Coronavirus Drove Churchgoers Away. Will Easter Bring Them Back?
Churches across New York are hoping increased attendance for Holy Week services will help bring back lost donations that have led to financial hardship during the pandemic.,
The Rev. Henry Torres told his parishioners, who had gathered on Palm Sunday in socially distanced rows of half-empty pews, that God had not abandoned them.
The virus had killed dozens of regulars at the church, St. Sebastian Roman Catholic Church in Queens, and the pandemic forced it to close its doors for months last year. But the parishioners were there now, he said, which was a sign of hope.
“Even through difficulties, God is at work,” Father Torres said. “Even when people are suffering, even if it may seem that God is silent, that does not mean that God is absent.”
That is a message that many Christians — and the cash-strapped churches that minister to them — are eager to believe this Easter, as the springtime celebration of hope and renewal on Sunday coincides with rising vaccination rates and the promise of a return to something resembling normal life.
Religious services during the Holy Week holidays, which began on Palm Sunday and end on Easter, are among the most well-attended of the year, and this year they offer churches a chance to begin rebuilding their flocks and regaining their financial health. But the question of whether people will return is a crucial one.
Across the city, many churches have still not reopened despite state rules that would allow them to do so.
The Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, a nationally prominent Black church, said concerns over the coronavirus, and its disproportionate impact on the Black community, would keep his church from reopening until at least the fall.
Nicholas Richardson, a spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of New York, said many of its churches had also not reopened. When the diocese introduced a program last fall to allow its 190 parishes to pay a reduced tithe to the diocese, roughly half of them applied.
“It varies church by church,” he said. “Pledges are not necessarily dramatically down, but donations given to the collection plate are hopelessly down.”
The Rev. Patrick J. West, the pastor at St. Sebastian, said he and other priests have fretted over the return of parishioners when they gather for meals. Parishioners still fear the virus, which has killed tens of thousands of New Yorkers, and many have become accustomed to watching Mass online from the comforts of home, he said.
“The word I use is ‘repatriate,'” he said. “How are we going to repatriate people back to the church? I don’t think it’s a matter of people’s faith, it’s a matter of health and safety. They need to be convinced that it is safe to worship in a congregation again, and I think that is absolutely right.”
The hardships of the pandemic have been keenly felt at St. Sebastian, a bustling parish that offers Mass in English, Spanish and Tagalog inside a soaring, windowless space that was once a Loews movie theater.
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 roughly 10 percent of the residents have been infected by the coronavirus, according to city data.
“A lot of people have died,” said Micky Torres, a Filipino immigrant and longtime parishioner. A close friend of his from the parish died of Covid-19 in the first weeks of the pandemic, he said. It was his first of several Zoom funerals. “It was very sad and very weird.”
At least 50 active parishioners at St. Sebastian have died of Covid-19, many in the early days of the pandemic when holding a funeral was impossible because the church was closed, said Father West.
He began his assignment in the parish, which was founded in 1894 and moved into the former 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 first got here it was memorial Mass after memorial Mass after memorial Mass,” he said. “We were having seven a week, plus funeral Masses for the people who were dying at that same time. We are still doing memorial Masses a year later.”
St. Sebastian would normally welcome as many as 5,000 worshipers before the pandemic across several Masses on Saturdays and Sundays, said Father West. But pandemic rules limit its capacity to 50 percent and require social distancing.
A good weekend now would draw roughly 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 adjusted in other ways, too. Masks and social distancing are required; hand sanitizer is readily available. Parishioners have also replaced the sign of peace, traditionally a handshake, with a nod or a wave.
Churches were closed for 15 weeks during the first months of the pandemic last year, which included Holy Week. Even after they reopened at 25 percent capacity, many parishioners stayed away. That deprived parishes of both the people whose physical presence wills the community into existence, and the donations they make each week that help pay the bills.
The resulting turmoil has wreaked havoc on the finances of churches across the New York region and the country, including icons like St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan and more humble houses of worship like St. Sebastian. All depend heavily on weekly donations to pay their expenses, which include utilities, staff salaries and an 8 percent tax paid to the local diocese.
“We are hurting,” said Father West, who estimated the parish’s income had gone down 35 percent during the pandemic. The shortfall had forced him to keep the parish center closed, to lay off staff members in the parish office and even to ask the Diocese of Brooklyn to transfer one priest away from St. 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 are not physically here to donate cash, then we don’t physically get the donation.”
Many Christians attend in-person services only on Christmas and Easter. Donations given on those two holidays make up 10 percent of the annual collection for most Catholic parishes, said Matthew Manion, the director for the Center for Church Management at Villanova University.
He researched church finances during the pandemic and found steep income declines in parishes of all sizes. Based on figures from last year, he projects a 20 to 25 percent decline in the 2021 fiscal year, which may be exacerbated if people keep watching Mass online instead of in person.
“The big questions are, Will Catholics who practice their faith frequently come back? And Catholics who practice their faith less frequently, are they gone for good?” said Mr. Manion. “Both of those answers could have big impacts, spiritually and financially.”
He added: “Easter will be an interesting experiment. The spring will tell us a lot about what fiscal year 2022 and beyond will look like.”
The mood was wary but hopeful at St. Sebastian on Palm Sunday, where street vendors sold woven palm fronds outside in the rain and a group of parishioners stood in the church foyer to listen to Mass, despite the audible rush and rattle of the elevated subway passing outside.
Fewer than half the seats were filled at the morning’s English Mass, but a Spanish service later in the day was so well attended that worshipers were sent to the auditorium of the parish school so they could watch it on livestream while still obeying social distancing rules.
Manuel Gil, a Peruvian immigrant who has worshiped at St. Sebastian for 25 years, said he thought the aftermath of the pandemic might actually bring more people to church, not fewer.
“The important thing is that people have faith,” he said. “I think more people will come after the pandemic, because people whose families or friends have passed away will be looking for God. People’s lives have changed.”
Speaking from the pulpit, Father Torres urged parishioners to see the empty pews all around them as not just a manifestation of pandemic-era rules, but as vacant seats that might have been filled by those who died in the last year.
But they should not dwell in sadness, he told the flock. Instead, they should celebrate the fact that they have survived.
“You and I have been privileged and given an opportunity,” he said. “An hour from now is not promised. Tomorrow is not promised. All we have is right here and right now. Let us work right here and right now on our intimacy with God.”