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Looking back: A year of COVID-19 in central and northern New York
A WRVO News series looking back at the past year of the pandemic in the region.In March 2020, life in central and northern New York changed in a matter of days. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in schools and businesses closed, with thousands around the region either out of work or working from home. Through this spring, WRVO is taking a look back at how the pandemic affected different parts of the community, from colleges to the arts, from schools to healthcare. All stories in our series can be found below.

Looking back: How the pandemic changed the way people pray

Syracuse Catholic Diocese
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Bishop of the Syracuse Catholic Diocese Douglas Lucia, center, gives Palm Sunday Mass during a live stream in 2020.

This is one of a series of stories from WRVO on how the COVID-19 pandemic changed life in central and northern NY over the last year. Find all of the stories from our series here.

Churches, temples and mosques have spent much of the last year empty, as the pandemic forced limits on gatherings. Despite that, the faithful have been able to maintain a sense of community.

During Holy Week a year ago, pastors were preaching to empty pews. The faithful started trickling back to masses in the Catholic Church last summer, marked by social distancing. But this Holy Week is the first time some parishes will welcome altar servers, lectors and processions back, according to Bishop Douglas Lucia of the Syracuse diocese.

"Even though we still can’t have coffee and donuts together or do other larger activities, we can come together and pray and see one another and greet one another," Lucia said. "It has made a difference."

But as the pews begin to fill up again, leaders of many faiths in central New York, say the pandemic dramatically changed how people pray. For some it means continuing the streamed services that started when people couldn’t gather. Pastor Decarto Draper of Tucker Missionary Church in Syracuse said his online-only services have actually deepened the faith of some.

“Because so many had relied on a location per se, instead of recognizing their relationship is personal,” Draper said. “Without a building to lean on, it drew them closer to God."

The reliance on technology is a theme that keeps coming up as pastors and rabbis and imams looked for ways to keep worshipers connected to their faith. For Mohammed ElFiki, imam at the Islamic Society of Central New York, it meant diving into the world of Facebook.

"Before the pandemic, I never thought of the social media,” ElFiki said. “But day one pandemic was time I realized we should find an alternative."

That’s led to a vibrant Facebook page that features prayer services and also help for members on a variety of topics.

Episcopal Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe said the streamed services and online prayer groups have drawn more people to the faith and she doesn’t see a time where parishes go back to all in-person worship.

“I’ve encouraged priests and lay leaders to envision always having a hybrid option, so we can continue to be a ministry to people who have stepped forward and want to be a part of community," Duncan-Probe said.

One faith where this online model can be a challenge is Judaism, according to Rabbi Yakov Rapoport of Chabad-Lubavitch at Syracuse University.

"Many people do have a Zoom Seder, but for those adhering to Jewish law strictly, that’s not possible," Rapoport said.

He’s encouraging people to learn how to do things on their own, and during Passover, it meant offering students to-go Seders.

“A package with a special matzo for the Seder, and all the food necessary for the Seder and instructions and directions, and we gave out quite a few," he said.

Beyond services, one area where religion was sorely missed; the big moments in life: the weddings, the baptisms, the funerals. Bishop Lucia noticed while weddings were smaller, they were no less meaningful.

"People let the extravagance go, in order to really celebrate what they wanted to celebrate," Lucia said.

Religious leaders also missed comforting the elderly, sick and dying. But that was where Father Neal Quartier, rector at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, found some of the greatest graces.

"I worked with some people through FaceTime in their ICU beds, dying,” Quartier said. “And some of the courage these people and families had, it’s amazing. They make it through it, no matter what."

All agree it’s unclear yet whether these new ways of worship bring more people to identify with religion, something that is declining in this country. But these religious leaders believe the pandemic allowed time for more self-reflection.

“This forced us to stay home, and think and pray and figure out who the heck we are," Quartier said.

And as people slowly return to in-person worship, Imam ElFiki expects them to embrace the full community, they’ve been missing for so long.

"Adults used to complain of the noise kids made playing in the mosque,” ElFiki said. “I hear many of them say oh, we look forward to these days when kids come back and do their noise, and we will love the noise. It’s going to be like music in our ears.”

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.