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Traditionally, in the Christian faith, Easter is observed as a service to celebrate the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Congregations gather to sing, eat, and worship. In the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic, Churches in the Burlington area are looking to alternative methods to celebrate the holiday, and ways to continue services while social distancing.

The Cathedral Church of St. Paul is one of the largest church communities in Burlington, Vermont. Easter, especially at St. Paul’s, is a joyous celebration.

“We have this tradition where all the kids in the church who are in elementary school or younger, they make a really big sign with the word Hallelujah,” BHS senior and staff writer Sam Beste said. “On Easter Sunday they carry it out. It’s really sweet.”

The exterior of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Like many other churches in Vermont, leaders have turned to the internet to serve their congregations.

“We are now doing a service by Zoom,” Reverend Stannard Baker, Deacon of St. Paul’s Cathedral, said. “ Last week was myself, the priest, and the music director all doing the service. I think we had easily a hundred people attending.”

First Baptist Church in Burlington has also switched to online services.

“We have overnight become a technologically virtual community,” Minister Karen Mendes of First Baptist Church said. “I’ve been trying to keep this new format as familiar as possible. There is comfort in familiarity.”

Some churches are opting instead to send out a weekly message via email to members of the congregation.

“I continue to preach in an empty sanctuary and to pray in an empty sanctuary,” Pastor Rasmussen of Community Lutheran Church said. “I record these messages and send them to the members of Community Lutheran Church.”

So far, these methods have been working well.

“People feel like it’s wonderful to see us, and to have the familiar words of the service said, to hear the sermon, to sing a hymn,” Reverend Baker said.

This familiarity brings comfort.

“They’re trying to keep the community going,” Marti Churchill, member of St. Paul’s Cathedral, said.  “It’s nowhere near the same as being in the church, but knowing that we’re all together at the same time and hearing the same words, there is something really beautiful about that.”

Minister Mendes suggests that these online services can serve as a much-needed break from the chaos regarding the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Worship allows us to be reminded that there is more than just the virus,” Mendes said. “There are other things to think about. There are joys in the world. It’s helpful to have a moment  to step back from thinking about the virus all the time.”

However, online services do not fully fill the void of in-person worship. BHS sophomore Dylan Grimm attends First Unitarian Universalist Church in Burlington, Vermont.  

“Part of what a lot of people like about First Unitarian Universalist is that it’s a very safe space,” Grimm said. “It’s a safe community to be with other people. It’s different when there isn’t that physical aspect.”

The sanctuary of Community Lutheran Church is silent in the morning sun.
Photo: Community Lutheran Church

Pastor Rasmussen also expressed regret at not being able to visit the more vulnerable members of his church community.

“As a pastor, I visit,” Rasmussen said. “I visit those who are sick. I visit those who are suffering. But right now I am not allowed to enter nursing homes or care facilities. We are trying to keep in touch with our members as best we can.”

The Eucharist, the sharing of bread and wine (or wafers and grape juice) in memory of Jesus is central to Christian life.  It is especially moving at Easter.  

“I don’t want to minimize the loss of being able to be together,” Reverend Baker said. “We can’t come forward and receive the bread and the wine in a virtual setting.”

For older members of the community, this distance has been particularly difficult.

“I’m seventy-three years old,” Sarah Dopp of First Baptist Church said. “I’ve been going there since I was five.”

The absence of communion is hard for some to bear.

“When this isolation started, because of the COVID-19, I could deal with most everything except not being able to go to church,” Judith McManis of St. Paul’s Cathedral said. “It’s very, very important to me.”

“People are feeling isolated,” Reverend Baker said. “People who are older and were homebound anyway are feeling even more isolated. I think it’s always a loss to people who are used to coming together regularly face-to-face.”

Despite this physical isolation, church leaders and members are trying to aid others and maintain connectedness in a variety of ways.

“We have organized our congregation into geographical clusters so that they could be in contact with each other and support each other,” Minister Mendes said.

The Cathedral of St. Paul takes a different approach.

“We call everyone in our congregation once a week to see how they’re doing,” Reverend Baker said. “We have organized a discretionary fund so that we can get money to people who need money.”

As attention shifts towards the events of Holy Week, many are saddened by the changes that will occur.

Easter Service Free Stock Photo - Public Domain Pictures
Large groups of people typically gather for Easter services.
Photo: Public Domain Pictures

“I’m very involved in everything because it’s very meaningful to me,” McManis said. “To not be involved in that, it’s going to be a tough week.”

BHS senior Ruby Bratcher attends St. Mark’s Catholic Church, where Easter is enormously important.

“It’s sad because, in the Catholic faith, Easter is the most important day,” BHS senior Ruby Bratcher said. “It’s sad that we can’t all celebrate together.”

However, people stay optimistic and faithful despite the circumstances.

“When you can’t do the rituals you make up new ones,” McManis said. “That helps you observe what’s important to you.”

Still, some traditions, like dressing for service or the Easter ham for dinner, may remain. 

“For Easter Sunday, we will be attending,” Beste said. “My mom wants us to dress up for the zoom call.”

Some traditions can be altered.

“I did buy a piece of ham, some pineapples, and sweet potatoes and things,” Dopp said. “I’m going to prepare an Easter dinner of sorts and take it to my two friends, just deliver it to them.”

Perhaps the time of separation will renew these congregations.  

“Once we’re past the virus, whenever that’s going to be, I think there will be some good that comes out of it,” Mendes said. “I think the bonds between us will be stronger, because of what we’ve all gone through together.”

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