Churches in Nova Scotia are changing plans for masses and gatherings this holiday season to adhere to stricter COVID-19 restrictions, with faith leaders encouraging churchgoers to check in with each other as the pandemic drags on.
The new restrictions, which came into effect Dec. 22, reduce gathering limits to 25 per cent capacity for regular faith services, up to a maximum of 50 people.
In-person faith gatherings will only be allowed to have one person singing; choirs and congregational singing are not permitted.
The Anglican Diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island has cancelled all in-person services for its more than 90 parishes until Jan. 12, at which point the provincial government has said the restrictions will be reassessed.
"I am convinced that doing so is the safest and most loving thing we can do to help prevent the spread of the Omicron variant in our province," wrote Right Rev. Sandra Fyfe, bishop of the diocese, in an email to clergy members and others in the diocese on Wednesday.
Fyfe said she knew the decision wouldn't be popular, but it was made "with care and concern for all the people in our diocese in my mind."
The diocese isn't alone erring on the side of caution this holiday season — the second since COVID-19 arrived in Nova Scotia.
"We've decided to completely not have in-person services," said Rev. Kimberlynn McNabb of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Halifax. "Somehow, this year though, it doesn't seem quite so daunting."
The church has been offering in-person worship and online services over the course of the pandemic because some of the congregation has not felt comfortable returning to the church.
"We think we've got it all under control," said McNabb. "I think the pandemic has taught us that we're not islands unto ourselves and that we are all connected in this, and to take the time to be thankful to say to people, 'You know, I love you. I miss you.'"
Other churches will be following the guidelines set out by the province and following a hybrid model like McNabb.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Halifax will go ahead with smaller in-person masses, with first priority given to people who would be unable to watch the live stream.
"When we realized we were 50 [people], we just shut down registration and we filled the masses with people who don't have internet access," said Father James Mallon, the pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish.
Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada has also asked its churches across Nova Scotia to closely follow protocols.
In Cape Breton, St. Marguerite Bourgeoys Parish will allow 50 people per mass — a restriction that unfortunately means many parishioners will be left out.
"Three of us had to sit down for five hours and phone over 300 people to tell them that they couldn't come to mass," said Father Bill Burke, the priest of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys Parish in Sydney.
"We had to do that very gently and delicately because these are good people who support the parish. But we're bound by the protocols, and not just the protocols — it's an issue of safety. This is an extremely virulent virus, and we can't put people's health at risk."
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth has said it will allow individual churches to make their own decisions on how to worship, providing they follow public health guidelines.
"I would encourage anybody who was thinking about going to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to make sure they call their local church or check their local church websites," said John Stevens, pastoral life and new evangelization manager with the archdiocese.
Stevens added this is a trying time, but there are silver linings if you look for them.
"One is you take solace in the fact that you can still connect with your families, call people who might be isolated now because of the restrictions," he said.
"Make sure that everyone in your family and your orbit and your community is doing OK."
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