Closed churches preach safety
Deadly COVID-19 outbreak in March keeps many city services online-only
Calgary’s Living Spirit United Church lost congregants of their own to COVID-19 after a “small church gathering” left dozens infected and two dead.
It’s a “devastating” situation no place of worship wants to repeat and is why Knox United Church will continue to keep its doors closed, despite the government’s approval to reopen with no limit on guests.
“That cannot be our story,” said Rev. Greg Glatz with the downtown church.
Knox United is one of many places of worship in Calgary that refuses to resume in-person services in an effort to protect its parishioners as the threat of COVID-19 remains.
In early June, under Stage 1 of Alberta’s relaunch plan, faithbased facilities were given the green light to reopen with a 50-person limit. Less than two weeks later, the province lifted the cap on visitors so long as physical distancing measures were in place under Stage 2 of the economic strategy.
Rev. Tracy Robertson, with St. Thomas United Church in northwest Calgary, said the novel coronavirus is still too great a risk as new cases crop up daily in the province.
“This deadly virus is not yet under control,” said Robertson.
“We are an affirming and inclusive church and the current restrictions don’t fit our values and philosophy of open hands, open hearts and open minds with space (and) people restrictions coupled with not being able to sing.”
Under provincial guidelines, organizations are asked to discontinue any activity that increases the risk of COVID-19 — including singing. Robertson said they’re a “very musical community” and not being able to do that takes away from the church’s character.
Instead, congregants are taking to the virtual pew during online worship services, and will soon be able to join Zoom calls for group sessions and social meetups.
Robertson said it’s unclear when they will reopen to the public but will reassess the situation in late August.
“People’s safety is our utmost priority,” she said.
“Besides, this gives us more of what we should be doing and that is being the church outside the walls of a church building. It allows us to live out our faith in the world.”
Similarly, Knox United is offering its Sunday and mid-week services online as the pandemic drags on.
Glatz said a significant portion of their congregation is at risk of COVID-19, but regardless of age or situation, the church’s priority is to protect the safety of all.
“People who are in the vulnerable group at Knox — maybe half of them — would love to get back in the building. They’re not really worried, so we need to be worried on behalf of everyone,” he said.
Their decision “isn’t popular” with the entire congregation but the possibility of facing the same heartbreak as their sister church Living Spirit United is too great.
Knox United has formed a working group to plan for a multi-phased and gradual reopening.
They will likely start with the admission of small church or community groups, then mid-week service with a small number of congregants and, lastly, the resumption of Sunday worship service.
“It’s not the space in the building. We can hold 800 people but probably only between 100 and 200 would show up, so we can easily physically distance those folks. It’s
It’s not the space in the building … It’s the bottlenecks coming in through the doors or hallways.
the bottlenecks coming in through the doors or hallways,” said Glatz, adding it would be hard to require people not to hug.
There’s no definite date Knox United will reopen.
They are taking into consideration data from across North America to understand potential risks of COVID-19 exposure in worship halls that have welcomed back guests, alongside Alberta’s daily numbers.
Other churches have carefully embraced the province’s lifted restrictions.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary, for example, said each parish in the city will determine the maximum numbers of attendees allowed for weekday and Sunday masses. They are asking guests to wear a mask when it is not possible to physically distance, such as receiving Holy Communion.
Father Robert Bengry greets parishioners as they arrive for mass at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Inglewood on Sunday. Though places of worship have been given the green light to reopen in Alberta, many are keeping their doors closed over safety concerns.
Parishioners maintain physical distance alone and in family groups at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church on Sunday.