Island faith communities are riding out the COVID-19 storm

Island churches missed out on many in-person events for outreach this year, such as Little Current United Church’s Santa breakfast, seen in this Expositor file photo from a previous year.

MANITOULIN – The Expositor reached out to Island churches to discover how they are dealing with the challenges being presented by the ongoing pandemic and how the restrictions and health concerns have changed how they fulfill their spiritual mission and how they are managing to keep the lights on.

Many churches have reopened their doors with strict physical distancing and other health-related precautions, while others have elected to remain closed or have closed once again as the district moved into the yellow zone designation under the provincial pandemic strategy.

Little Current United Church began the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic with a series of livestreamed services by Pastor Paul Allard, noted spokesperson Scott Mosher. “After Paul left, some of us stepped up.” The church has worked at keeping up connections via its online presence, Facebook and other social media links, as well as through the website littlecurrent-sheguiandah-unitedchurch.org.

Beginning Sunday, November 8 the church held its first indoor service in the sanctuary. “We had 18 people participate,” said Mr. Mosher. “It’s very different, there is no singing, everyone is wearing masks and no hugs.” The church has an active outreach committee and several dedicated volunteers have been working to keep the community connected, especially for those with no computer access—and a community newsletter helps to keep folks in touch. There is also food distribution of mini-meals to shut-ins taking place, and the community Good Food Box volunteers are still working out of the United Church Hall.

As for the church finances, Little Current United is currently without a pastor, so finances have been given a timely reprieve in that department, but the church has also been the recipient of generous donations from summer parishioners, including a number of folks who live in the US and couldn’t come up this year. 

United Church services via Zoom can be accessed through the united-in-worship.ca website, and are delivered by George Butt.

Lyons Memorial United Church minister Rev. Mercedes Hughes said that the church has partnered with the Manitoulin Pastoral Charge and the congregation has been enjoying a “very successful Zoom church.”

Rev. Hughes and Rev. Janice Frame of the Manitoulin Pastoral Charge have been taking turns leading the church services.

“It’s been wonderful,” said Rev. Hughes. “We have large gatherings.”

But there are a lot of people in the community, particularly the elderly, for whom Zoom is not a viable option. An old school newsletter helps to keep members in touch to a certain degree, and there are numerous phone calls going out from both the clergy and community volunteers.

St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church in Little Current is remaining closed and probably will remain so until the spring as the priest and most of the congregation have health challenges that leave them particularly vulnerable to the virus. Each Sunday, Father George Gardner makes the rounds of his flock by telephone to deliver a spiritual communion message. Those seeking an in-person mass would have to travel to one of the other Island Catholic churches.

When it comes to finances, the church has also been the recipient of generous donations from many of its summer parishioners living south of the border.

“We are doing alright,” said Father Gardner. “People are experiencing some challenges, but those who can are still contributing what they can.”

Our Lady of Canada Roman Catholic Church in Mindemoya is one of the churches holding services; a regular Saturday evening service at 7 pm and a new Thursday service that takes place at 4 pm.

“We closed up at the start, but opened up as soon as we were allowed,” said spokeperson Sam Bondi. “The turnout is okay, not huge, so we are able to follow all of the regulations. We rearranged the furniture and set up disinfectant and all that.”

The parish consists of many older people, he noted, “so we don’t have a lot of other things going on.”

As far as finances, the parish is managing to hold its head above water. “We managed, people have been generous,” said Mr. Bondi. “We started out in reasonable shape and our expenses are down.”

Necessity is the mother of invention, so it came to be that drive-by communion becomes a thing. “We follow all the COVID protocols, but that is one way that I am able to reach people,” said Rev. Hughes.

“People are struggling,” said Rev. Hughes, noting the impact the loss of the fellowship that the church provides for many people. “We still have our food cupboard and we also deliver food to those people who are in need.”

The food cupboard received a $15,000 boost from a bike-a-thon held by the Rotary Club in July. “We are a very giving community,” said Rev. Hughes. Although there are not a lot of places that people can donate, they can drop off items at the church on Thursdays. At this time of the year, items such as mittens for children are particularly needed.

Holly Scott from Mindemoya Missionary Church admitted that the pandemic has made things “really challenging” when it comes to church operations and programming. The Missionary Church is also currently without a full-time pastor, with Pastor Ray Kloestra retiring in May, but those challenges have led to a broadening of ideas.

“I think, in a way, it has been good for us,” said Ms. Scott. “It changes forever what church is all about.” Things are tending toward the more introspective and holding youth programming and Sunday school within the church present deep challenges.

The loss of community connections has been particularly hard on the close-knit community. In addition to regular get togethers, the loss of simple camaraderie over coffee following Sunday services. “That’s a huge loss,” said Ms. Scott.

Like many Island churches, in a normal year the congregation expands dramatically during the summer months with an influx of tourists and summer residents. “That didn’t happen this year,” she said. But lower expenses, coupled with some innovative ways of giving such as an app that allows people to donate from their phones, has helped stem any stream of red ink flowing onto the church books. “Young people don’t send a cheque,” chuckled Ms. Scott.

The Island Community Church is also taking full advantage of technology, noted  Joel Lock, one of the pastors at the church and the manager of Strawberry Point Christian Camp.

Reaching out to the faithful through the internet has actually expanded the congregation, with celebrants signing in from Sudbury and beyond. 

“There is a very social nature to our gatherings that people are missing,” admitted Pastor Lock. “We are trying to find ways to minister to them.” That outreach includes phone calls, or even harnessing the power of snail mail with an old fashioned letter can help alleviate some of the isolation that comes from the pandemic restrictions.

“This is one of the great challenges of our times,” said Pastor Lock. “None of us has experienced this before.”

Holy Trinity Anglican Church rector’s warden Ursula Paxton noted that the church opened up on September 6, with services taking place on Sunday at 9 am. “We are getting a little bit concerned that we will be shutting down again,” she said, referencing the rise in cases that has placed Manitoulin in the yellow zone.

Anglican church services take place in Little Current and Mindemoya on the first and third Sunday of the month, Gore Bay services are on the second and fourth. Manitowaning has services on the first and third Monday. Anglican minister Rev. Doug Prebble conducts the services and the small congregations tend to make physical distancing less of a challenge.

There are virtual services that can be found online at the Anglican YouTube channel by searching for Doug Prebble.

As for finances, the church has been holding its own, said Ms. Paxton. “The diocese applied for funding and we have not been spending any money,” she said.

The elderly are the hardest hit because of this pandemic, said Grace Bible Church pastor Jonathan Edralin. “The loneliness and lack of visitors hits home hard. There used to be a lot more visiting taking place before the pandemic,” he said. “A lot of that stopped because people were afraid of spreading the virus, others refused to accept visitors.”

The church had restarted a number of its services, including Wednesday night bible services, and Pastor Edralin said he was gratified to see a number of new faces making an appearance, but the church board  decided to once again shut down in-person gatherings at the beginning of November as the threat level in Public Health Sudbury and Districts moved into the yellow zone.

“I think we are all a bit more disappointed the second time around,” said Pastor Edralin.

Nonetheless, services are continuing through livestream on Sundays. “We also have a distanced walking group,” he said. “Just so people who don’t get any face time with people.”

Contacting the church is a bit challenging, as there is usually no one at the church, but Pastor Edralin does check the messages a couple of times a week. “It may take a little longer,” he admits, “but we will get back to you.” Other options include contact through the church Facebook site and directly to Pastor Edralin through email at gracepastor705@gmail.com.