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Churches back on schedule; numbers limited


St. William the Abbot Roman Catholic Church, in Seaford, has the appearance of a modest neighborhood church. Inside, though, the nave is bright, airy, welcoming and large, with a capacity of more than 1,000.

Under the state’s Phase 2 reopening guidelines, which went into effect on June 7, churches, mosques and synagogues are permitted gatherings of congregants of up to 25 percent of their capacities, as assessed by county fire marshals. And while parishioners have, in some cases, been reluctant to take advantage of the easing of restrictions, roughly 60 masked souls gathered on Saturday for the weekly 4 p.m. Vigil Mass at St. William’s.

Like most churches that share Holy Communion — Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Episcopalian, for example — the manner of giving and receiving has undergone changes as part of each denomination’s commitment to keeping worshippers as safe as possible. Before the Mass began, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Joseph Fitzgerald, explained to those assembled how the sacrament would be administered; how parishioners were to observe social distancing; and how they were to leave the church when finished.

Provisions were also made for those who wished to receive the sacrament outside the church, as well as for those who wanted simply to pray after the service ended.

The celebrant, the Rev. James Hansen, assisted by eucharistic ministers and volunteers, kept communion lines moving, and helped parishioners and visitors alike leave the church in an orderly way.

Communion was given at the end of the Mass, rather than at its usual point. After a liberal dose of hand sanitizer, Hansen and two assistants placed a communion wafer in each communicant’s hands, and there was no option to have it placed directly on the tongue. Some recipients wore gloves, but most did not.

Eastern Orthodox Christians receive the sacrament from a chalice, and the mixture of bread and wine is administered with a special spoon. None of that has changed at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, in East Meadow, a parish serving all of the South Shore, with members from as far away as Queens.

“We believe we’re receiving the body and blood of Christ,” the parish’s pastor, the Very Rev. Martin Kraus, explained at the beginning of the restrictions in March. “It cannot be corrupted.”

At 25 percent capacity, the church can allow up to 38 worshippers, clergy and altar servers. As at St. William’s, Holy Trinity maintains social distancing, with worshippers in every other pew. Families may sit together, but individuals sit at the far ends of the pews. Communicants come to the altar one at a time; take a napkin to place under their chins; and then discard the napkin afterward on a tray beside the priest.

The usual Orthodox custom of kissing icons has been suspended, and the remaining communion bread — the antidoron — is reserved in sanitary packaging and handed out after the liturgy, rather than being consumed immediately after receiving the sacrament, as is customary.

St. Jane Frances de Chantal, in Wantagh, one of the area’s largest Catholic parishes, reported a reticence on behalf of its members to attend. “I think they’re still feeling shy because of the virus,” the parish’s assistant business manager, Eileen Jaeger, said.

Resuming its regular Mass schedule on June 14, the church had 160 attendees at the noon service. The following week, the number had risen to about 250.

There were about a dozen attendees at Monday morning’s 7 a.m. Mass, about half of whom were without masks, despite posted notices that they were required. Several agreed that it felt good to resume daily worship. “If I can get a haircut or go to the beach,” one said in passing, “I ought to be able to go to church.”

Churches took different approaches to sanitizing. At St. Frances, volunteers from the Knights of Columbus and Columbiettes disinfected the entire church between services. Its pastor, the Rev. Seth Awo Doku, wrote in the parish newsletter that more volunteers were needed to help between its 16 weekly services.

In addition, the entire church is professionally steam-cleaned each Tuesday, Jaeger explained.

Three Roman Catholic parishes in the area resumed their schedules of weekday services, in addition to the Saturday and Sunday Eucharists that had begun earlier in the month. The fourth, St. James Catholic Church, in Seaford, has limited its weekday services to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, according to the Rev. John Derasmo, its pastor.

Holy Trinity had not yet resumed services on feast days at press time, but like many local churches, it is streaming all services online.

“We don’t have the budget for that kind of equipment,” the Rev. Andrew Groll, of St. Gregory of Nyssa Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church, in Seaford, said at the beginning of the pandemic. But his parish has resumed regular services.

The Episcopal Church of St. Jude, in Wantagh, which serves both Seaford and Wantagh since the closing of St. Michael and All Angels in Seaford at the beginning of the lockdown, has also resumed its two regular Sunday masses. A survey of other various Protestant denominations indicated that regular services had resumed in their churches, too.