Suburban churches offer mix of indoor, outdoor, virtual services for Easter

Amid rising COVID-19 infections and talk of yet another wave of cases, suburban churches are cautiously navigating this Easter season with a mix of in-person worship and livestreaming services for those faithful staying home.

An earlier trend of lower community COVID-19 transmission rates and more people getting vaccinated allowed some churches to reopen with reduced capacity for the first time after nearly a year of mostly virtual gatherings. Still, indoor services are rare and most churches are opting for virtual or outdoor ceremonies in parking lots and plazas this weekend.

"We are going to celebrate Easter Sunday outdoors," said the Rev. Esequiel Sanchez, rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines.

  Maintenance worker Juan Ramirez sprays down the statue of John so it can be painted and set out for display under the cross of Jesus as officials prepare for Easter services at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines. Mark Welsh/

Usually, the shrine draws hundreds of thousands of visitors yearly but has been closed for much of the pandemic. In December, officials cloistered Mary's image - one of the most venerated Catholic icons in the country - for the first time in 30 years to discourage the throngs of visitors who typically make pilgrimage there for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

A trial run brought hundreds of families to the shrine on Palm Sunday. Visitors brought their own chairs and blankets and followed social-distancing protocols.

"You can just see the absolute need the community feels for an encouragement of faith," Sanchez said. "Last (Easter), we were at the beginning of this (pandemic) and we had no idea that it would be so costly. We are still not out of the woods yet. It has been extremely painful."

A Good Friday observance of the "Passion of the Lord" will be at 3 p.m. in the shrine's plaza at 1170 N. River Road, followed by a condolence for Mary at 7 p.m. Easter Sunday Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. in the plaza, which can accommodate up to 1,400 people with appropriate spacing, Sanchez said.

  Maintenance worker Martin Bernal paints the statue of Mary after it was sprayed cleaned. It will be moved to rest under the cross of Jesus for Easter services at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines. Mark Welsh/

"We have a beautiful outdoor shrine that allows us to offer an opportunity for the community that sometimes people with indoor services can't do," he said. "We have been praying so hard for good weather. I'm whipping out every Saint I know."

Services also will be livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube.

Most churches within the Archdiocese of Chicago will be streaming Easter Masses online. Parishes hosting in-person services and events require preregistration and strict observance of COVID-19 protocols of wearing face masks, social distancing and use of hand sanitizer, spokeswoman Susan Thomas said.

Another suburban congregation that typically draws tens of thousands of worshippers for Easter is Willow Creek Community Church. Its seven sites, including the main campus in South Barrington and satellite locations in Crystal Lake, Huntley and Wheaton, have resumed in-person services in the past month.

"We've had good practice (for) how we can handle crowds," said Liz Schauer, Willow Creek marketing and communications director.

In a typical year, roughly 20,000 people attend Easter services at South Barrington. That site will host three services Sunday and they are fully booked with reduced capacity.

"We're operating at less than 50% capacity," Schauer said. "We're hosting services both in person and online for all of our seven campuses. It's really split ... some people are ready to come back and some people are still hesitant. That's why we are continuing to offer the online experience."

For many people, being disconnected from their faith communities for the past year has compounded the effects of pandemic social isolation.

"It's been easy for people to disengage for that reason," said Derek Rogers, pastor of Flowing Forth United Methodist Church in Aurora.

Last Easter, Rogers delivered his sermon in a video message from a cemetery.

This year, the church is hosting a self-guided prayer walk from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday with various stations set up inside the building and a 10 a.m. Easter Sunday service for a maximum of 75 people in the auditorium of Aurora Christian School.

  The Rev. Patrick Parks, pastor of Second Baptist Church of Elgin, says while many members are eager to return to in-person worship for Easter, others still have some reservations and can view services from home. Rick West/

"We're taking a lot of precautions, but really excited to see people again ... after about a year of online worshipping," Rogers said. "We've got livestreaming available. If there's something this last year has illustrated for us, it's the importance of connecting with an online community and making our services available for people."

With the challenges of this past year, many congregants have developed a greater appreciation for in-person worship, said Patrick Parks, pastor of Second Baptist Church of Elgin.

Parks is hosting a virtual Good Friday service at 7 p.m. on Zoom in collaboration with other African American ministers. He also will lead a 10 a.m. Easter Sunday service at the church with attendance limited to 25% of capacity.

"We can safely seat about 300 people," Parks said. "We took a survey of our membership. We found that a lot of people are still not planning on coming back to church until after Easter. The pandemic has allowed us to evolve. We livestream our own worship services. We will be doing that simultaneously."

Several suburban churches are offering Easter services in parking lots to accommodate members still uncomfortable with entering buildings despite reduced capacity and socially distanced seating.

The Rev. Bradley Zamora celebrates Mass during Lent from a truck outside St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Lake Zurich. The church will have a drive-in Easter Sunday Mass, which also will be livestreamed. Courtesy of St. Francis de Sales Church

Among those is St. Francis de Sales Parish in Lake Zurich, which has been conducting parking lot Masses since June. Services also are livestreamed.

The church will have a drive-through blessing of Easter baskets at 12:30 p.m. Saturday and a 11:15 a.m. Easter Sunday drive-in Mass.

"We are expecting 300 cars or so," said Judy Reilly, church coordinator of evangelization. "People bring their dogs and grandparents bring their grandchildren. It's really a nice atmosphere out there. Easter is a joyous season. It is filled with hope with the resurrection of the Lord. For people to be able to come in person and to experience that as a community ... that's a beautiful thing."

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