Sara Gauthier has spent nearly every Easter weekend of her life at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Sanford. The sanctuary was filled for services, with members hugging and singing and celebrating before heading home for Easter egg hunts and family dinners.

“There was major celebration and the church was packed,” said Gauthier, who is now in her mid-60s.

But last year, in the early weeks of the pandemic when even small gatherings were not allowed, Christians across Maine marked the resurrection of Jesus Christ in ways they had never imagined. Instead of gathering for sunrise services and prayers and hymns, they logged on to their computers to attend services on platforms like Zoom, YouTube and Facebook that church clergy and lay leaders were scrambling to learn to use. At St. George’s in Sanford, the Rev. Lauren Kay led Easter morning service on Zoom. There was no music and church members without internet access were missing.

This year feels different and more hopeful, said Bishop Thomas Brown of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.

“There’s not a level of tremendous grief over not being able to gather for Holy Week and Easter,” he said. “Those sentiments have largely given way to the feeling that we actually know how to do this. And we also feel, along with the rest of the country, the possibility that if we hold on a little while longer, we may emerge from the pandemic with some sense of what it was like beforehand. We are feeling the truth of raising new life. Last year at this time it felt like a huge blanket of grief.”

The majority of churches that belong to the Maine Council of Churches are planning to meet virtually for services, but others are planning outdoor gatherings, said Rev. Jane Field, the council’s executive director and pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Windham. Most churches, even if they are holding indoor services, also continue to livestream them.

Some churches in Maine, including Baptist and Catholic congregations, have been meeting for in-person services since June, when restrictions on gatherings were changed to allow indoor services for limited numbers of people. Last week, the capacity for all indoor venues, including churches, went up to 50 percent and will increase to 75 percent capacity in May.

Rev. Lauren Kay, rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Sanford, prepares to set up a webcam to hold an online service on Easter Sunday. Kay will also gather outdoors with worshippers on Saturday night for an Easter vigil. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

But other churches have held off holding in-person services, opting to continue virtual ones until cases of COVID-19 are low and more people have the opportunity to be vaccinated.

The 58 year-round churches in the Episcopal diocese will celebrate Easter in a variety of ways, from an indoor service at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Portland to a drive-in Easter worship that Trinity Episcopal Church is holding in the parking lot of Aquaboggan in Saco. Online services will also be held to include those who aren’t vaccinated, are homebound or have joined in from other states and as far away as Japan during the pandemic.

During Holy Week, Episcopal churches adapted activities to reduce the risk of spreading the virus and limit contact while staying connected. St. Mary’s in Falmouth held a virtual Agape Supper for Maundy Thursday, with parishioners picking up food that had been prepared at the church, and then sharing a meal “together” on Zoom.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland worked with 141 churches over the past few weeks to address plans for Holy Week and the Easter Triduum while expanding capacity for in-person attendance. More than 100 Catholic churches across the state will continue livestreaming and the diocese has continued the dispensation from attending Mass in person for those who are not comfortable doing so.

Bishop Robert Deeley said expanded capacity for Holy Week brought “great joy” to many parishioners who had been unable to attend Mass because of attendance restrictions.

While many Catholics will be able to attend Easter services in person, some celebrations were adapted to reduce the risk of coronavirus exposure.

There were no processions on Palm Sunday and palms were blessed and laid out on tables for parishioners to pick up as they left the church instead of during Mass. There was no washing of the feet or processions during the Holy Thursday Masses. On Good Friday, there was no veneration of the cross, where parishioners line up and come to the front of the church to kiss or kneel in front of the cross.

For the Easter vigil, crowds will not gather around the Easter fire, and hymnals and hand candles will not be distributed to the faithful, according to the diocese. But the diocese has been able to add Masses, services and opportunities for people to receive Holy Communion.

“We want to make the sacraments available as we know that those sacraments, gifts of grace from God’s love for us, form us into a people who seek to bring God’s love into the world. The world starts for us with the people who attend Mass, including those participating via livestream,” Deeley said in a statement. “The Spirit of Jesus brings us beyond our own attachment to self and gathers us into a community which is the Church and asks us to care for each other and those we encounter in our world. Being together at Mass is a reminder of the importance of bringing Jesus to others by living his way, which is the way of love.”

Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland will not begin holding indoor services until everyone has the opportunity to be vaccinated. But Rev. Alyssa Lodewick said church members were thrilled this week to be in the sanctuary for the first time in a year for open hours on Maundy Thursday and to visit the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday.

The church will hold a sunrise Easter service at the bunker at Southern Maine Community College, a longstanding tradition that was canceled last year. In the past, 15 or 20 people attended that service, but Lodewick expects to see more this year.

“I think we’ll get a larger crowd this year because people are hankering to worship together in person,” she said. “People are very enthusiastic about that opportunity.”

The church will also hold a digital worship on Zoom at 9 a.m. on Easter, then host an open house at the church until noon that is open to the community. There will be an Easter egg hunt and people can light prayer candles and socialize. COVID-19 protocols, including masks and social distancing, will be in place.

During Holy Week, Lodewick has reflected on the time between when Jesus was placed in the tomb and when he was liberated. That resurrection would not have been as powerful without that “in-between” time in the tomb, she said.

“It feels like we’re in one of those ‘in-between’ times right now as a church, community and nation,” she said. “We’ve been entombed by COVID-19, and we’re waiting to emerge. But we’ve got to be careful that we don’t emerge before all of the processes that are preparing us for re-emergence have taken place, or else the re-emergence process might prove overwhelming and dangerous.”

Since February, members of Faith Lutheran Church in Windham have been holding out hope that they would be together in the outdoor chapel on Easter instead of worshipping together exclusively online as they did through the winter. From June to November, they were able to gather in the outdoor chapel, where wood benches and an altar are surrounded by soaring pines. The last time Field led a service there, orange leaves drifted down to the altar as she spoke.

With spring coming, church members have been preparing the outdoor chapel and are excited to be there on Easter, Field said.

“For those who practice Christianity, the Holy Week and Easter message is particularly profound this year in terms of new life coming from death and signs of new life,” she said. “It really feels potent and powerful this year.”

In Sanford, Kay is keeping a close eye on the forecast for Saturday. If the weather cooperates, church members will gather in the parking lot of St. George’s for an Easter vigil service, traditionally held at sundown on Saturday to recognize Jesus leaving the tomb. The service will be a little shorter than normal because of the outdoor setting and masks.

“We’re trying to blend current circumstances with what is a really holy tradition. We will make joyful noise with noisemakers, not shouting or singing. It’s really hard, but it’s what we need to still be doing to be safe,” Kay said.

For a second year, Kay will lead an Easter morning service on Zoom, but there is an extra feeling of hope this year.

“This year there’s hope with the vaccination and a light at the end of the tunnel when we might emerge from our own COVID tomb,” Kay said. “As Christians, we are Easter people, which means that no matter what, our hope is a risen Christ. With Easter coming and us still being in this situation, there’s a reminder we’re a people of hope. We look forward to the joyful and unexpected things that come with life, whatever it may be.”

Gauthier, who has attended St. George’s her entire life, is looking forward to the first in-person gathering since an outdoor service last summer, when church members brought their lawn chairs and placed them 6 feet apart in the parking lot. Even with the physical distance, the congregation has stayed connected and given each other encouragement throughout the year, Gauthier said, but she’s looking forward to the joy that will come with seeing the faces of her church family in person this weekend.

“There will be lots of air high-fives and (air) hugs,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a good feeling. It’s a step toward healing.”


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