The virus has chased away the faithful, will Easter bring them back?
The virus had killed dozens of church regulars, St. Sebastian’s Roman Catholic Church in Queens, and the pandemic forced it to shut down for months last year. But the parishioners were there now, he said, which was a sign of hope.
“Even through hardship, God is at work,” said Father Torres. “Even when people are in pain, even though it may seem that God is silent, it does not mean that God is absent.” It’s a message many Christians – and the cash-strapped churches that serve them – are eager to believe this Easter, as the spring celebration of hope and renewal on Sunday coincides with rising vaccination rates. and the promise of a return to something resembling normal life.
Church services during the Holy Week holidays, which started on Palm Sunday and end at Easter, are among the busiest of the year, and this year they offer churches a chance to start rebuilding their flocks. and regain their financial health. But the question of whether people will return is crucial.
Across the city, many churches still have not reopened despite state rules that would allow them to do so.
The Rev. falls.
Nicholas Richardson, a spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of New York, said many of its churches have not reopened either. When the diocese implemented a program last fall allowing its 190 parishes to pay a reduced tithe to the diocese, about half of them applied.
“It varies church by church,” he said. “Pledges are not necessarily drastically reduced, but donations to the fundraiser are desperately declining.”
Pastor Patrick J. West, the pastor of San Sebastian, said he and other priests are concerned about parishioners returning when they gather for meals. Parishioners continue to fear the virus, which has killed tens of thousands of New Yorkers, and many have grown accustomed to watching Mass online from the comfort of their homes, he said.
“The word I use is ‘repatriate’,” he said. “How are we going to get people back to the church? I don’t think it’s a question of people’s faith, it’s a question of health and safety. They have to be convinced that it is safe to worship again in a congregation, and I think that is quite right. The trials of the pandemic were keenly felt in San Sebastian, a bustling parish that offers mass in English, Spanish and Tagalog in a thriving windowless space that was once a Loews cinema.
It sits on a busy intersection in the shadow of elevated subway tracks in Woodside, a working-class but quickly gentrifying part of Queens where around 10% of residents have been infected with the coronavirus, according to city data.
“A lot of people have died,” said Micky Torres, a longtime Filipino immigrant and parishioner. One of his close friends in the parish died of Covid-19 in the first weeks of the pandemic, he said. It was the first of several Zoom funerals. “It was very sad and very strange.” At least 50 active parishioners in San Sebastian have died from Covid-19, many at the start of the pandemic when a funeral was not possible because the church was closed, Father West said.
He began his mission in the parish, which was founded in 1894 and moved into the old theater in 1954, shortly after churches were allowed to reopen at the end of June. The death rate in Woodside is higher than in the city as a whole, according to city data.
“When I got here, it was Memorial Mass after Memorial Mass after Memorial Mass,” he said. “We had seven a week, in addition to funeral masses for people who were dying around the same time. We still have commemorative masses a year later. San Sebastian would normally host up to 5,000 worshipers before the pandemic with multiple masses on Saturdays and Sundays, Father West said. But pandemic rules limit its capacity to 50 percent and require social distancing. A good weekend now would draw around 1,200 people, less than a quarter of the pre-pandemic crowd, the pastor said. He said he hoped attendance at Easter would be robust, but there was no way to know for sure.
The parish has adapted in other ways as well. Masks and social distancing are needed; hand sanitizer is readily available. Parishioners have also replaced the peace sign, traditionally a handshake, with a nod or hand sign.
Churches were closed for 15 weeks in the first months of the pandemic last year, which included Holy Week. Even after they reopened at 25% capacity, many parishioners remained on the sidelines. This has deprived the parishes both of people whose physical presence will allow the community to exist and of the donations they make each week to pay the bills.
The resulting turmoil wreaked havoc on the finances of churches in the New York City area and across the country, including icons like St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan and more humble places of worship like St. Sebastian. All depend heavily on weekly donations to pay their expenses, which include utilities, staff salaries and an 8% tax paid to the local diocese.
“We are suffering,” said Father West, who estimated that the parish’s income had fallen by 35% during the pandemic. The shortfall had forced him to keep the parish center closed, lay off staff at the parish office, and even ask the Diocese of Brooklyn to transfer a priest away from San Sebastian. “We have a large immigrant population and people are not used to using electronic payments or even writing checks,” said Father West. “If they’re not physically there to donate cash, we don’t physically get the donation.” He researched church finances during the pandemic and found sharp drops in income in parishes of all sizes. Based on last year’s numbers, he predicts a 20-25% drop in fiscal 2021, which could be exacerbated if people continue to watch Mass online rather than in person. “The big questions are: will Catholics who practice their faith come back frequently? And have the Catholics who practice their faith less frequently gone for good? Manion said. “Both of these answers could have big impacts, spiritually and financially.” The mood was suspicious but hopeful in San Sebastian on Palm Sunday, where street vendors were selling woven palm fronds outside in the rain and a group of parishioners stood in the lobby of the church to listen to mass, despite the audible rush and clatter of the elevated metro. passing outside.
Less than half of the seats were occupied at the morning English mass, but a Spanish service later in the day was so crowded that worshipers were sent to the parish school auditorium so they could watch it live while obeying social distancing rules.
Manuel Gil, a Peruvian immigrant who has worshiped in San Sebastian for 25 years, said he believed the consequences of the pandemic could actually bring more people to church, not less. “The important thing is that people have faith,” he said. “I think more people will come after the pandemic, because people whose family or friends have passed away will seek God. People’s lives have changed. “—NYT