Churches transition to online-only services

Churches of all denominations across the North Fork have transitioned to online-only service as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Suffolk County continues to climb.

The Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre — the sixth-largest Catholic diocese in the country, which serves 134 parishes on Long Island — announced Monday in a press release that all weekday and weekend Masses and non-essential activities in parishes are suspended or postponed through April 14. The diocese had previously stated that Catholics are dispensed from their obligation to attend Sunday Mass for the upcoming weekends in March. Now Sunday Mass is canceled.

“We’ve never seen anything like this — ever,” Father Larry Duncklee of St. John the Evangelist R. C. Church in Riverhead said Tuesday.

In years past, he said, when community members faced hardships, the church was always open. But that has since changed, he said. “Even for people who don’t go to church that often, in times of need — as we saw after 9/11, the churches were packed,” he said. “So, this is a very, very hard pill for people to swallow and understand.” 

While many prefer in-church services, that’s  simply not an option at this time, Pastor Robert Zemke of Mattituck Presbyterian Church said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Sunday’s service at Mattituck Presbyterian  was videotaped and posted on the church website, and received positive feedback from members of the congregation, Pastor Zemke said. In the past, only the audio portion of the service was posted online.

“The video makes all the difference in the world,” he said, adding that staff are gathering twice a week to discuss a plan for upcoming weeks that follows federal, state and local guidelines. 

“We want to abide by what is suggested, as opposed to feeling like, ‘We can do this because we’re a church.’ We just want to do what we can to benefit the community, and that’s not spreading the virus in the way that the experts said we need to be living,” the pastor said.

We’ve never seen anything like this — ever.

Father Larry Duncklee

The string of cancellations falls in the middle of Lent, a religious observance on the Christian calendar that this year runs through Thursday, April 9.

Father Duncklee said that during Lent there is typically an uptick in attendance at daily and Sunday Masses. He said this is a good time for people to read scripture, pick up a spiritual book and deepen their own faith privately. He noted that the Riverhead church remains open for those who want to visit.

Pastor Zemke said information has been sent by mail to all attendees of the Mattituck church regarding the plan for upcoming services. Some congregants however, are yearning to worship in person. 

“For us, it’s not an obligation, but the joy of gathering, celebrating God and seeing one another is missed,” Pastor Zemke said, “particularly when everyone is going through this trial and difficulty.” 

Monsignor Joseph Staudt, who serves as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Cutchogue and is also administrator at Our Lady of Ostrabrama R.C. Church in Cutchogue, said both facilities have suspended Mass until further notice.

To individuals who may feel guilty about not attending Mass, Msgr. Staudt said: “The main thing is to think not of your own personal devotions and think of your sisters and brothers. Jesus commanded, ‘Love one another’ and the way to love one another is to cooperate with these restrictions …We have to try our best to cooperate and trust in God and also do what we can to help each other and not infect each other.”