Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, restrictions on places of worship have been deeply felt by communities of faith whose fundamental practice of gathering in prayer was upended by the lethal threat of COVID-19.
But with Saturday’s lifting of the state’s remaining coronavirus restrictions, religious communities have a chance to move beyond the past year when many switched to online services. Some houses of worship became battlegrounds for challenging government-imposed limits to stop the spread of COVID-19, while others played a crucial role in getting their members vaccinated against the virus.
“Everything about COVID was against what we do as a church,” said the Rev. Thomas Conway, executive director of St. Anthony Shrine in downtown Boston. “That’s why the church had a hard time with it. Everything you do to participate in church makes you more susceptible to the disease.”
The Arch Street shrine, which houses two sanctuaries and residences for Franciscan friars, reopened to the public on May 13 for the first time since the pandemic began, which Conway believes made it the last religious venue in the area to do so. The reopened shrine has designated spaces in the sanctuaries for worshipers who wish to follow social distancing rules and wear masks, he said. Group meetings remain suspended at the facility.
The health and safety of the 30 friars who live at the shrine, five of whom are octogenarians, factored into the decision to close for 14 months, Conway said. He said he also considered a defining feature of the Franciscan lifestyle.
“Franciscans aren’t particularly good at enforcing rules,” said Conway. “We’re a little bit like the grandfather who lets you do everything.”
Effective Saturday, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston dropped mandates for wearing masks and social distancing for vaccinated worshipers.
The archdiocese also said singing and choirs will once again be permitted, communion can return to normal, collections may be taken using a basket on a pole, food can be served at parish activities, and altar servers will be allowed to participate in Masses.
Options for participating in religious life remotely, which were introduced or expanded because of government restrictions on gatherings, are expected to outlast the pandemic.
At Temple Israel of Boston, Senior Rabbi Elaine Zecher said the congregation wishes to advance what it is calling “mixed presence” or a blending of in-person and online participation.
“That’s a real important point,” she said. “What happened in the last 15 months has disrupted the way we have operated and functioned, and I think disruption is not always bad.”
Capacity limits at places of worship were a priority for opponents of pandemic-related restrictions since last spring when demonstrators began gathering outside Governor Charlie Baker’s home in Swampscott to push him to reopen the state and a Baptist church in Worcester filed a federal lawsuit challenging the rules after it held services in defiance of bans on gatherings of more than 10 people.
Last May, Baker allowed places of worship to reopen at 40 percent capacity under the first phase of the state’s reopening plan.
But the legal challenges continued through this month when New Life South Coast Church in New Bedford sued Baker, the city of New Bedford, and others in federal court, alleging that COVID-19 restrictions in place at the time subjected places of worship to capacity limits that had been lifted for other gathering spots like restaurants. The church, which can accommodate more than 600 people, had been ordered to limit the number of worshipers to 90, according to Andrew Beckwith, one of its attorneys and the president and general counsel for the Massachusetts Family Institute.
On May 17, Baker changed course by turning the mandate on capacity limits at places of worship into an advisory.
That decision, coupled with the lifting of the remaining COVID-19 restrictions on Saturday, gives New Life South Coast Church the authority to implement safety measures of its choosing, Beckwith said.
“It’s unfortunate that it took legal action to spur that correction,” he said Saturday. “We’re glad that as of today they’ll be able to worship back to normal.”
The pace for reopenings has varied widely. For example, Yusuf Mosque in Brighton welcomed worshipers to return for the five daily congregational prayers on Feb. 20, according to its Facebook page. Friday prayers resumed there on March 25 for worshipers who registered in advance.
At Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Dorchester, Rev. Miniard Culpepper, the senior pastor, said it will take time before all pandemic-related precautions are relaxed. Since Easter, the congregation has been meeting outdoors in Trotter Park, but Culpepper said services on Sunday are expected to be held indoors because of the rainy forecast.
Most people who regularly attend services have been vaccinated and the church is now equipped with two machines that clean the air, Culpepper said.
“We continue to implement our reopening plan,” he said. “A church with vaccinated members is probably the safest church that one can go to.”