Dashboard confessional: How places of worship are coping with COVID-19

Drive-thru absolution. Online prayer. Across Ontario, faiths are adjusting to unprecedented times
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on Apr 07, 2020
St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church, in Belleville, is offering drive-thru confession two hours a day. (David Rockne Corrigan)

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BELLEVILLE — Taped to the door of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church, a 115-year-old Gothic-style building in downtown Belleville, is a notice that no devout parishioner wants to read: “I am sad to inform you that at the archbishop’s request the church will no longer be open even for adoration.”

Behind the church, however — for two hours a day, anyway — the window of the parish office is a portal through which the church stays connected to its congregants during the COVID-19 crisis. Since March 26, every day at 11:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., the church has been offering a sign-of-the-times service: drive-thru confession. “Parishes are communities; they’re families. And we really need to keep contact with our people who are walking through this same difficult time together,” says the church’s pastor, Father Richard Whalen. “What we’ve decided here is to be somewhat innovative.”

Whalen says that, since the church started offering a drive-thru confessional, people have shown up during each of the twice-daily hour-long sessions — though some days are busier than others. In the Catholic church, Whalen says, confession is an important part of Lent, which began on February 26 (Ash Wednesday) and will end on April 9 (Holy Thursday). “As we’re about to celebrate the death of Christ on Good Friday, and the resurrection of our Lord, it’s a time for Catholics to reflect on the state of their soul,” says Whalen from the front steps of the parish office. “These are the great high feasts of the church, so we want to be in the right relationship with God.”

Email and Facebook have also been important tools for communicating with parishioners, Whalen says. In addition to sending out an e-bulletin and updating the church’s website, St. Michael’s has been live-streaming mass every morning at 10 a.m. from the chapel. Whalen has suddenly been thrust into the role of televangelist, and he’s surprised by how rewarding the experience has been so far: “This is the first time I've ever really done televised mass. But I can picture the people of this parish in my mind and in my heart. I’m really speaking to them. And I know that they’re out there and following along. It’s a real sense of unity I’m experiencing through that televised mass.”

Churches aren’t the only religious institutions that have been obliged to alter age-old practices during the coronavirus pandemic. At Kingston’s Beth Israel Congregation synagogue, some meetings and classes have moved online, says Rabbi Erin Polansky, who’s been pleased to see that some of the older congregants have adapted well to the use of technology. But new approaches present a centuries-old conundrum: “We tend to be a more traditional synagogue,” says Polansky. “Using electricity on the Sabbath is not a traditional thing. That's why we're not streaming from our synagogue.”

Some members of the congregation, though, have chosen to use their computers to “take advantage of what others put out there on Shabbat,” she says, adding that she sees it as an opportunity for the Jewish community in Kingston. “It’s given them a window into what other congregations around North America are doing,” she says. "You can pop into a service in Toronto and then New York, or Florida, or wherever. I'm hoping when we finally come back together, we can have discussions about, ‘What did we see out there? How can we enhance what we do?’”

Ontario’s COVID-19 containment measures, which limit public gatherings to no more than five people, are already having an impact on Beth Israel Congregation’s traditions around death. When a congregant died recently, Polansky says, the community wasn’t able to “mourn in a Jewish way” — which involves visiting and comforting the mourner in their home while they sit shiva. Instead of paying visits, family and friends made phone calls and donations. Some relatives performed Kaddish, a required prayer for mourners, online. However, Polansky says that the process felt “lacking” and that there are plans to have a communal memorial for the deceased in future. “There is a Jewish principle that the life and safety of a person takes precedence over everything else. So that is our guide — even if it means that we cannot fulfil important commandments,” says Polansky. “We cannot fulfil them at the expense of someone’s health and well-being.”

The disruption is creating financial strain for Ontario’s Islamic centres, particularly those that rely on donations during Friday prayer. “It's the lifeline,” says Shaffni Nalir, manager of the Toronto Islamic Centre. “For many mosques, it's what helps them keep going, to provide their programs and services.” The centre was unable to pay rent for April, Nalir says, but online donations have started coming in, and he’s hopeful they will be able to cover it soon. “Muslims have a special connection to Mecca and Medina. So when mosques in Mecca and Medina closed, that’s when it hit home for many people.” He admits it may be wishful thinking, but he’s hoping that things will be back to normal before the holy month of Ramadan begins April 23. Even for those who don’t attend weekly prayer, he says, mosques are a vital place to connect during the holiday.

The Toronto Islamic Centre, like other Islamic centres and mosques in the province, has moved programming online where possible. Some of its services are now being streamed live on Facebook and YouTube, says Nalir, and it’s also experimenting with online delivery of lectures and classes: “We’re definitely taking advantage of Zoom.”

Nalir says he is already looking forward to a day when he can reflect on this chapter and take pride in how his community persisted through hardship. “I have two kids. Inshallah, once this does pass, I will be able to tell them, ‘Remember the time when your dad wanted to go pray at the mosque but he wasn't able to?’ Hopefully, in a couple of years from now, we'll have a good story.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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