One Parish’s Pandemic
Trinity Church, Garnerville—organized in 1846 and brought into union with the Diocese of New York in 1847—is the oldest Episcopal parish in Rockland County. The current church building was opened in 1899. Like many parishes, its congregation has ebbed and flowed, and the local demographics have changed considerably. But it has survived, albeit a bit smaller in numbers, and this year, shas stood up to the COVID-19 challenge well.
When ordered by the Diocese, Trinity stopped weekly services—as did a Spanish-Methodist Church which rents the parish hall on Sundays, and a large AA group which filled the hall on Saturdays. Small AA groups that met weekdays also stopped meeting. AA donations also ceased, although those were more an outreach program as they hardly covered utility costs. The Spanish church offered to keep paying rent, but we thankfully declined that offer.
Using the Internet and our email network, Trinity was able to keep its members informed on all progress toward an eventual reopening. We continued to email our monthly newsletter and copies of the weekly scripture lessons to our members and to our Trinity Times email list, which goes out to numerous former members who have move away.
We have three older parishioners who have no Internet and they received everything by US mail each week. Our long-term supply, the Rev. Dr. Anthony Stephens, sent us a weekly sermon which we resent to all by email and US mail.
In addition, the readings and sermons were posted weekly on the parish Facebook page, where we also posted links to the weekly meditations received from the Bishops, in addition to emailing them to our members.
We also asked parishioners to maintain their weekly/monthly pledges by mailing their checks to the church, and they did. As treasurer, I made daily trips to the church to gather the mail. Checks were deposited weekly in our checking account and the weekly donation sheets were maintained. Not one single bill, utility or otherwise, was missed.
When word came down that we would be allowed to reopen July 1, the Vestry and the treasurer met one Sunday morning on the church lawn and formulated what would eventually be our reopening plan.
Junior Warden Dave Mart took on the task of chairing the project and we subsequently sent a first draft to Rev. Dr. Stephens, who is also the Vicar of St. John’s in the Wilderness, a mission of the Diocese in Harriman State Park. Stephens made a few suggestions, and we were off and running. That is, running around to procure masks, hand sanitizers and gloves.
Masks became available from the County of Rockland and Trinity applied for a supply and received a package. Hand sanitizer and gloves were purchased over several weeks at local stores.
We had to set down a few rules and make them known to the parish. It was decided that we would make an announcement at the beginning of the service regarding the precautions we were taking and the associated changes to the service.
These included the requirement that masks be worn at all times while inside the church, and the provision of personal protective equipment (gloves, sanitizer and masks) in the church vestibule, with sanitizer also in the sacristy, the sanctuary, the parish hall, and adjacent to restrooms. Those who prepare the altar must wear gloves, and only the priest may directly handle items on the altar. Every other row of pews is blocked off, and congregants are asked to sit alternately from row to row near the aisle or near the wall.
We continue to offer hard copy readings in the church vestibule, which congregants deposit in the recycle bin on the way out of church. At the same time, we’ve encouraged “adoption” of personal copies of the Morning Prayer booklet and Book of Common Prayer for use each week.
We have separate microphones for readers and priest, we have no congregational singing (Gloria, Sanctus, etc. are spoken), and the peace is exchanged without moving and without touching. Communion is restricted to the wafer only, with wine reserved for the celebrant, and Father Stephens distributes the Host row by row, dropping it into communicants’ hands.
We opened July 5 with a Morning Prayer service at 9:30 a.m. and went over all the “new rules.” After a second Sunday of Morning Prayer, Rev. Dr. Stephens celebrated the first Eucharistic service in Trinity since March, and 26 people attended. Coffee hour, usually held in the parish hall, was taken outdoors the first week, but has since returned inside with social distancing.
The vestibule and nave of the church is self-sanitized each week – our Sunday service is its only usage. Our use of assigned pews further mitigates risk of direct contact exposure.
We leave the windows, vestibule door and side ramp door open before and during service to maximize ventilation. The entire church complex is cleaned weekly by a contracted cleaning service.
A few senior members, who have health concerns, have not yet returned to services, but we continue to send them the weekly readings and maintain contact. Our per diem organist has also retuned and we hum along under our masks, longing for the day when we can once again sing praises to our Lord, out loud. It’s not perfect, but it sure beats just sitting at home Sunday mornings.