St. John the Divine and Other Local Churches Partially Reopen; One Bans Singing

St. John the Devine.

By Renée Roden

On July 14th, one of the Upper West Side’s storied landmarks reopens its doors. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine announced that the Cathedral will reopen seven days a week, “for individual prayer, reflection, and meditation.”

Photo-snapping tourists are out of luck, but individuals seeking some solace in the historic Episcopalian sacred space will find the front doors open from 7:30 am to 1 pm each day.

There will be some conditions for admission to the Cathedral. In its press release, the Cathedral noted: “Health screenings will be administered upon entrance, and masks and physical distancing will be mandatory. Visitors’ cell phone numbers and email addresses will be collected for contact tracing and communication purposes.”

The Cathedral preemptively cancelled all large in-person services and events until the end of 2020. “The Cathedral has made the difficult decision to cancel large in-person events and major services for the remainder of 2020 in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The Cathedral anticipates resuming in-person services of worship and large-scale events after January 15, 2021 if allowed by governmental guidelines.”

The Cathedral is allowing some services in person, next week. “Small funeral and memorial services are also anticipated to resume beginning July 21.”

Given that religious services at the Young Israel Congregation in New Rochelle sparked an early March “super spreader” event, houses of worship are cautious to avoid becoming new occasions for COVID transmission.

The Cathedral is not alone in charting a new course through the uncertain waters of public safety. Several Catholic churches on the Upper West Side have opened for in-person masses, their naves newly decorated with taped-off pews mandating a six-foot distance, markers on the floor, and hand sanitizer dispensers replacing Holy Water fonts.

Just four blocks south of the Cathedral, Ascension Church has remained open throughout the pandemic. Pastor Rev. Daniel Kearney said that their church building was rarely ever empty over these past few months.

Inside Ascension Church.

Ascension opened for Sunday masses July 5th, reducing their number of masses from seven to four. Their distinctive Sunday night jazz mass has been canceled throughout the rest of the summer. Rev. Kearney said usually Ascension sees “between 1,200 and 1,400 people” over the course of seven masses on a weekend.

But this past weekend, only two hundred people total attended Ascension’s four masses. Kearney said the Archdiocese of New York calculated the government-mandated 25% capacity for each of the diocese church’s and Ascension’s is 125. Kearney said each mass totaled well below that, and hovered around Ascension’s independently calculated safe-capacity of 78 to 80.

A recent court case in Albany raised the cap from 25% to 50% capacity, but a spokesperson for the New York Catholic Conference stated that they would adhere to the previously mandated cap of 25% capacity.

Parishioners attending mass have been diligent about the rules, keeping social distance and wearing masks, Kearney attested. “I’ve found people to be very responsible, and just happy that they’re able to be back,” he added.

A committee of six parishioners advised Kearney through the reopening process. Every two weeks they will re-evaluate the policy to ensure parishioner safety.

Redeemer West Side Church on 83rd has also re-opened its space for in-person services. Like St. John the Divine, Redeemer is mandating a contactless health screening prior to entry. According to its website, Redeemer is limiting attendees to 100 per service to ensure safe physical distancing. Worshipers will be required to register for the service they want to attend to ensure this.

One particular rule Redeemer instituted sets it apart from other congregations: they have banned singing.

“New York recommends 12-foot distancing to allow singing,” reads its online notice, “and therefore we cannot allow congregational singing at this time. Feel free to stand, hum along, sway, but if you are attending in-person services, you will not be able to sing out loud.”

Rev. Andrew Field, Executive Pastor of Redeemer West Side stated that the weeks of careful planning paid off for a smooth reopening weekend. “The team definitely leans toward the side of extra caution,” he said, they received advice from expert health professionals throughout the process. Field said that fewer than one hundred people attended s in “a large, nearly 900 seat space that has high-quality airflow.” Even though the service was conducted in-person he said, that most of our congregation participated at the same time online through our livestream.”

St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church.

Some churches are remaining fully online but paying forward their empty sanctuaries. St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church on West End Avenue is delaying gathering in person for now. Rev. Lea Matthews, Associate Pastor, commented in an email that the Church is being put to other purposes.

“The church building is fully functioning as a food distribution center for the West Side Campaign Against Hunger (the entire basement level and first floor of the church is laden with food and prep for that) and Goddard Riverside’s meals on wheels program.”

She said the Church community has remained “busy as ever with online worship, small spiritual support groups, racial justice programming, political education classes, and meetings,” all conducted virtually. Their in-person focus at the church building has “been keeping that holy and hard work happening with ease and as little risk as is necessary.” She stated: “We are being cautious and conscientious and do not plan to be gathering as a large group for quite some time.”

All the reopened churches are continuing to live-stream services. Rev. Kearney expected that Ascension would live-stream services “for the foreseeable future.”

NEWS | 9 comments | permalink
    1. A Crowley says:

      Yes please feel free to congregate in huge unrestricted groups with no social distancing as long as you’re looting or throwing Molotov cocktails at police cars but if you go to a church…….

      • Elyse says:

        Not sure who you are attacking? Anonymous people who protested? Anonymous churchgoers? Individuals? All who congregate anywhere, church, state, shul, B’way, park, Fairway? All civilized people must wear masks, maintain social distance don’t go out if you don’t have to, wash your hands, take your temperature. Stay healthy. If you do all these things, by all means, protest or go to pray, or both!!

    2. Suzie says:

      For the record, “Episcopal” is the adjective; “Episcopalian” is the noun: Episcopalians attend Episcopal services at the Episcopal cathedral.

      I know; no one cares. But I’m an editor and my dad was an Episcopal priest, so what can I do??? 🙂

    3. Hal Weiner says:

      The Congregation of St. Saviour, the resident Congregation at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine is holding online services twice daily Monday thru Saturday for morning and evening prayer using the Book of Common Prayer. On Zoom, you can join us with one click through our website:

    4. SophiaG says:

      One dream I have that is seeing me through these times — that one day soon I’ll be able to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” whilst I’m kneeling in solidarity. Please don’t take that dream from me.