Churches in the lurch preparing for Christmas gatherings

·3 min read

With one of the largest Christian celebrations just days away, many churches on P.E.I. are left wondering how many people they will be able to welcome over the Christmas season.

Religious gatherings on P.E.I. were able to be as large 150 people — three cohorts of 50 — until the implementation of the province's circuit breakers measures last week. Under the new public health order, religious gatherings are reduced to 10.

"Usually Christmas is the high point of the Christian year, Christmas and Easter," said Keith MacPherson, minister at Park Royal United Church.

Park Royal usually does two Christmas services, but had decided to scale back to one this year with the pandemic. MacPherson said they had been granted permission to have three cohorts for that service prior to the new public health order.

"We're just waiting to find out from public health what this is going to look like after the 21st, whether we can use our three cohorts or whether it will be scaled back," he said.

"Or maybe we'll be online. Certainly we've been able to pivot much more quickly than we were when the pandemic first started."

'Big concern for our community'

The plans were also set for Holy Redeemer's Christmas gatherings with three services on Christmas Eve and one on Christmas Day. Most of those masses were already full.

"We are really concerned about the masses, whether we are going to have or not, and that is a really big concern for our community and for us here," said Rev. Joseph Dovari, pastor at Holy Redeemer.

There is certainly the element of gathering together that is special. — Jeff Eastwood, Grace Baptist Church

He says masses at the parish have been full throughout the pandemic and the Christmas masses would normally have 1,300 people.

"That used to be our biggest mass in the year. So now, to look at 150, that's really going to be very sad. We'll be missing all those people," Dovari said.

"And we really don't have any answers for those people."

Uncertainty with evolving restrictions

During her weekly briefing on Tuesday, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison said restrictions may start to be lifted as early as Friday, though it was not specified what that would mean for religious gatherings.

Travis Kingdon/CBC
Travis Kingdon/CBC

Like Holy Redeemer, Grace Baptist's two Christmas services were also fully booked before the circuit breaker measures were announced.

And while they had to bring in extra chairs from the adjoining school last year, this year the church is preparing for several scenarios, including running the services with just a handful of people or none at all.

"There is certainly the element of gathering together that is special, but you just can't replicate it via live stream," said Jeff Eastwood, one of the pastors at Grace Baptist.

"Also then everybody's sort of separate there in their own homes as opposed to being together with other families."

In an email to CBC News, St. Dunstan's Basilica said it planned to have two cohorts of 50 and had just applied for a third, smaller cohort to accommodate its musicians before the circuit breaker came into effect.

The basilica said it is also optimistic that the circuit breaker restrictions will be eased in time for Christmas celebrations.

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