During the tightest pandemic restrictions, religious communities worked to keep the faith

·4 min read
An Ottawa church sign shares both uplifting messages and some public health advice on April 23, 2021, during the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC - image credit)
An Ottawa church sign shares both uplifting messages and some public health advice on April 23, 2021, during the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC - image credit)

In difficult times, many people turn to religious organizations for support and comfort.

During the tightest restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic — a time of stress and anxiety for most — that wasn't always possible.

Churches, temples and mosques had to negotiate regulations that changed constantly. Sometimes there could be no in-person services at all.

Rev. Susan Chisholm of St. Andrew's United Church in Halifax said capacity restrictions affected not just the size of the congregation at their services but also the fellowship associated with gathering.

"It's a community that's really about hospitality and welcome as much as ritual and spiritual practice," Chisholm said.

Chisholm said the ritual of worship involves making a "sacred space" and the history and presence of the place of worship all become part of the experience.

Thunder Shanti Narooz van Egteren
Thunder Shanti Narooz van Egteren

The Vedanta Ashram Society in Halifax has a congregation of about 250 people. It was constantly growing thanks to immigration, according to vice-chair Vishal Bhardwaj.

Bhardwaj said there were normally about 120 people at the temple for Sunday services before the pandemic, but that quickly changed to 25 when restrictions were introduced.

"It was definitely a shock for the whole community, not just for our own, but the whole general community here," he said.

It was a similar situation at the Nova Scotia Islamic Cultural Centre in Bedford, said Imam Wael Haridy.

Haridy said keeping up with changing restrictions was tiring for administrators and confusing for elderly members of the congregation. But the mosque abided by all restrictions imposed by the province.

"It was hard on the feelings of Muslims, but it is what it is," Haridy said.

"We had to respect the rules and we had to understand and do our part to protect not just the Muslim community, but the broader community of Bedford and Nova Scotia in general."

Vishal Bhardwaj
Vishal Bhardwaj

The centre had opened a new building capable of accommodating 1,400 people just two weeks prior to the pandemic. It never got a chance to use it at full capacity.

While the pandemic restricted in-person services for all denominations, it also affected their ability to provide support for people in their communities.

Haridy said his community was able to continue the Muslim obligation of almsgiving without much difficulty.

According to Bhardwaj, many immigrant students suddenly found themselves in an unfamiliar place, without food or a place to stay, when things shut down during the pandemic.

"We did fundraising and applied for funding and ultimately we raised more than $55,000 total and we supported not just the students, but a lot of other communities," he said.

Wael Haridy
Wael Haridy

St. Andrew's United Church has offered a free home-cooked meal on Sunday to the hungry for the past 28 years, Chisholm said.

She said there are normally about 300 people waiting for the meal and it is the highlight of the week for them, and the church.

The church and its 10 volunteers had to scramble to start preparing takeout meals.

Chisholm said it was important that the people needing food were not forgotten or abandoned during a difficult time.

Funerals

Dealing with events like funerals and major religious occasions also proved difficult under restrictions.

Rev. Robert Doyle, deacon at the Halifax archdiocese, said many families had to delay funerals because of gathering limits and now want to put their relative to rest.

"It's been stressful on some parishes where normally you would have one or two funerals a week," he said.

For the Islamic community, when a Muslim dies the body needs to be washed. It is then carried to the cemetery for burial as soon as possible.

Haridy said there was one instance when they discovered that the person had died of COVID-19 complications and they were unable to complete the washing of the body. According to the teachings of Islam, he said, if it cannot be done, or it is best not to, then it can be skipped.

The community followed health guidelines on the number of people allowed at the gravesite and it was sometimes heartbreaking, he said.

"Just maintaining social distancing and the numbers sometimes was very, very hard," he said. "I could see that on their faces and their eyes."

Return to in-person

While all denominations turned to online services and gatherings, most felt something was lost.

They're hoping people will return to in-person services when the province enters Phase 5 of its reopening plan this month.

Doyle said people were given dispensation not to receive the eucharist during the worst of the pandemic. With loosened restrictions, efforts will be focused on encouraging people to return to in-person mass.

Haridy said he isn't worried about people returning to the Nova Scotia Islamic Community Centre.

"I don't think we'll get such problems," he said with a chuckle.

"The centre is not just for prayer. It has many activities that attract different members of the family. Everyone is welcome here."

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