WESTBROOK — Ever since most religious venues suspended regular services because of the coronavirus outbreak, the faithful of all religions have been forced to embrace a new definition of “faith community” – one that involves teleconferencing software, online forums, video-sharing services, social networking and other methods of virtual communication.

That includes the Rev. Lou Phillips, pastor of several Catholic churches in Westbrook, Gorham and Windham, who came up with an alternative celebration of Palm Sunday, and the Rev. Philip Tracy, pastor of the Parish of the Holy Eucharist in Gray, who has a new way to handle confessions.

Phillips came up with a creative solution that other churches have since adopted. April 5 was Palm Sunday, when a traditional Catholic Mass is accompanied by palm leaves, symbolic of the path Jesus walked upon. Catholics who attend Palm Sunday receive the fronds that they then use to decorate their homes. With no Masses being held in person, that wasn’t possible this year.

Phillips said he was chatting with a fellow Catholic who lived in Florida, who could collect palm leaves outside without needing to go to church. Phillips then came up with the idea of “Pine Sunday,” using pine boughs instead of the traditional palm leaves. Parishioners in Maine could collect the boughs at home easily enough, and use them instead.

“We’re using what we have, and somehow it will be enough,” he said.

Phillips said the necessities dictated by the coronavirus is forcing everyone, even the religious, to come up with other ways to function in life.

“I really feel that God is working through us in new ways, and possibly more effective ways,” he said.

That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Phillips is now performing virtual Masses, livestreaming from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Windham. It has been an adjustment for him, he said, to conduct ceremonies with no congregation in front of him, but he has received positive feedback from parishioners.

“Our church has been turned into a virtual television studio, but it works,” he said.

At Parish of the Holy Eucharist, confessions are now “drive-thru” affairs. Tracy sits in his car at a pre-announced location and time, and people can come to speak with him, often without even getting out of their own cars. He puts up partitions and cloths to maintain parishioners’ privacy and anonymity, much like the screen between two booths does in a traditional church setting.

“Pope Francis was very clear that we were to go to where the people are, and to think in new ways,” said Tracy, whose parish includes Gray, Falmouth, Yarmouth and Freeport.

Catherine Gentile, who has been attending services at the parish for more than 30 years, said she just tried the concept last Saturday, speaking with a different priest in the parish. She prefers to speak face to face, and that was allowed too, albeit at proper distance.

“At first, I thought the idea was awful,” she said, but she later admitted, “It was actually a lovely experience.”

She said she wasn’t the only one who liked the idea.

“When I left, there was a line of cars behind me,” she said.

Tracy said he thinks the presence of a line of people waiting provides an unusual source of hope for those who might feel isolated from the church.

“It’s visible – people can see it,” he said. “Hopefully people can see that we’re trying to meet people’s needs.”

Tracy said he, too, is live streaming services. While he calls it “the next best thing” to being in person, he admits that even he has trouble getting used to it.

“It’s hard to say Mass with no one there,” he said. “You’re looking at a camera. There’s no energy.”

Gentile said that while online services aren’t the same, they do give her a sense that the church, and the community she has come to love that goes with it, are still there.

“You realize you’re not alone,” she said.

Cindy McCormack has been attending Masses at St. Anne’s Church in Gorham for the past 23 years, so it was hard for her to hear that the church was suspending in-person services.

“At first it was, ‘Oh my gosh, how could this be?'” she said.

Phillips’ innovative approach to Palm Sunday, however, gave McCormack the courage to embrace the new realities forced upon her by the coronavirus.

“This whole world is turned upside down, and we’re all looking at everything differently, so it makes all the sense in the world,” she said. “I don’t have to have what I thought I always needed.”

McCormack praised Phillips for maintaining a Mass schedule, and said Phillips has preserved the intimacy of the experience.

“It just was wonderful,” she said. “You felt like you were right up close.”

While innovations can work, social distancing can also be stressful for congregants.

Cathy Rand said she’s having a hard time being away from her fellow parishioners at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland.

“You have your family, and you have your church family,” said Rand, who can’t recall how long she’s attended the cathedral, but said her son Joe was baptized there as a baby and he’s now 48.

The Rev. Kevin Upham, parochial vicar at the cathedral, said local Catholics will have to attend services online, which is particularly painful this week because it is Holy Week, leading up to Easter Sunday.

“It’s definitely going to be hard for people to not be present,” he said.

Upham said an officiant and very few other people conduct Masses in the empty cathedral, with video cameras providing live streaming of the service on Facebook for parishioners. Other ceremonies held outside of Mass, such as the Adoration, are also available.

Online services are available for other faiths, too.

The Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine has set up a page on its website, “The JCA Virtual Experience,” to help the faithful stay connected. It offers links to virtual services held by a number of Rabbis in various communities, along with a link to “10 minutes of Torah,” short recorded sessions produced by The Center for Small Town Jewish Life.

The website also has help for people feeling shut in, with book, art and music recommendations, and even recipes.

For Muslims, the lack of in-person services are particularly impactful.

At the Maine Muslim Community Center in Portland, which serves as the largest mosque in the area, Director Ahmed Abdirahman said regular prayer services during the week can be held virtually, but like many other religious groups, it is hardly ideal.

“It’s better than nothing, yes, but we don’t feel like it’s nearly good enough,” he said.

Regular Friday prayer services, the most important regular service for a Muslim to attend, require gatherings in person, and cannot be held online, Abdirahman said. Also, Islam’s annual Ramadan celebration, which runs from the last week of April to the last week of May, also mandates gatherings in person.

Worst of all, Abdirahman said, are funeral rites. Islam requires the dead to be buried within 24 hours, with a series of ceremonies leading up the burial, and funerals also require large gatherings in person.

“That’s more painful than missing the experience of Ramadan or even the Friday prayer,” he said.

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