WINNIPEG — Most Sunday morning’s around 300 worshippers pack St. Charles Parish for mass. But on this Sunday, the parking lot is empty and pews are quiet, except for a handful of worshippers preparing for a live stream.
“I never thought I’d see the day when I would be using social media to get the message of the gospel out,” said Father Michael Willbaum.
Willbaum became a priest 24 years ago, now he’s answering another calling: reaching out to parishioners during the COVID-19 pandemic with a smartphone.
While many businesses across Manitoba are preparing to reopen Monday, churches remain off limits.
“This is one of the lifelines for the community. Especially those who are isolated. They can’t see their loved ones, especially seniors.”
Sunday’s sermon was broadcast on Facebook and the message was timely. “Sacrifice is an act of selfless love. There are all kinds of sacrifices, that parents children, everybody is making,” said Willbaum.
TESTAMENT TO PERSERVERANCE
The church band ‘Project Sunday’ provided the soundtrack for mass and some technical support, adjusting the smartphone regularly to capture every angle of the service.
“Every week presents its challenges, but we’re a diverse group and we back each other up,” said band member Joanne Esteban.
“This is our way to share our faith, even though we’re all quarantined or separate,” said fellow bass guitarist and worshipper Daisy Araneta. “It’s fulfilling.”
Willbaum said the church has been relying on a smartphone, but has made an appeal for a used camera and audio equipment to improve video quality and sound.
“IT’S BEEN A BIG LEARNING CURVE”
The United Church in Meadowood is also reaching out to its congregation by going digital.
“This provides some normalcy of habits. We’re seeing some people online we haven’t met face to face,” said Stacey Milne-Ciecko, Christian education coordinator of the United Church in Meadowood.
Many of the programs at the church, like seniors lunches and games nights, have been halted because of the pandemic.
When this happened we have to relearn a whole new way of connecting with people,” said Milne-Ciecko. “It’s been a big learning curve, lots of changes.”
The church posts its services on Facebook and YouTube, providing worshippers with more flexibility than traditional worshipping.
“If they decide they need some worship on a Monday or a Wednesday, they can go back and find the worship services.”
“BRIDGE THE DIVIDE”
Daniel MacLeod, director of the Jesuit Centre for Catholic Studies at the University of Manitoba said COVID-19 may have a lasting impact on society’s relationship with religion.
“There are new opportunities for people to think about how they practice their religions, as opposed to just in a church.”
MacLeod said places of worship and parishioners are trying to adapt.
“There are lots of people Winnipeg and Manitoba, all over the world, who have never missed church in their lives. This will be the first time. I think it’s interesting how the church is trying to bridge the divide.”
Both St. Charles Parish and the United Church in Meadowood have plans to continue livestreaming services even after people are allowed to gather in large groups again.
Willbaum said while the future is uncertain, this has been a time of reflection for people of all faiths.
“I think because of the suffering and the difficult conditions around us, everyone is forced to look within and see what they’re made of.”
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