GORHAM — Inside the First Parish Congregational Church, blue ribbons hang high on the left wall, the right wall, the front of the church, and in the back from the balcony.

So far, the ribbons number 1,100. Bea Brockman, a member of the church who cuts and sews the ribbons, will soon help hang 558 more, one for each of the 1,658 people who – as of Saturday – have died in Maine from COVID-19.

“I’ve got a lot of cutting up to do,” Brockman said.

The sea of blue inside the church is striking. Several inches thick, some ribbons are 2 feet long, others are 3 feet long.

The ribbon remembrance project, led by pastor Christine Dyke, started in the spring of 2020 not long after the pandemic shut much of Maine down. “We never thought we’d need to be doing this for so long,” said the church’s social media content manager, Karla Wheaton.

“It’s a symbolic and a visual,” Brockman said. The 1,100-plus ribbons make a statement of the number of lost lives in a way the statistics do not, she said. “It’s rather poignant.”

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Bea Brockman, a member of First Parish Congregational Church in Gorham, prepares to hang a 2-foot-long blue ribbon from the mezzanine of the parish on Friday. Each ribbon represents a Mainer who has died from COVID-19. There are 1,100 ribbons in the church, short of the roughly 1,700 reported by the state. Brockman cuts, sews and hangs the ribbons on fishing line throughout the church. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

On Dec. 21 the church held a Blue Christmas service and posted it on YouTube and Facebook, explaining the ribbons were to honor each life lost in Maine from COVID-19.

“Person after person came back saying, ‘That’s my mother,’ or ‘There’s a ribbon for my dad.’ So it really has been a source of comfort to people whose relatives and friends have died,” Brockman  said. “Also for the rest of us to remind us this is ongoing. This isn’t just a few people. There are so many.”

Now in it’s second year, the project was begun because it’s important to recognize the horrendous loss, the hurt, that so many are suffering, the pastor said.

“Even though we don’t know their names, even though we’ve never met them, we take the losses seriously,” Dyke said. “It’s part of our responsibility as people of faith to say, ‘We witness your loss.'”

Too often society expects people who are grieving “to do it quietly. Go on and be happy,” Dyke said. By surrounding the interior of the church with ribbons, “we’re saying, ‘No. This is not about being happy. This is about remembering other people’s losses. And we are our siblings’ keepers. That’s what this is.”

Remembering individuals is meaningful, said Wheaton, adding that unfortunately she understands the pain too well. Her family is suffering a loss after her stepfather died last week.

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“He didn’t die from COVID, but he had COVID,” Wheaton said. The elderly man was in a southern Maine assisted living facility. “He fell, hit his head and had a brain bleed,” she said, trying to hold back tears. In her grieving, “I try to look at the positives,” she said. “The fact that everyone who comes in here thinks of these people, I’m sure it means a lot.”

The First Parish Congregational Church in Gorham. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Church member Marion Marsh, who at age 91 smiles as she shares that she’s the oldest member of the congregation, approves of the blue strips hanging from the walls. “I think it’s absolutely wonderful. A beautiful thing to do.” As she sits in church, Marsh said she stares at the ribbons and wonders about the people they represent. Who were they? What were they like? “Were they vaccinated?” she said.

Wheaton said she and her husband were fully vaccinated, but she, her husband and their 4-year-old contracted COVID-19 in November. Worried about infecting others, they quarantined for weeks. “Thankfully we were OK.”

The executive director of the Maine Council of Churches, the Rev. Jane Field, said she’s not aware of another church symbolizing the loss of COVID-19 as the Gorham church is doing. “This is the first time I’ve heard of it. It sounds absolutely stunning,” Field said. “It symbolizes such tragedy. It’s powerful.”

On Jan. 4 the Maine Council of Churches issued a statement urging churches to offer virtual services during the omicron surge to reduce the spread, and to do what they can to support the beleaguered and exhausted health care workers in taking steps to promote safety. Pastors should be sending a clear message that getting vaccinated, boosted and wearing masks when in public are “moral imperatives” for anyone who follows the commandment to “Love thy neighbor,” Field said.

Field also encourages congregations to demonstrate compassion to those suffering in the pandemic. The ribbon remembrance project “sounds like an extraordinary step in the same direction,” Field said. “I applaud their efforts.”

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Two-foot-long blue ribbons encircle First Parish Congregational Church in Gorham. Each ribbon represents a Mainer who has died from COVID-19. Approximately 1,100 ribbons have been hung, which is short of the roughly 1,700 reported by the state. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

This Sunday the First Parish of Gorham will not hold a live service; the pastor has been exposed to the virus and is quarantining. The service will be online.

When the church does offer live services, worshippers must wear masks. The number of people in the building is limited, and rows of pews are closed to promote social distancing.

From the pulpit Dyke said she talks about the ribbons and the people they represent.

“On the back wall when the heating vents turn on, those ribbons dance,” Dyke said. “I always say something. ‘They’re dancing for us,’ or ‘Their spirit is present with us.'”

Until the pandemic is over, the church will continue to cut and hang ribbons, she said.

She looks forward to planning a closing ceremony when it’s over. She’d love to invite survivors, attach real names to the ribbons. No ceremony is scheduled. “We’re not there yet,” Dyke said.

“Hopefully it’ll stop,” Brockman said. “Each time I say to Christine, ‘We need more blue ribbon. The rolls come in 50 yards.”

At first the church ordered one roll at a time, Brockman said. “Now she always orders two.”

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