For thousands of Albertans, Christmas and their faith are synonymous. Normally, this is the busiest time of year for churches but because of the pandemic, religious groups are having to make changes to the way Christmas is celebrated.
In Sherwood Park, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish is a very big church, hosting about 1,200 people each mass on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Under the current COVID-19 guidelines, only 15 per cent of that capacity is allowed to gather in person this year.
“There’s going to be a whole lot less people coming to mass,” explained Father Jim Corrigan.
To try and prevent disappointment, spots need to be reserved in advance.
“It would be a horrendous thing for you to bundle up the family and — maybe this is the one attendance at mass in a year — to come to the church and find out you don’t get to come in,” he said.
“We’re trying to avoid that at all costs.”
Even though OLPH hosts multiple masses, already, most of the spots have been claimed by people eager to take part in an in-person service.
But reduced numbers aren’t the only change parishioners should expect, especially for those who haven’t been to a mass since the pandemic started.
“You come in, make sure you have a mask on. You sanitize, you’re asked the screening questions. Your phone number and name is confirmed further down the line. Ushers escort you to the seating that’s assigned for social distance,” Corrigan said.
The sounds that are synonymous with Christmas in a Catholic church will also be muted.
“We’re not going to be singing any hymns, any Joy to the World type stuff, and to me, that’s Christmas,” he added.
Because of all the changes, Corrigan and many other local religious leaders are urging people to take part in virtual services.
“We’re encouraging people to stay home,” he said.
OLPH has been trying to get the word out about the unique aspects of this Christmas’ mass, through its website and an advertisement in the newspaper.
Similarly, McKernan Baptist Church dropped leaflets in mailboxes around its church and used its sign board to lay out people’s options for this year.
Normally, McKernan would host 800 worshippers between two masses on Christmas Eve. That won’t happen this year because of the pandemic.
Team Lead Pastor Dan Schroth said his church is also concerned about demand and hopes people will sign up online or by phone to avoid being disappointed.
“The sanctuary is already full, but we do have other rooms in the building that still have some room. People have to register to be able to attend the services,” he said.
“When we’re full, we’re full.”
McKernan will also follow strict safety protocols.
“There is no singing inside the building, other than the worship leaders at the front and they’re shielded with plexiglass between them and the congregation. And of course the symptoms check on the way in and sanitizing hands, trying to keep distance between one another.”
And for those more comfortable within the safety of their own home, Schroth said services will be available online.
He said churches of all types are still available for support and urged people to reach out.
“Even if their local church isn’t having an online service available, they may be able help people maybe just have a listening ear.
“I would encourage people to call the church down the street and they might be able to have some support for them. I know everyone is really motivated to help one another out.”
Mill Woods United Church took a different approach for the holiday services, cancelling all in-person activities, including one that was designed with COVID-19 in mind.
“We were going to offer an in-person gathering outdoors on Thursday night at 4:30, but we’ve decided to postpone that until 2021,” explained Rev. Ian Kellogg.
Under the current restrictions, Mill Woods United could host an in-person service with up to 42 people, but Kellogg chose to err on the side of caution, going with live-streaming only.
“Many of the people in our community wouldn’t have come even if we had opened the doors,” he explained.
“We just thought it would be the prudent thing and the wise thing to continue to live-stream only.”
Kellogg said the doors to the church will be closed on Christmas Eve.
“It means we encourage people to gather on their phones, tablets or computers on Christmas Eve and sing Silent Night and light a candle with the rest of us.”
He said his community understood the decision.
“It’s been very well received. I mean, it is not the same.
“There’s a spirit that’s generated when we gather together in person that you can’t really replicate on the internet or through video recordings.”
Still, Kellogg is hopeful churches and faith will be able to provide a light in a year that’s been cast in darkness.
All three of the faith leaders are optimistic their messaging will still reach its audience.
“We are blessed. No matter what you might be thinking, we have our families,” Corrigan said.
They hope the virtual options make religious services even more accessible to the public.
“This may be a golden opportunity for us to really consider what is of most value in our lives, and the ways we can contribute to the lives of others,” Schroth explained.
© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
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