Most local Orthodox Christian churches will conduct live-streamed Easter services because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but St. Mary’s Albanian Orthodox Church in Worcester will not hold any services at all.
Normally, the Easter service at St. Mary’s draws about 1,000 people, some of whom can’t fit into the church and remain outside.
Archbishop Tikhon, the Metropolitan of All America and Canada, ruled that nearly all the churches in his three dioceses, including St. Mary’s, must close for the month of April because of the pandemic. Only two cathedrals in Boston and one in Washington, D.C., were allowed to celebrate live-streamed services on Saturday night for Easter and last weekend for Palm Sunday.
Soon after St. Mary’s closed, the Rev. Mark Doku, interim priest, conducted a short service from the stairs of the church for parishioners who remained in the parking lot, most of them in their cars. It was the last service held at the church.
“It’s incredibly difficult not to serve the services,” Doku said, “but also not to be with the parish family during these holy times.”
Doku has reminded his parishioners, however, that Albanians overcame the banning of religion in their country from 1967-1990 by the communist regime so they should be able to withstand the temporary suspension of services now.
“They had to manage, and they did, to keep their faith,” he said, “and their hearts and their minds during a time when you could be severely persecuted, if not killed, for expressing your faith. So our people are used to, not used to in the sense that they’re happy about it, but they know how to maintain their faith in these difficult times.”
Orthodox Christians use the Julian calendar so their Easter, also called Pascha, is usually celebrated at least a week after Catholics and Protestants, who use the Gregorian calendar.
Through email and the church’s Facebook page, Doku has provided links to sermons and music to keep his parishioners up to date during Lent and Holy Week as best he could. He and his parish council have also called parishioners to see how they’re doing.
“Regardless of the church being closed or not,” he said, “we can’t stop the reality that Easter is joy and light and the fact that Christ is risen regardless of whether the church doors are open or closed.”
Valerie Kerxhalli, 61, is president of the St. Mary’s parish council and she has attended St. Mary’s her entire life. This is the first Easter she won’t attend any services.
“It’s just really sad that we can’t gather and celebrate this together,” she said.
She watched the live-streamed services at St. George Albanian Orthodox Cathedral in Boston Saturday night and on Palm Sunday.
Kerxhalli said the church has begun a pandemic fundraiser and plans to donate the first $5,000 to the Worcester County Food Bank.
The bishops of the other Orthodox Christian churches decided to allow private services that can be live-streamed to parishioners.
The Rev. Christopher Stamas, presiding priest at St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Worcester, will celebrate an Agape Vespers service at 11 a.m. Sunday after conducting services Saturday night. The services are closed to the public, but live-streamed on the church’s website and social media. Normally, close to 500 people attend.
Fortunately, St. Spyridon began live-streaming three months ago, before the spread of the virus. A parishioner couldn’t attend services while undergoing chemotherapy so when his treatments ended he arranged for the installation of the live-stream system. The live-stream has averaged 1,200 hits from throughout the U.S. and Europe.
“At the same time it’s strange not to have the church filled,” Stamas said. “We know that just on the other side of that lens that there are over 1,000 people joining us, praying with us, singing the hymns with us.”
Stamas wants his parishioners to remember that Christ is risen whether they’re able to proclaim it together or not.
“He came at one of the worst times in the history of the world,” Stamas said, “to bring life to the world and in some ways it’s a perfect time to be gathering and to remember those days as we experience this present darkness.”
Through email, Facebook and Zoom teleconferences, St. Spyridon continues to hold Bible studies, youth meetings and parish council meetings.
The Rev. Nicholas Apostola, pastor at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church with a largely Romanian congregation in Shrewsbury, will celebrate a Vesper service at noon Sunday after holding a resurrection service on Saturday night. Services are closed to the public, but live-streamed on the church’s website and Facebook page.
“Christianity is really very much a people-based event,” Apostola said, “and it’s really hard not to have people there.”
Apostola wasn’t a fan of live-streaming services because he preferred people attend them, but he’s been impressed and surprised how people have responded since the church began streaming within the last month.
“Given how isolated everyone is,” he said, “it’s something secure, safe, familiar. It’s a comfort.”
The church streams the services with a laptop.
“No one is going to mistake it for a Cecil B. DeMille production,” Apostola said.
Apostola thinks it’s no coincidence that the pandemic hit at the holiest time of the year not just for Christians celebrating Easter, but for Jews who celebrated Passover this month and for Muslims who are about to celebrate Ramadan.
“God has something else in store for all of us,” he said, “so we endure what we endure and it’s more important how we endure it and how we treat one another than what the outcome is.”
Apostola pointed out people looked out for one another during the Great Depression and World War II and he hopes people will be as caring during the pandemic.
The Rev. Milad Selim, dean at St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Worcester, will celebrate a private Agape service at 11 a.m. Sunday after he held other Easter services Saturday night. The services are live-streamed on the church’s website and Facebook page. Selim’s streamed Palm Sunday service reached 3,381 people.
“I’m sadden by religious leaders or lay people,” he said, “who say we should open the churches and we shouldn’t be told what to do by the government. That’s ridiculous. It’s not like we’re being persecuted. We’re being protected and we’re called to protect others. That’s what our faith teaches. It’s not just about ‘me.’”
Normally, more than 500 people attend on Good Friday, 300 on Saturday and 150 on Sunday. This year, Selim is accompanied only by a chanter and an altar server who also sings.
“To not have my parishioners in the pews,” Selim said, “when I know what these services mean to them, it absolutely breaks my heart.”
For Palm Sunday, Selim video messaged his parishioners to ask them to send him photos of them dressed up with their children holding their candles and their homemade paper palms. Then he created a video montage and emailed it to parishioners and posted it on Facebook.
“People were very emotional about it, very grateful,” he said. “They were uplifted to see people’s smiles. You’re in your own home and if you’re not going out, you don’t know what others are going through and to see the smiles on their faces is uplifting. I’ve gotten several phone calls, text messages and emails from people who are grateful. They talked about their tears and how they’re praying that they get through this and be able to get back together.”
Selim’s wife, Nicole, is a nurse on a neurology floor at UMass Memorial Medical Center, University Campus. They’re both taking precautions against catching the virus and spreading it to their three children, ages 7, 5 and 2.
“We’re trying our best to stay healthy,” he said, “but we need to be there for other people. It’s a ministry for both of us.”
While Selim’s heart aches for those who have lost their jobs and have trouble putting food on the table during this pandemic, he hopes people re-prioritize, placing God and family above sports, entertainment and money.
“These are all the false gods,” he said, “but none of them exist anymore. They’ve all been put on hold except this true God that’s still there. So this could be a way for us to come back to him and to look at our neighbor. Look at all the good that is happening, neighbors looking out for their neighbors, people making masks.”
Uplifting news is appropriate on this day.