The Rev. Ian LaFleur wasn’t sure what to expect when St. Cuthbert, Leaside opened for worship on Sept. 13 after being closed for almost six months. But as parishioners trickled into the nave, he saw something he would always remember.
“I saw deep and profound reverence,” he says. “People would come into the sanctuary and just kneel and pray. And they would be on their knees for a long time. With physical distancing, the usual Sunday morning buzz wasn’t there, but I sensed just how grateful people were to be back.”
That scene was played out in churches across the diocese on Sept. 13, the first day they were allowed to open for in-person worship since being closed in March due to COVID-19.
Clergy in all four episcopal areas say there was a good turnout for worship services on the opening day. Churches that opened had to follow strict protocols that included physical distancing, the wearing of masks and limiting attendance in their buildings to 30 per cent capacity.
Many clergy said attendance was better than expected and parishioners were grateful to be back in their churches.
At St. Cuthbert’s, almost everyone who pre-registered for the Sunday morning service showed up. There were 33 people in the church, most of them worshipping in the nave while a smaller group followed along via a TV screen in the parish hall. The church also livestreamed its service for those at home.
At its Wednesday service, seven people attended – about the same number as in pre-COVID-19 days – and another seven watched from home. “People were so grateful,” says Mr. LaFleur, reflecting on the services. “It’s hard to put into words. And there was a sense of humility. People told me that they did not realize how much being in church and participating in the Eucharist meant to them until this period of shutdown when it was unavailable to them.”
The Rev. Canon Geoffrey Sangwine says there was a similar experience at St. Peter and St. Simon, Bloor Street, where about 45 people attended on the opening day.
“People came in and they wanted to speak to each other,” he says. “They said, it’s a relief and a gift to be back in our church building together. There was a deep sense of prayer and gratitude that we’re able to come back.”
Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, he is optimistic about the future. “Although we’re all still walking in the dark, a new journey has begun. The Church hasn’t packed up. I know at the beginning of COVID-19, there was a lot of fear around what would happen with the churches, but in some ways I think the whole situation has strengthened our faith and galvanized us to see what is crucial and important, and to be grateful for the gift that we have in the Church.”
Like many churches, St. Peter and St. Simon has been providing online worship for the past six months, something it plans to keep doing.
“I think it’s crucial for our Church to do it,” says Canon Sangwine. “There are some real benefits to it. We’re able to reach people we may not otherwise reach. We’ve had people who aren’t parishioners tuning into our services and they’ve been grateful for that. I think it’s our reality going forward and we need to embrace it.”
He hopes the diocese will help clergy and parishes adapt to this new way of doing worship, either through training or providing funds for equipment. “We need to see this as a new ministry of the Church and we need to make sure that we’ve got the people to do this,” he says.
At St. Aidan, Toronto, Sept. 13 was an auspicious day for two reasons. The church not only held its first in-person worship service since March, but it turned the sod on a massive renovation project.
The church was closed for renovations, so it held its two services on Sept. 13 in the former parish hall, which is now a school. About 80 people attended the services.
The Rev. Canon Lucy Reid, incumbent, says she had mixed feelings on the day. “I had pictured back in March that when we opened again it would be fantastic and I would be at the church door hugging people. But we can’t do that anymore, so it was very strange. We were also in our former hall and not in the church, so there was a lot of emotion about that as well. But I think there was genuine joy at being with one another. A few people said that even though we’re not back in the church, it’s so good to be together. At least we can see each other in the flesh, even though we are a couple of metres apart from each other.”
After the services, members of the church’s renovation steering committee joined Bishop Andrew Asbil out on the church lawn for the official sod-turning ceremony. The renovation of the church is expected to take a year to complete. In addition to a complete overhaul of its heating, lighting, electrical and sanitary systems, the renovation will include a new entranceway on to Queen Street East, providing greater access for the community, and an elevator for accessibility.
Canon Reid says the steering committee kept the plans on track despite COVID-19. “They’re an amazing team. We have people with all the right skill sets. We’re very fortunate. You have to keep pushing a project like this forward, and they’ve done it. It’s remarkable.”
All three clergy thanked the diocese for providing vital assistance and information to parishes throughout the COVID-19 shutdown. They said the diocese’s guidelines were essential to reopening in a safe manner.
“We really benefitted from the diligence that the Synod office did, first of all in drawing us into the sense of seriousness associated with the reopening, and also in developing the checklist and protocols,” says Mr. LaFleur.
Canon Sangwine echoed his comments. “Part of the success of opening for us and other churches has been the support offered through Q&As, ongoing financial support, and Bishop Andrew’s pastoral letters. On behalf of our parish, I want to thank the diocese for that support.”