Greg Ciesluk

Pastor Greg Ciesluk at 4th Avenue United Methodist Church, where every other pew is still blocked off to ensure social distancing. (Andrew Deziel/southernminn.com)

After a year of virtual services and limited in-person attendance, success in distributing the COVID-19 vaccine locally helped to bring Christians back into area churches just in time for Easter.

While social distancing and masking are still expected, local churches have seen steady increases in traffic over the last several months. Easter saw the largest gatherings yet, making the most important festival of the year even more special for Christians.

“We had a lot of folks get really emotional back as they came back into the building,” said Pastor Todd Buegler of Owatonna’s Trinity Lutheran Church.

At Buegler’s church, four separate Easter services were held, complete with masking, social distancing and limited capacity. The sanctuary was cleaned between each service, and hymnals were removed from the pews to prevent people from handling them.

For the last several months, Buegler said that just one regular Sunday service has been held at Trinity, accommodating just a fraction of the Church’s pre-pandemic attendance. On Sunday, a second will be added as worshippers “ease back” into church.

Trinity has continued to carry out its mission work during the pandemic, including by providing food for area residents in need. Food boxes from the Wildcat Pantry, focused on providing ingredients for a family meal along with basic staples, are now distributed through a drive-up. The Church’s Meals of Hope, which traditionally provide free food and fellowship on Sunday nights, are now takeout only. Buegler says that while he looks forward to sharing Meals of Hope with community members in need again, it will likely be several months before that can restart.

After nearly a year of livestreamed services, worshippers finally made their way back into the pews Feb. 7 at Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church in Faribault. To stay safe, Pastor Greg Ciesluk’s congregation eschewed singing at first — but they were still excited to return.

“It was a long break, but for a lot of people it prodded their desire to be back in church to worship God,” Ciesluk said.

While Ciesluk saw a big increase in attendance for Palm Sunday services, Rick Nelson, who serves as outreach minister at St. Dominic’s in Northfield, said that the increase he’s seen has been slowly building up since the beginning of Lent.

Nelson said he’s seen a particularly significant increase in seniors attending Mass. In addition to the availability of vaccines, he attributed the attendance boost to the importance of Easter in the church year and a sense that the worst of COVID is over. While they’re willing to come back, Nelson has heard from many seniors who take great comfort in the church’s rigorous COVID safety protocols. Even as the state has relaxed capacity restrictions, St. Dominic’s hasn’t budged on its maximum capacity of 250 worshippers.

While the church might still be heavily socially distanced, St. Dominic’s has begun holding Communion again. But instead of parishioners coming to the front of the church for bread and wine, Nelson said priests have taken the somewhat novel approach of bringing the bread and wine to the pews.

At Divine Mercy Catholic Church in Faribault, some services now have up to 600 worshippers, though every other pew must still remain vacant. Even with such large crowds, Parish Administrator Phillip Parrish said he’s heard few complaints.

“People have done a good job of spreading out,” Parrish said. “At the door, I see a wide mix of people, of all ages … yet in the last few weeks, I’ve only had one negative conversation.”

Even though they’re glad to be able to return to in-person worship, local worship leaders don’t anticipate leaving behind virtual worship services all together. In fact, Ciesluk partnered with several other Faribault area pastors to organize an all-virtual Good Friday service.

Pastor Jeff Sandgren at Our Savior’s Lutheran in Faribault said that the virtual option has been particularly great news for shut-ins and residents of senior care facilities, who pre-pandemic weren’t able to attend services at their longtime houses of worship at all.

Sandgren added that virtual services will continue to have appeal for at least several more months, because the pandemic isn’t truly over even as the number of vaccinated Minnesotans rises each day.

“We’re very concerned about the COVID numbers across our state,” he said.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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