When Father Jorge Miramontes calls from a response from the pews during mass, he is met with silence. It is Holy Week, a time when the church should be filled with members recognizing Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. Instead, the pastor, a pair of seminarians assigned to the parish, and one member of the congregation tasked with filming the service are the only ones present.

“It feels like half the celebration is gone; sometimes it feels like I’m only doing half of the service because the congregation is not there to respond,” said Miramontes “There is silence when I ask the people to respond.… I miss the congregation now more than ever before.”

He said it took a few weeks before the impact of COVID-19 sunk in, even after standing at the front of the sanctuary and looking out at empty pews.

When Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers restricted social gatherings to more than 10 people due to coronavirus and later executed the Safer at Home order, places of worship were required to close to all but essential staff.

Even with the physical buildings closed, spiritual leaders continue to connect with their congregations, albeit in new ways.

Miramontes, of Holy Family Parish, which includes St. Joseph’s Church in Waterloo and St. Mary’s Church in Marshall, said since churches have closed due to the pandemic, weekly bulletins have been sent to every registered parishioner.

This week, Holy Family staff will begin calling members of the congregation to check in on them.

“We’re letting people know we are here and we’re open if they need anything – they can call us and chat with us,” Miramontes said. “We like to give people hope and prayers to stay connected with them.”

He said the pandemic — while difficult — has provided a time of reflection.

“We’ve taken for granted that we can meet every week together as a congregation, pray together and socialize,” Miramontes said.

Pastor Nancy Raabe of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Marshall said the church council decided March 16 – one week before Safer at Home was declared – to suspend all church activities.

“We have moved online in terms of considering our website our building,” she said. “This was just an idea I came up with … We don’t have a building we can physically go to, but we have a website for all those who have access.”

The pastor said the church’s website has become a hub of activity – it’s where people can watch services, read Raabe’s blog and listen to her candlelight chats, continue confirmation classes, and even find ideas for family crafts and activities.

“I’m really trying to promote this idea of ‘Come on in. The building may be closed but the church is still open. So come in and look around and visit the different rooms and hear the services,” Raabe said.

“There’s been a lot of good coming out of this in how we learn to stay connected,” the pastor said.

She understands not every member of the congregation has internet access and is attempting to stay connected with them through other means.

Computer screens become the sanctuary

Like many places of worship, both churches recently created YouTube channels to livestream weekly services.

Raabe has been conducting most her weekly Sunday sermons from home, but for larger services such as Palm Sunday and Easter, the pastor will stand at the front of the sanctuary. Joining her was the church organist and an instrumentalist. The three perform a slimmed down version of the service.

“I thought the Palm Sunday service was good and I heard from people that it was nice to see the church again,” she said. “They were moved to tears when we did a little bit of a scan around the sanctuary as we were starting one of our hymns.”

During the service, the pastor was not fazed by the empty pews because she was concentrating on how to communicate with the people watching the streaming service by consciously looking at the camera.

“That’s just the way it is right now and we’re focused on reaching people where they are right now at this time,” Raabe said. “I’ve found I’m actually able to talk more directly with people through these means … It’s an intimate form of communication. You’re talking directly one-on-one with people. There are a lot of people who are watching at different times but it’s really a great opportunity to be a little more upfront and close with people; to be able to reach right through the lens to their homes.”

Miramontes is conducting and filming all masses at St. Joseph’s Church in Waterloo.

Both clergy said once people are allowed to attend worship services, they may continue livestreaming services so others who are unable to physically be at the service will still be able to participate.

Looking forward

While there is no specific date set for when churches can reopen, Miramontes is looking forward to the day when the pews will be filled, and hopes the socially distancing will be concluded by June 19 when the renovations at St. Mary’s in Marshall are expected to be completed.

“It will be a different kind of grand opening,” Miramontes said. “One for the renovations and one to welcome back our congregation.”

Raabe is also looking forward to the day when the congregation can once again gather.

“I’m thinking it will be like no Sunday we’ve known – not even the Easter service,” she said. “We’re thinking of it like a huge festival of the resurrection exponentially, that we’re all returning to life but in a new way because who knows how long this will have gone on before we can get back together … I’m thinking it’s going to be amazing.”

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