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Church and coronavirus

Coping with COVID-19

Photo by Kim Fundingsland/MDN St. Leo the Great Catholic Church is among many in Minot having to adjust to meet the needs of parishioners during the coronavirus pandemic. Kim Fundingsland/MDN

Who knew it would last this long? Not even churches and their congregations were spared from the precautions brought on by the lengthy and ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“We started this journey in the season of Lent last year. We weren’t able to gather for Easter,” said Pastor Desiree Uhrich, Christ Lutheran Church, Minot. “It’s been a year now. Seems impossible.”

For Easter 2021 members of Christ Lutheran Church were able to gather for a traditional Easter service.

“We approached the Easter season with hope of gathering and experiencing joy together,” said Uhrich. “The church never wasn’t alive and we’re seeing how important and resilient it is.”

Father Justin Waltz of St. Leo the Great Catholic Church of Minot credits the area bishop with doing an “outstanding job of navigating through” the coronavirus pandemic, particularly during the early phases of the pandemic when there was considerable uncertainty about coronavirus. He also recalls closing church doors during Holy Week and Easter of 2020.

“Everything was virtual with no one there. It was the first time in my life,” said Waltz. “It was the first time in the history of the Catholic Church where no mass was offered anywhere on Earth.”

Waltz said he’s had virtual messages go viral and has received emails from throughout the world.

“In Ireland and England those people were still locked down and expressed extreme frustration,” said Waltz. “I think North Dakota is kind of like a bubble compared to the rest of the world. It’s kind of a phenomenon. I have friends in Italy on lockdown.”

Throughout the pandemic churches turned to live-streaming of services in place of regular services, a necessary precaution to prevent possible exposure to COVID-19.

“We are working our way to the new norm,” said Pastor Janet Mathistad, Bethany Lutheran Church, Minot. “At the height of things we encouraged people to not come, to stay at home and watch online. I am glad at the beginning we didn’t know how long this was going to be.”

Mathistad called cooperation from the Bethany congregation a blessing, noting that Easter services a year ago were live-streamed as well as Christmas services. By the middle of June Bethany’s church doors were opened again, but with the precautions of wearing protective masks and practicing social distancing.

“Masks are a tool that we have and we use things that we know are effective,” said Mathistad. “People are cooperative with the mask requirement and that is still part of our protocol.”

“A lot of people are not yet comfortable but still feel connected,” remarked Uhrich. “We’re still requiring masks at church. Everybody recognizes to wear them for ourselves and each other.”

There’s other notable changes too, such as seating in every other pew. At Bethany, even though a new air exchange unit has been installed, different areas are used to accommodate multiple services in a single day. Both pastors note they are slowly easing into previous congregational practices and in-person participation is on the increase as more and more church members become vaccinated against COVID-19.

“They’ll be back when vaccinated. They’re so joyful,” said Uhrich. “I had an older gentleman a couple of weeks ago at church for the first time since this all began. It’s been heartbreaking to see people like that isolated. They want to go to church.”

Father Waltz noted St. Leo’s has opened its door again and the response has been overwhelming.

“My church is packed full for all of the Sunday masses, even daily masses,” remarked Waltz. “These are free, adult Americans who can make their own informed choice as to what’s best for them and their families. They are choosing to come.”

What changes due to the pandemic will become permanent for worshipers and what changes will fade away is not yet known, but all three pastors shared some personal insight.

“It’s been a great lesson in patience,” remarked Uhrich. “I do believe we’ll continue to improve our digital church. It’s a doorway that we can reach people maybe we didn’t reach before. I think that will stay.”

“It’s hard to know, but online will always be here from now on out,” agreed Mathistad. “People have gotten comfortable watching worship online. On the other hand there’s a greater appreciation for when we are together again. With the vaccine our numbers are coming back.”

“We encourage hand sanitizing and have that readily available at all of our doors,” said Waltz. “I don’t think COVID has had a lasting effect here but it is having a tremendously lasting negative effect throughout the globe.”

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