Emilio Arteaga, the beloved longtime deacon at St. Agatha’s, a Roman Catholic church in Brooklyn, died from Covid-19 on Good Friday this year. It was not until 10 days later that just a handful of priests and nuns were able to mark the occasion by reciting a single prayer over his casket, in the middle of 49th Street.
“It was so painful,” said Rev. Vincentius Do, the church’s pastor. “They brought the hearse in front of the church, we came out, said a prayer, sprinkled holy water and off he went.”
Like many other houses of worship in New York, St. Agatha’s has reopened, with clergy and congregants a bit battered. They’ve adapted their centuries-old traditions in order to worship safely.
Religious services were shut down by the state at the end of March and weren’t allowed to resume until June. Since reopening, churches, synagogues and mosques throughout the city have mandated masks, limited the number of people in each service, employed strict cleaning regimens and abbreviated the length of services.
Those efforts, however, may no longer be enough. As the infection rate in the city rises, new restrictions may soon be put in place.
St. Agatha’s Church
Sunset Park, Brooklyn
At St. Agatha’s, parishioners recite prayers by memory because all the prayer books — Spanish, English and Mandarin — have been removed from the pews. There are no processions or recessions, and during Holy Communion priests do not serve sacramental wine. Congregants no longer hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer or greet each other during the Exchange of Peace.
St. Agatha’s closed again after the March shutdown, on Oct. 9. The governor placed it in an “orange zone” because of an increase in coronavirus cases in nearby neighborhoods — although there had been only one known case in the parish in the previous month. The building reopened two weeks later.
“It has been like riding a roller-coaster with a blindfold on,” said Father Do.
The congregants of this predominately Latino parish struggled at times to get used to the openings and closings and safety measures, said Father Do, but the church has been able to provide its members solace and support.
At least for now. As the infection rate climbs in the city, the church’s members fear more restrictions and closings are still to come.
The Jewish Center
Upper West Side, Manhattan
This modern Orthodox synagogue didn’t wait for the state — they closed down a week before the March shutdown went into effect, and didn’t restart services until August.
“In Judaism, the preservation of life is of the highest priority, and that has to come before all other considerations,” said Rabbi Yosie Levine, who has served at the synagogue since 2004.
The sanctuary at The Jewish Center accommodates more than 500 people but only 60 are now allowed inside at a time. Attendees must preregister online, answer a coronavirus exposure survey and have their temperature taken at the door.
When weather permits, shortened services are held outside on the rooftop.
While individual prayer is important, Judaism elevates worshiping with others, said Dr. Michael Wolfe, a gastroenterologist who attends the daily morning minyan at the Jewish Center.
“I missed the communal aspect of praying together,” Dr. Wolfe said. “Reopening enabled me to continue the activity that I have been doing every morning for the last 30 years.”
Attendance has been limited to 64 people at this Queens mosque, and attendees bring their own prayer rugs that they set up in designated spots, six feet apart.
Since June, the mosque has added extra sessions on Friday of jummah, the most important prayer of the week, so that all who want to can pray in person.
At the door, temperatures are checked and hand sanitizer is dispensed to the congregants, who must also wear masks.
Muslims pray five times a day, and they can do so at home, said Sheikh Akram Kassab, Dar Al-Dawah’s imam. Being closed in March was difficult, he said, but safety came first.
“In our religion, we have to keep our soul and our body healthy,” Sheikh Kassab said. “We have to respect the religion and we have to respect our neighbors and keep them safe, whether they are Muslim or not.”
Hindu Temple Society of North America
Priests wearing white robes, surgical masks and plastic face guards continue to perform services, ceremonies and rituals at the Hindu Temple Society of North America, also known as the Ganesh Temple. Only 30 people are allowed inside at a time, and only for 15 minutes each. At the door they are scanned by a wall-mounted infrared scanner that checks their temperature and whether they are wearing masks.
Worshipers are no longer allowed to touch the shrines of deities, and offerings cannot be directly handed to the priest. Since March, services have been also live-streamed daily.
Though the digital experience is better than nothing, said Dr. Uma Mysorekar, the president of the temple, it is lacking. And the current in-person restrictions — while essential for safety — are not ideal for worship, she added. But at least people are able “to see the deities, have their services done and experience the energy that happens in the temple.”
The Christian Cultural Center
East New York, Brooklyn
Nineteen members of this Brooklyn megachurch have died from Covid, and hundreds more were infected, including the pastor, Dr. A.R. Bernard, who said he spent a week in the hospital in March “with every symptom imaginable.”
After a month of quarantining at home, Dr. Bernard returned to work, broadcasting services on YouTube and Facebook that are viewed by tens of thousands of congregants.
Like many other large, predominantly Black churches in New York City, the Christian Cultural Center has not reopened its building since March because of deep concerns for the safety of congregants, Dr. Bernard said.
The virus has hit Black and Latino people in the city particularly hard, with their rate of death twice as high as it is for white people.
“We witnessed the inefficiencies and inequities in health care when it came to certain communities,” he said.
The church plans to broadcast services through the end of the year, Dr. Bernard said. And, since it first began the giving recorded services, they have evolved into “a much better interpretation of our worship experience,” he said.
Different parts of the Sunday service are recorded during the week, with four cameras and even sometimes a smoke machine. Instead of a sermon, Dr. Bernard holds a conversation with his son Jamaal Bernard, connecting biblical passages to current events. The edited service is then streamed three times on Sunday and participants can ask questions or comment and exchange greetings in a live chat room.
An additional daily prayer conference call attracts about 1,300 people every morning.
“We are still doing community,” Dr. Bernard said. “Isolation is antithetical to our sense of purpose. The building is closed, but church is open.”