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Many churches retooling holiday services

WHEELING — The Thanksgiving leftovers are just about gone by today, so for many it’s time to turn thoughts to Christmas and Hanukkah. But with escalating COVID-19 cases and deaths, what will religious services look like this holiday season?

While some religious leaders are taking a “wait and see” attitude regarding in-person Christmas celebrations, others are moving ahead with plans.

At St. Michael Catholic Church in Wheeling, one of the Diocese’s largest congregations, church goers are being asked to make reservations for Christmas Eve services in anticipation of the larger crowds on Dec. 24. The parish added an extra service to the date to allow for proper social distancing and time to sanitize.

Diocese spokesman Tim Bishop said each parish has the same guidelines regarding social distancing for in-person services, including no distribution of wine at Communion, requiring masks and proper distancing.

“Some of our parishes are adding a number of Masses to accommodate larger-than-normal attendance,” Bishop said. “We encourage parishes to do that. The larger parishes such as St. Michael’s, St. Vincent’s, the Co-Cathedral and those in Morgantown and Clarksburg, have no choice other than to do reservations. Smaller parishes already can handle it.”

Bishop said by offering reservations it is “a great time to say to our brothers and sisters who have turned away from faith – welcome back. We’re here for you and hope you join us again the weekend after Christmas and so forth.”

Other religious denominations are watching the COVID numbers and will plan accordingly.

Stone Presbyterian Church in Elm Grove has been conducting online and in-person services over the past several months. A secretary at the church said officials will wait until sometime in December to decide about Christmas Eve services, but may choose to hold two services to accommodate in-person attendance. Like many churches today however, the congregation is at a size that is manageable for in-person services with proper social distancing.

The Rev. Paul Schafer at St. Mark Lutheran Church, also in Elm Grove, said, “Right now we are still planning three Christmas Eve services with social distancing. We will call our membership and get a heads-up for attendance. We will be cleaning after each service.”

Schafer said his church plans to offer several virtual versions of the services as well.

Christ United Methodist Church in Wheeling currently holds both virtual and in-person services held under strict social distancing and safe health guidelines. According to the church’s website, it tentatively has scheduled three Christmas Eve services to accommodate more visitors.

In the Jewish community, the Hanukkah observance begins Dec. 10 Under the guidance of Rabbi Joshua Lief, Temple Shalom in Wheeling has been holding online virtual services during the pandemic.

“Here at Temple Shalom, we are preparing for Hanukkah to be online only, but we’re going to have several interactive opportunities on Zoom, in addition to our broadcasts using Facebook Live. We’ll have an interactive light-up on the first night of Hanukkah so that we can see each other as we kindle our menorot for the first time, an interactive program for Tot Shabbat on that Friday, including a craft project where the parents of our younger members can come by the Temple to pick up a package with all the necessary parts ahead of time, and an interactive learning and eating party on Monday evening Dec. 14, which happens to be the fifth night of the festival.”

Lief said the temple will still make its daily live broadcasts at 11 a.m. each weekday morning, and at its Sabbath evening broadcast on Dec. 11 when they also will be lighting the Temple menorah.

“Additionally, we’ve asked all of our members to take pictures of their home decorations, and we’ll be sharing those in a collage emailed out to the congregation. Even while we are apart from each other, it is important to feel that all of us are still a part of something larger than ourselves,” Lief offered.

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