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Area residents face challenges worshiping amid outbreak

By George Pelletier | Mar 29, 2020

NASHUA – Places of worship are being impacted by the coronavirus, as millions are limited to praying in their homes, sans the opportunity to attend mass and other religious celebrations.

Father Michael Kerper, pastor of St. Patrick’s Church, 29 Spring St., said houses of worship are “caught in a bind,” with the most recent executive orders from Gov. Chris Sununu.

“Just in the past week, we’ve changed from having the private mass on the schedule with the possibility of people being in church to the point where now we’re essentially closed,” he said. “And the only thing that I’m able to do is have mass, alone for the parish.”

This past Thursday, Kerper said confessions were held, perhaps, for the last time for a long while, which he said creates a moral dilemma.

“St. Patrick’s has always had lots of confessions,” he said. “We’ve always had many people come here from Massachusetts and other places because it was known you could always go to confession at St. Patrick’s. But now, with the latest executive order from the governor, which we try to follow according to our conscience, it seems that the preference is to keep people at home. And the diocese hasn’t given any explicit instructions about that, but we’re coming to the point of a total shutdown.”

Kerper said this has been “creeping up bit by bit.” The last public mass was on St. Patrick’s Day. The day after, he had hoped to have a public mass and then when he read the guidelines, he said, “we can’t do this.”

The pastor said his concern on top of everything else, is that many of the faithful are in the demographic of the most susceptible to the virus.

“So, there is a moral dilemma,” he said. “Do you want to have them in church but endanger themselves? And now as I read that this thing is spreading, and there are problems with medical supplies, what is the right thing to do?”

Kerper said it’s been a difficult time because the church, like many, is caught between diocese regulations. Bishop Peter Libasci sent out a letter on the March 17, and then another one just days ago, saying he wanted to have confessions available.

“To do that implies that the church is going to be open,” Kerper said. “But then the governor’s order said religious groups were covered by the mandate to close and not to have groups of more than 10. Those are the kinds of things we’re dealing with.”

Contrary to what people might have expected, not many parishioners have personally reached out to Kerper for guidance.

“Very few actually,” he said. “In this day and age, people think that priests are so busy, they don’t bother to call. But lots of people had been going to confession, 10 to 12 a day, which was normal, but they’re mostly from other places.”

Kerper also said that because of electronic media, many people watch their religious leaders on television.

“So, it kind of bypasses the local, in-the-flesh priest,” he said. “There’s a whole kind of virtual church out there now.”

St. Patrick’s does not have the technology to live stream, as other parishes are doing. And with things being quieter, he said his schedule is constantly floating. He’s had to make calls to hospice, to determine how he can get in to offer the sacrament or just be there to pray with patients.

Kerper is an avid walker; something he does more frequently during what he calls, “sort of like an extended retreat.”

Amazingly, Kerper said, there have not been many calls for funerals.

“I think people understand that it’s unlikely that you could have a funeral in the church,” he said. “Also, there is the question of how you would get the servers and the lectors to come forward, because you need more than the priest. I’d assume we could do small graveside burials without mass, and then I would celebrate mass privately, but people would not be able to attend.”

Pastor Michael Greene, of The Church of the Good Shepherd, 214 Main St., said that while this is a high-stress time for everyone, his congregation and leadership have risen to the challenge.

“We’re doing our best to reach out to everybody personally,” he said. “The whole parish constituency, regularly, by phone and also on digital wavelengths, such as email, Facebook, Zoom, You Tube. We were having our masses to celebrate the Eucharist, but now it has to be an in-person thing, according to our theology.”

Green said with Zoom in particular, people can phone into it, so while it is contactless, it still feels meaningful to parishioners. He added that the church has received a lot of positive feedback.

“Everybody seems to be craving a little bit of normalcy in the midst of all of this,” he said. “And the sense that they can somehow connect with their spiritual home, which seems important to the vast majority of our congregation. I wouldn’t call it a substitute. I’d call it an emergency provision.”

The church has 1,000 members, and Greene said that roughly 300 attend mass during a normal period. And online, while they have seen a dip in attendance, they have been remaining in contact with most.

As faith is so important to so many, Greene said there are those who are in “dire straits, as their businesses are tanking,” and also as a downtown church, they have many regular relationships with those who “are on the edge.”

And then there are support services that the church provides, especially for Alcoholic Anonymous members.

“We host probably 500 – 700 people for AA meetings during a particular week,” he said. “People are asking us about that all the time. But our directive was to shut that down – partly because some of them represent a higher at-risk population.”

Greene said they did their best to work it out with AA members, explaining to them the steps that the church was taking to manage it, and offer help with provisions for meeting online or by phone.

“They seemed pretty well organized,” he explained. “Because there are some big groups that meet there, and so they have people who work there who know how the system works and can help them. They’re still connected, but we can’t allow them in the building until we get the ‘all clear.'”

Assisting the church has been their daughter charity, the Front Door Agency, as well as the executive director of the Nashua Soup Kitchen & Shelter, who is in the process of becoming ordained in the Episcopal church through the Church of the Good Shepherd.

“We have gotten some very generous support from our bishop and the diocese leadership in Concord,” Greene said. “They have provided some large, very helpful structure. We are doing our best to stay connected and help with emergencies in the area.”

Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett, Temple Beth Abraham, 4 Raymond St., said there has been a unique technological challenge to the Jewish faith as gatherings have been commuted to video.

“As soon as we realized that we would not be able to gather for services, we began asking ourselves immediately about everything we do,” he said. “‘How could we do this in a different way?'”

Rabbi Jon, as he is known, explained that in terms of group gatherings, Temple Beth Abraham now conducts nightly service which has been converted to Zoom.

“Usually there are about a dozen or so people who attend synagogue,” he said. “Now, there are 30 or so people who participated online. The biggest challenge has been on Saturday and Sunday, because in Jewish law, there are certain things that you’re not supposed to do on the Sabbath. Generally, in the synagogue, we don’t use electronics.”

The committee that collaborates on religious policy worked with guidance from national religious leaders, deciding to have some room to “experiment” with having services online.

“What’s interesting about that, with the people who come regularly, is that it has become a place for people to connect,” Rabbi Jon said. “One of the things that is different is that the technology isn’t always great for group singing. Sometimes we’ll just have the leader sing and you have to just imagine everyone else.”

Instead, they left all the microphones on so goers could hear the cacophony of voices, which Rabbi Jon called, “something we need to hear.”

The Temple has study groups and are transitioning to sharing those materials online. But the hardest part for the rabbi has been the distance that must remain from those who are ill and cannot be visited at home or in a nursing care facility.

“We have to rely on the phone,” he said. “We have had to do things in a virtual sense, and that is not the same.”

Rabbi Jon said, “You want to hug people. This is a lot to get used to.”

And with celebrations, such as bar mitzvahs and weddings coming up this summer, he added that everyone has had to recognize that these events must relocate, scale-back or reschedule.

“I’m still there for you,” he said. “We don’t know what to expect or when to expect it,” he said of the health crisis.

And now that so much is communicated through writing, Rabbi Jon said it’s especially important that good and helpful information is dispensed.

“We are just trying to be attuned to what people are writing to us,” he said. “The last couple of weeks, people have had to launch into a completely different routine. But on social media, there has been great support, people boosting each other and empowering resilience stories. This is hard. Some people aren’t getting through this too well. We have to make room for those who are struggling.”


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