act of faith

‘An Eerie Quiet’ at NYC Churches as Clergy Cancel Services

Canceled Mass left pews empty at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Sunday, March 15.
Canceled Mass left pews empty at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Sunday, March 15. Photo: Virginia Breen/THE CITY

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The bells of St. Patrick’s Cathedral pealed across a mostly empty Fifth Avenue Sunday morning after the Archdiocese of New York canceled all Masses because of coronavirus concerns.

The Diocese of Brooklyn followed suit, barring public services beginning Monday.

“It feels like the end of the world,” said Claude Briffod, 72, of Geneva, Switzerland, who had come to St. Pat’s to pray. “I’m realistic and if I have to be sick, I’ll be sick, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to cancel Mass. People need the church now more than ever.”

Claude Briffod of Geneva, Switzerland, discovers Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s is canceled, March 15, 2020.
Claude Briffod of Geneva, Switzerland, discovers Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s is canceled, March 15, 2020. Photo: Virginia Breen/THE CITY

The Archdiocese made the call Saturday — after Dutchess County prohibited gatherings of more than 20 people — “to provide clarity and consistency” across its 296 parishes in Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island, Westchester, Putnam, Orange, Rockland, Sullivan, Ulster and Dutchess counties.

The decision affects the Archdiocese’s 2.81 million Catholics in the middle of Lent, a period of penitential preparation for Easter.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, head of the Diocese of Brooklyn, who had earlier released his 1.5 million faithful in Brooklyn and Queens from their Sunday Mass obligation, also opted to suspend public services as of Monday.

Looking Ahead to Easter

“The Sunday Masses had very low attendance because fortunately people followed the dispensation,” said Adriana Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn Diocese. “We don’t know yet about Holy Week, because the situation is very fluid. Hopefully this will last just a couple of weeks.”

Easter for Catholics and Protestants falls on April 12, four weeks away. Eastern-rite Christians celebrate the following Sunday.

As the number of COVID-19 victims climbs, city clergy of all faiths are reconsidering a variety of religious practices. Celebrations of the festive Jewish holiday of Purim were curtailed by many synagogues earlier this week, and Muslims have been prevented from visiting the holy city of Mecca.

Archbishop Elpidophoros of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America issued an encyclical earlier this month encouraging those who have recently traveled abroad and “those belonging to vulnerable groups” to stop attending church services during the crisis.

In a message to his flock, Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan urged, “Let us pray for all who are sick, as well as doctors, nurses, caregivers, and all those working hard to combat the disease. We should also remember those whose lives have been otherwise disrupted, especially anyone who has lost income from a loss of work during this difficult time.”

’All We Can Do is Pray’

The 16-and-a-half-foot bronze doors of St. Patrick’s opened at 1 p.m. for those wishing to worship privately. Usher Angel Miranda motioned toward the rows of empty pews, which have the capacity to hold 2,400 congregants, and noted “the eerie quiet.”

“In all the years of my life, I never seen nothing like this,” said Miranda, a retired superintendent from Lower Manhattan. “It’s scary. I love the church and feel it’s such an honor and privilege to work in this sacred place. All we can do is pray — and wash our hands.”

Visitors lit candles at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which was open for prayer, but not Mass.
Visitors lit candles at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which was open for prayer, but not Mass. Photo: Virginia Breen/THE CITY

Kathleen McGraw and Margaret Hesnan, who had come to New York from Dublin, Ireland, to celebrate a friend’s 60th birthday, stopped at a side altar and lit a candle near an icon of St. Patrick.

“I had to come and pay respects to poor old Patrick, who’s being robbed of his celebration,” said McGraw, noting Tuesday’s nixed parade. “It’s a shame, so it is, but sure what can you do?”

Hesnan noted the coronavirus scare certainly wouldn’t help a church already rocked by the clergy sex abuse scandal.

“But as my husband always says, we’ve no problem with the main fisherman, the man above,” she added. “The abuse was a man-made problem.”

‘Church Is Not The Building’

Churches in several other Christian denominations also remained shuttered.

At the nearby Episcopal St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, where Purell stations had been posted the day before, a sign alerted worshipers that the scheduled 11 a.m. choral Mass was canceled “until further notice,” and concerts were postponed.

“However, you can worship with us online,” the sign read, noting that a video webcast would be available on demand later on Sunday.

Services were canceled at the Episcopal St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue due to coronavirus concerns, March 15, 2020.
Services were canceled at the Episcopal St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue due to coronavirus concerns, March 15, 2020. Photo: Virginia Breen/THE CITY

Two blocks north, Donna George and her daughter, Kristin, tourists from the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, snapped photos of the locked Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.

“I understand why they did it, but faith is more important than ever at times like this,” George said. “People need hope and a rock to lean on.

“There’s a Bible verse that gives me peace that says, ‘Though the mountains may fall and the hills turn to dust,’ God’s love shall not be removed,” she said, her eyes suddenly filling as she quoted Isaiah 54:10. “We’re Christians, and while we know that the church is not the building, there is strength in worshiping together. We need it.”

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