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Churches in Baraboo, Portage adapt to COVID-19 reality, move Easter online
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Churches in Baraboo, Portage adapt to COVID-19 reality, move Easter online

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Most years, Rose Serna looks forward to Easter services at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Portage.

But the coronavirus pandemic has temporarily ended her — and everyone else’s — ability to attend services in person, a reality that brought Serna to tears Friday as she sat with her Bible in front of a large cross placed on the church’s front steps.

“It’s beautiful, but it’s different,” she said, adding that she misses going to services and seeing the rest of her congregation.

The Rev. Gary Krahenbuhl said the church laid the cross outside from noon to 6 p.m. for parishioners and passers-by to “remember Good Friday and the sacrifice of Christ” in a way that allowed them to practice social distancing and avoid crowds.

He and several other Baraboo and Portage faith leaders noted that church is about congregating as a community for prayer, which makes a public health crisis that requires isolation especially difficult. Not being able to celebrate Easter in person with his parishioners brings him sadness, Krahenbuhl said.

“We are about gathering people together and when that can’t happen, there’s just a very large void for me personally, but more so knowing that it’s a large void for the people of our parishes,” he said.

Instead of hosting Mass on Easter Sunday, the church will post videos of the service on the parish website and its Facebook page, as well as its school’s Facebook page, Krahenbuhl said. He did the same for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil and its regular weekend Mass.

Most other churches have also turned to technology to reach their congregations.

Easter Sunday at Walnut Hill Bible Church in Baraboo would normally draw about 900 people and feature an outdoor sunrise service and a celebration with a full band and choir, said the Rev. Dan Gunderson. A normal weekend service draws about 600 congregants, he said.

“Easter is the biggest Sunday of the year” except for Christmas, Gunderson said. “It’s celebrated in all sorts of little ways. People dress up their kids, and we have a huge Easter breakfast that will last the entire morning.”

Now the public can watch services online from Walnut Hill’s YouTube channel, which they can access at its website.

“Even though we won’t have a choir or a community breakfast, a lot of the same elements are still going to be present in the Sunday service,” Gunderson said.

Tyson Suemnicht, Walnut Hill’s music director, converted a conference room at the church into a recording studio shortly after Gov. Tony Evers announced the “safer at home” order that banned gatherings of more than 10 people and shuttered nonessential businesses. They record videos there, and Suemnicht even produces music videos for the church by recording singers and musicians individually and then combining their audio.

Gunderson said he’s gotten positive feedback from his congregation about the virtual services — which average about 900 views — though he noted some people without internet access or technological skills probably feel isolated and left out. The church is trying to reach them other ways, like by delivering DVDs of services to them.

Connecting with older church members and those lacking internet access was a challenge identified by the other faith leaders interviewed for this article.

The Rev. Karen Hofstad of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Baraboo said she, other church leaders and members are “making lots of phone calls” and checking in with congregants who are elderly or lack internet access.

“They’re very appreciative of what we’re doing,” Hofstad said.

Those with internet access can view the church’s Easter service on its website.

Hofstad said not being able to gather for Easter “hurts for many of us,” but noted it’s “the safest thing to do this year,” a sentiment shared by the other faith leaders.

Baraboo First United Methodist Church is in its fourth week of streaming worship services on Facebook Live and will do it again on Easter with musical additions, according to the Rev. Marianne Cotter. She noted the church is also setting up a “telephone buddy system” to allow members without computers to listen in on the service by calling another member with a computer.

The Rev. Dave Mowers of Trinity Church Baraboo said not having regular services has been harder for older parishioners. His parish is also using a phone tree to try to connect with every household every week.

For those who are adapting well, Mowers records weekly sermons in podcast form and hosts a virtual “coffee hour” using video conferencing. About a quarter of his regular 65 Sunday parishioners have been participating in the coffee hour, he said. He’s providing resources for his congregation to mark Easter from home this year, but Mowers doesn’t plan to replace the holiday with virtual services.

“During this time, I think a lot of our people will need a celebration of Easter at the end of all of this, even if it’s not at the customary time, just as a reminder and as an encouragement that death doesn’t have the last word and that love is stronger than death and that love is stronger than this plague that’s going around,” Mowers said.

St. Mary’s in Portage is one of the few area churches that has offered some opportunities for people to visit in person, albeit with limitations. On Palm Sunday, Krahenbuhl stood outside the church to give out palms and offer Holy Week blessings to parishioners, who remained in their vehicles. Handshakes and hugs were not allowed, according to the church bulletin.

Several churches, including St. Mary’s, remain open during the day for individual prayer. Krahenbuhl said people are taking advantage of that option, though never more than two at a time.

At St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Portage, the Rev. Greg Hovland has been offering individual and household communion services — keeping it under 10 people, he noted — on four days per week for about three weeks. People can reserve appointments online or come to the church during one of the first-come, first-served time slots.

“It’s been received pretty well,” Hovland said. He added that by the end of each Sunday his hands are “raw” from the amount of hand sanitizer he’s using.

Easter sunrise service is already fully booked, but 8 to 11:45 a.m. Sunday remains open for drop-ins, as long as only seven people enter at a time. If visitors grow beyond seven, Hovland said the usher steps outside to visit with them until others leave the church.

In addition to its usual 10 a.m. Sunday radio broadcast, St. John’s has added online viewing options with pre-recorded sermons on YouTube and Facebook, Hovland said. While he doesn’t know how many people watch the whole sermon, the number of views his videos receive indicate they’ve been reaching more people than the roughly 350 who would attend St. John’s on a regular weekend.

Some churches, like St. Joseph Catholic Church in Baraboo, have been live streaming their services for years, making the transition under “safer at home” easier. The Rev. Jay Poster said the church started streaming services five years ago. On the first weekend of “safer at home,” the church’s video sermon got 3,900 hits “all across the world, literally,” he said.

Hofstad of St. Paul’s Lutheran said church leaders are doing the best they can given the situation.

“I wish everyone a blessed Easter as we celebrate probably more like the original disciples who were locked away in their homes, not big gatherings but isolated,” Hofstad said. “Maybe we will hear the Easter story a little differently this year.”

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

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