Outside the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in North Baltimore on Sunday morning, a small line of vehicles is parked near a side entrance before the 11 a.m. Mass began.
It was the first Mass that Archbishop William Lori hosted since announcing Saturday that all public Roman Catholic masses were canceled as cases of the new coronavirus continue to rise in Maryland. Instead of a parking lot full of people in their Sunday best, only a handful of church personnel gathered to livestream the service.
Charlie Dubin, 67, of Baltimore’s Hamilton neighborhood had not gotten the memo and came to the church Sunday hoping to participate in the Mass.
As he walked away, after learning that the church would be one of a growing number of establishments that have closed their doors to the public amid the growing pandemic, he said he sees churches as important as supermarkets to their local communities.
“It’s really surprising,” said Dubin, adding that he’d never seen the church closed to the public for a prolonged period.
Religious organizations across Baltimore are tackling the question after government officials ordered that no gatherings of more than 250 people should occur and urged others to avoid large gatherings and pursue “social distancing” in hopes of containing the spread of the virus.
“Back when the governor spoke of having 250 people in a gathering, I thought that perhaps that was the right thing to do and we tried to accommodate that,” Lori said. “But this is a moving target.”
The archbishop said he and his staff made the choice to cancel services “reluctantly” Saturday afternoon after state officials said the number of cases continues to rise in Maryland. As of Sunday afternoon, 32 cases had been confirmed statewide, including the first in Baltimore City.
On Saturday, the Holy Eparchial Synod of the Greek Orthodox of America wrote that it is advising its followers “not to be exposed in places of public assembly [including attending church] during the next few weeks.”
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“We recognize that this is an unprecedented situation and one that calls upon each of us to take steps to protect our fellow parishioners and larger communities,” the statement reads. “During this time, if anyone wishes not to come to church, the Holy Archdiocese extends this blessing, as such a decision is not a sin, but an act of love and responsibility for the protection of one’s self and their fellow human beings.”
The Empowerment Temple Church, a large congregation in Northwest Baltimore, also canceled live services, offering two services streamed online at 8 a.m.and 10 a.m Sunday.
The Islamic Society of Baltimore canceled Friday prayers indefinitely, writing in a statement that, per “the directives of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, and out of basic Islamic fiqh that preserving life is paramount,” it was necessary to cancel services and other religious gatherings.
While many religious services not already broadcast on TV are being offered via online streaming services, Lori said he’s aware that many still consider Sunday religious services to be an essential part of their community, as Dubin did.
“We are certainly continuing to communicate information [and] inspiration to sort of draw people together,” Lori said. “Except we just have to do it in a different way for the time being. As soon as we can possibly return to having everybody together in church, we will do that.”
Lori added that the group’s philanthropic efforts, primarily through Catholic Charities of Maryland, will continue to aid those dependent on the church’s other offerings.
He said the organization “has been working hard to make sure that we can continue delivering those services uninterrupted, but in a way that conforms to the public health and safety concerns that our public officials have made clear to us.”