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Churches and synagogues cancel services, realign outreach

Faced with the rapid spread of coronavirus, many spiritual leaders across the region moved Thursday to cancel worship services, suspend religious programs, and postpone large gatherings of their congregations.

The Archdiocese of Boston, however, decided not to cancel daily or Sunday Masses, but instead directed that parish dinners, lunches, and other social events be postponed indefinitely. Taking Communion by mouth was also suspended.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley said in a statement that he believes the public celebration of Mass is “a necessary source of support for the community” during the health emergency. However, he excused the elderly and parishioners with underlying health conditions — those most vulnerable to the virus — from their weekly obligation to attend Mass.


“We nourish faith and hope, and therefore courage, through prayer in our houses of worship, in our communities, and in our homes,” O’Malley said. CatholicTV will carry online celebrations of daily and Sunday Mass.

The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts is deferring to each parish’s decision whether to cancel services and other activities. As a result, Episcopal parishes from at least five communities, from Chatham to Hingham to Wellesley, had canceled Sunday worship by Thursday afternoon.

In addition, all 10 of the Highrock Christian churches in Greater Boston will switch to virtual services beginning Sunday.

The quickly changing calculus of balancing public health with the benefits of communal worship was evident in announcements that rolled in through the day ― some, such as the Boston Archdiocese’s, targeted to millions of people; others to congregations of several hundred or fewer.

In one startling announcement, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said Thursday that all public gatherings of church members throughout the world would be suspended indefinitely.

Generally, the plans unveiled Thursday called for reevaluating conditions in a week or two. But with major religious occasions such as Easter, Passover, and Ramadan either occurring or beginning in April, the prospect of empty churches, synagogues, and mosques next month could not be discounted.


“I’m the priest who still had services in the middle of a blizzard, but this seems like uncertain times,” said the Rev. Tim Schenck, the Episcopal rector of St. John the Evangelist Church in Hingham, who suspended all church activities for the next two weeks.

“From a spiritual perspective, it’s all about loving our neighbor, and there are people in this community that I dearly love. The last thing that I want to do is put anybody at risk," he said.

Sunday services will be celebrated by Schenck and his assistant in an otherwise empty church and carried on the parish Facebook page, the rector said.

“There certainly will be other online resources that we share,” Schenck said. “Much of this is just about encouraging parishioners to connect with one another and reach out to others who are isolated and lonely and in those vulnerable populations.”

The Right Rev. Alan M. Gates, bishop of the Massachusetts Diocese, said in a memorandum to the Episcopal parishes that he will support “a decision to close by any congregation’s leaders.”

He also “strongly recommended” that all “secondary activities,” such as religious classes and social gatherings, be suspended. Group and committee meetings should be postponed, rescheduled, or conducted electronically, Gates said.

The Most Rev. Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, said that “the next 30 to 60 days at the least are simply going to be unlike anything we have experienced in recent history, even including 9/11. The dilemma of what we know and what we don’t know will continue to complicate our decision-making and our lives.”


Many Jewish synagogues in the area also canceled large public services for this weekend, including major congregations such as Temple Emanuel in Newton and Temple Beth Zion in Brookline. At Temple Emeth, also in Brookline, longtime Rabbi Alan Turetz said the decision to cancel Shabbat services on Friday night and Saturday morning this weekend was both difficult and unprecedented.

“We feel that these are, God willing, short-term protective measures that will keep everyone well in the long run, and it’s the long run that we’re looking at,” said Turetz, who has been rabbi at the temple since 1977.

Religious school also will be suspended, he said, as well as social activities at the temple. The cancellations will be reevaluated at the end of the month. In the interim, social media and other virtual technology will be used to communicate with the congregation, Turetz said.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we’d rather miss each other for a while than see each other, and God forbid, have someone get sick,” the rabbi said.

Temple Emeth, however, will continue to hold daily services through the week. The smaller number who attend those gatherings will be able to sit one person per row, Turetz said.

The Yusuf Mosque in Brighton announced that its daily prayers and activities will continue, but that the schedule could change at any time.


As a precaution, mosque leaders said, greetings should not be given “through shaking of hands, hugs, or physical contact. Instead, please offer your salaams verbally through a warm smile.” Clean prayer mats also were advised.

The impact of coronavirus will affect outreach to the poor, homeless, and others among the needy. St. Anthony’s Shrine in downtown Boston, which ministers to many of the vulnerable, closed at 7 p.m. Thursday and does not plan to reopen until at least March 21.

“This is disturbing because of the threat to people’s health and welfare,” said the Rev. Thomas Conway, a Franciscan priest who is executive director of the Arch Street shrine, which is directed by the order’s Holy Name Province.

The shrine’s clinical work will be moved entirely outside the building, where 25 friars live, many of them elderly and at heightened risk if they contract the virus. The shrine’s partners from Boston Health Care for the Homeless will move through the neighborhood to provide care, as well as hand sanitizers, to the displaced.

The shrine will use social media to bring religious services and other pastoral care to its 20,000 followers on Facebook and others, Conway said.

“We haven’t had to do this before, but we think it’s easily done,” Conway said. “We’re dealing with it one hour at a time.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at