Winnipeg religious services cancelled, but worship continues

By | March 20, 2020

Most in-person mass and prayer services are cancelled in Winnipeg due to COVID-19 social distancing rules, but believers still have options to practise their faith. 

On Friday, provincial health officials banned gatherings of more than 50 people. But even before that, religious groups were either shutting their doors completely or severely limiting access. 

The Pioneer Mosque and the Grand Mosque in Winnipeg are going digital after shutting their doors last Sunday, with  plans to remain closed until circumstances permit them to reopen.

‘I am personally very sad,” said Idris Elbakri, chair of the Manitoba Islamic Association. “Many share that sense of sadness. Friday prayers to us is a big deal. We consider it to be an obligation.”

Friday prayers will be streamed online but Elbakri knows that does not replace the human connection of being at the mosque. He said shaking hands is a big part of the gatherings.  

Idris Elbakri, chair of the Manitoba Islamic Association, acknowledges it’s difficult to replace the human connection people get from attending a mosque. ‘We told members for every handshake you miss, make a phone call and talk to somebody,’ he says. (Thomas Asselin/CBC)

“We told members for every handshake you miss, make a phone call and talk to somebody. So hopefully that’s being heeded.”

While the decision to close was based on Manitoba public health directives, Elbakri says Muslim teachings dating back to the sixth century carry a similar message. 

“Our Prophet Muhammad thought that those who have a contagious disease should not mix with those who are healthy,” said Elbakri. 

The teachings also advise not to go where there is a plague, but that if you happen to be in a place where a plague breaks out, you shouldn’t leave it.

Life cycle continues under pandemic

Public assemblies have been cancelled at Shaarey Zedek until further notice, but the synagogue’s rabbis will still conduct prayer services and live stream them on YouTube.

In the meantime, some ceremonies for life cycle events continue at the synagogue, albeit in a modified way to ensure social distancing.  

On Thursday, the Rice family celebrated a scaled-down bar mitzvah for Joshua and bat mitzvah for Eva in the synagogue. Only immediate family attended. They were originally supposed to hold the celebration in Israel, but restrictions for travellers forced them to cancel the trip. 

There was no customary reception afterwards. Synagogue officials asked for the celebration to be kept to the barest minimum, a directive the family took in stride.  

“I think they were in a realization that it isn’t going to be what they had originally planned,” said Ian Staniloff, executive director of Congregation Shaarey Zedek.

Ian Staniloff, executive director of Shaarey Zedek, says social distancing rules will affect how the synagogue approaches weddings and funerals. (CBC)

He said the synagogue is still figuring out how to handle all the upcoming bar and bat mitzvahs — a required rite of passage after the age of 12 or 13 for girls, and age 13 for boys — in light of quickly changing circumstances.

“It does not have to be done by a certain date,” explained Staniloff, who says the synagogue is also exploring what to do with upcoming weddings. 

The social distancing required to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will also significantly change how funerals are conducted. 

The current plan at Shaarey Zedek is to go ahead with graveside services, with only close relatives in attendance. 

“It also changes how we expect the families to be comforted afterwards. There is a period of mourning where it’s considered a shiva period, where friends and families congregate to comfort the mourners,” said Staniloff.

The synagogue is asking people to do that through means that don’t involve in-person contact, like FaceTime or other messenging services, or by phone, he said.

The Jewish people, Staniloff said, have survived crises in both modern and ancient times, and they’ll get through this one too.

“I think the strength we all draw from these things is the fact that hopefully … goodness will prevail, and that we rely on each other’s strength.” 

Masses cancelled, including Easter

Precautions to fight the spread of COVID-19 started in Manitoba in the middle of Lent — the 40-day period prior to Easter, during which Catholics fast and give penance.

All assemblies for regular masses and for confession at Winnipeg’s Catholic churches have been cancelled until circumstances change. Communion will no longer be given in group settings.

“I’m sure it’s causing some anxiety for many people,” said Daniel Bahuaud, communications co-ordinator for the Archdiocese of St. Boniface.

“Communion is the source and summit of the liturgy in our Catholic faith.”

Pope Francis leads mass via a video live stream in a chapel full of empty seats in the Vatican on March 10, 2020. Assemblies for regular masses and for confession at Winnipeg’s Catholic churches have been cancelled for the time being. (Vatican Media via Reuters)

Masses are still available in English and French via live stream from the Parish of Saints-Martyrs-Canadiens in St. Boniface.

Pastors will make themselves available to hear one-on-one confessions while maintaining the recommended two metres of physical separation. 

They are also prepared to visit people in hospital or confined to home who request communion, confession or the sacrament of the sick (sometimes referred to as the last rites).

“[The] basic message is the church is still here,” said Bahuaud, “it’s still open, and to not be afraid.”

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