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A Church Reopens In Cambridge, But Most Members Are Not Ready To Gather03:15
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St. Mary's Orthodox Church in Cambridge. (Adrian Ma/WBUR)
St. Mary's Orthodox Church in Cambridge. (Adrian Ma/WBUR)

In a lot of ways, it was a typical Sunday at St. Mary's Orthodox Church in Cambridge.

Chants echoed off the walls. The smell of incense wafted through the church. Father Antony Hughes recited prayers and benedictions, including one "for all those that are suffering from the COVID-19 virus, and their families and friends."

But unlike the past several Sundays, there were people in the pews — about 30 of them, a fraction of the usual pre-pandemic crowd. When the congregants sang, their words were muffled by cloth masks. At the end, Hughes urged those in the room, and those watching the live stream at home, to stay vigilant.

"As far as I know, we have no cases of coronavirus in our parish," he said. "Let's keep it that way, alright?"

"We do this social distancing and limiting everything because we love people and we don't want to get people sick," he added. "It's not a matter of fear. It's a matter of love."

For those in attendance, the service was a little peculiar. Families stood several feet apart; the choir was not present (although they were on Zoom), in order to reduce the chance of viral spread through singing; there was no handshaking between parishioners; and no communion wafers were given out.

Still, for some, it was better than watching the service online.

"Everything's in full color again," said Arianna Krinos, a PhD student who, prior to the state's March 23 order barring gatherings indoor gatherings of more than 10 people, attended service every week.

"This is definitely the longest I've gone without church since being in Kindergarten," she said. "Things weren't normal, for sure. But it was also nice to have that shared sense of 'we're all in this together.'"

Bob Kowalik was similarly buoyed by the experience. For the past couple of months, Kowalik has been watching the St. Mary's service on a live stream, sometimes with a cup of coffee and a corn muffin in hand — and that just didn't feel like church, he said.

"This, at least there were some other people there," Kowalik said of Sunday's service. "Our theology says that when people get together, that's the body of Christ. So we're finally together. Not all of us, but at least some of us."

The first phase of the state's reopening guidelines limit houses of worship limit to 40 percent occupancy, so Sunday's service was sort of invite-only. As a church secretary, Kowalik spent the past week going down an alphabetical list of parish members, calling them up and saying, 'Hey, wanna come to church?'

The church had planned to have as many as 20 "family units" attend service in person that day, but only 13 accepted the invitation, Kowalik said.

"A lot of people were not ready to come back," he said. "They were apologetic: 'Call me in another couple of weeks. I don't feel good about it now.'"

One of those reluctant members is Katie Boardman.

"I'm not too comfortable being indoors with a large group of people at this time," she said.

Instead, Boardman watched the service at home.

"I was very lucky in that I live with some people that go to this church," she said. "So we were able to kind of create our own little Sunday morning experience. Which is really beautiful and meaningful and still makes you feel connected.'

And yet, minutes after the service ended she walked over to the church and stood across the street, waving to some of the familiar, albeit masked, faces as parishioners walked out.

"I've really missed them, clearly. Here I am," Boardman said.

But for now, she said, maybe the kindest thing she can do for them is stay away.

This segment aired on May 25, 2020.

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Adrian Ma is a reporter for WBUR's Bostonomix team.

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