. St. John’s returned to in-person worship in May 2020 but Garramone continues to focus on modeling what she calls “conservatism” when it comes to protocols around the church. For one, she has not reinstituted receiving from the common cup during Holy Communion. Also, the church still provides masks at the doors, touch-free hand sanitizer, and gives away free COVID tests.

Another way the rector has recently tried to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome is by testing herself for COVID daily since returning April 12 from serving nearly two weeks at the Poland-Ukraine border. Her time in Przemsyl, Poland, on the frontlines of the Ukraine conflict, another matter weighing heavily on so many faithful gathered this weekend, greatly influenced her celebration of services. She said the woman who called her to come to Poland reminded her of how Jesus called Mary Magdalene in the Easter Gospel reading, and how she thinks God calls all by name to serve others.

“I had everybody take a moment,” Garramone said, this during her sermon. “And then we all had to say our own names out loud together to hear what that sounds like so that we know that God is capable of calling that very name in order to call us to service.”

Garramone wasn’t the only one with the people of Ukraine on her mind. Social justice was the theme of Schermerhorn’s Seder prayer service. Also, Heather King, who attended the 11:30 a.m. Mass at Church of the Holy Spirit in Gloversville mentioned how special it was to gather on Easter, “for those who can’t be here, like the Ukrainians, just to be able to come and sing and pray for them.”

A nearly full church was at Holy Spirit Sunday morning to sing and pray together. Father Matt Wetsel said that was the case at most Masses going back to the beginning of the Holy Triduum, which began on Thursday. Wetsel said there were probably twice as many people as last year.

Kathy Sponenberg played keyboard and organ at Sunday’s Mass, and just recalled recording Masses in the empty church before everyone could return. She said they have been back singing with the congregation for some time but this Sunday was enjoyable with live voices for the holiday.

“For Easter, it was beautiful,” she said. “It’s nice to have everybody, the music and a full church.”

Reach Andrew Pugliese at 518-915-0499 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ByPugs.

By Andrew Pugliese

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