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Upvalley churches go online after COVID-19 forces closures

Upvalley churches go online after COVID-19 forces closures

  • Updated

The coronavirus has forced many Upvalley residents to change their habits, including the way they worship.

In March 2020 when COVID-19 was first spreading, Upvalley church leaders closed sanctuaries and rapidly moved worship online, via Facebook, YouTube or Zoom. The transition from live worship to online worship wasn’t easy, was often “a work in progress,” and could only be accomplished when key people stepped up. Only in the past month as California reopened its businesses were sanctuaries reopened for indoor worship.

Here's a survey of how some Upvalley churches have handled the tumult of the pandemic, based on written comments submitted by church leaders in response to a list of questions.

First Presbyterian Church

After closing March 13, 2020, Pastor Jonathan Eastman of the First Presbyterian Church of Saint Helena wrote, “We sent out a taped service to the congregation every week. Over the months, we became much more sophisticated, going from using an iPhone to purchasing more sound equipment, cameras for filming and microphones.” 

Eastman and three others gathered in the sanctuary on Friday mornings for a “slimmed down” version of the service. Serving at the altar with Eastman were choir director Thom Hinesley, musician Maggie O’Fallon and Lynda Burris, a retired pastor. Recording the service was Ed Fish, a congregation member who would edit the tape and send it to Eastman, who uploaded it to the church’s YouTube channel. An email was sent to the congregation each week that included the link to the service.

“Nearly all of our members had a device they could use to watch the service and the couple who struggled with this got help from family or a member who walked them through the process,” Eastman wrote.

The congregation began Sunday worship in person 15 months later, in mid-June 2021. “We are encouraging folks to wear masks if that puts them more at ease and we still have a number who are worshipping through our recordings or livestream. Most of our committees are still meeting via Zoom, citing the time savings and the convenience,” Eastman wrote.

United Methodist Church

Pastor Burke Owens, St. Helena United Methodist Church, reflected on the past 16 months: “My sense is that the church has been through a tough and challenging time since March 2020, but that in some ways we are stronger, that is we feel and know our love of God and one another on a deeper level than in the past.

"Clearly there have been difficulties and we might see some evidence of this as we move back to normal. But our church is a connected and loving place, grace is abiding always, and God is with us.”

After closing on March 18, 2020, the church’s first livestream via Facebook was Sunday, March 22. A musician and tech person assisted with sound.

“Streaming took place, as it would for close to a year via using my laptop as camera and streaming device,” Owens wrote.

Initially, the church used Facebook live video but switched to YouTube in time for the Easter service on April 5, 2020.

“Many thanks to all the members who helped us in the process from scripture readers to altar flower providers, to musicians who came back week after week as the number of musicians willing to risk playing with others shrank,” Owens wrote.

Owens mentioned musician and long-time church member Ron Brunswick, who took on the role for the livestream worship.

“Ron made is possible for the pastor, musicians, scripture, hymns and communion to be heard and enjoyed through the miracle of streaming. It takes a village to make it work, especially virtually,” Owens wrote.

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church

For the Rev. William “Father Mac” McIlmoyl, priest in charge of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Calistoga, two “very qualified angels” saved the day when the church stopped gathering in person on Sundays.

Nathan Schwab, a bona fide, union-card-carrying videographer, had moved with his family from Los Angeles to St. Helena to be closer to family.

“Nathan was happy to step into the position of our church video producer and we went to work right away,” Mac wrote

Mac and Schwab first filmed the worship service, including a sermon, in Mac’s home office. Schwab would do some editing and post it on YouTube.

“To say this was difficult would vastly underestimate how foreign it really felt, but it was the best we could do in the beginning," Mac wrote. "We evolved into Zoom, despite my reluctance and ineptitude and even though we were still filming from my home office, we could at least see each other and follow the flow of our traditional liturgy."

Mac admits he was “clearly out of my element as Zoom host.” If it had not been for Deacon Susan Napoliello, the Sunday morning service “would never have made it into the cyber world. Susan was amazing as our Zoom master but was soon retiring.”

It was then that “the second angel,” journalist David Stoneberg, agreed to take on the responsibility of hosting the Zoom worship and facilitating the coffee hour that followed.

“The Zoom coffee hour turned out to be one of the many unforeseen COVID blessings,” Mac writes. “Coffee hour in the past, when we were gathering in our Parish Hall, were predictably routine. People would gravitate into their usual groups and chat about whatever, usually nothing of substance. As David facilitated the Zoom gatherings, he would ask each participant to share about how they were coping and how things were going. The sharing was profound and real. I believe this fellowship strengthened St. Luke’s and made us a more loving community.”

Grace Episcopal Church

The Rev. Anne Clarke, assistant rector at Grace Episcopal Church, discussed the effects of the pandemic in a phone interview.

“Pretty early on in the pandemic, even when things were so unknown, when nobody knew how to prevent spreading the virus, people thought there were opportunities along with the challenge to be imaginative and try new things," Clarke said. "That’s been hard with all the challenges of the year, but it’s been really interesting and dynamic. I think, more than anything, the pandemic has accelerated a lot of the changes that were happening anyway.”

Before the pandemic, Clarke said the church was 80% of the way to being able to livestream the services. “We had to figure out how to get online really fast, within a couple of weeks. Now we have a really beautiful, dependable livestream system. It was hard to build and it took a lot of hours, but we didn’t have a choice. So now we can interact with people from all over the country,” she said.

The church started with Zoom services but then moved to Livestream, in part because of the congregation’s Brian Capener, an artist and videographer, who was able to film “some beautiful pieces,” including welcome videos. The Sunday service started at 9 a.m. with a coffee hour following on Zoom. Other gatherings are also on Zoom, including adult and children’s formation groups.

One of the gifts in the past year has been the church’s active youth group.

“All of the teenagers were on Zoom all the time and they were really committed to each other during the whole year,” Clarke said. “The youth group came out of this time stronger and more connected than they were before. It was really incredible and a really beautiful year for the youth.”

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

In May 2020, the eight units of the Napa Stake restarted its meetings through Zoom. In four months, in late September, the units reconvened for the first time in its cultural hall/gymnasium at Napa Chapel on the Hill, according to Dr. David E. Brown, regional director of Public Affairs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Brown was formerly the president of the Napa Stake. The other eight units in the Napa Stake include those in St. Helena, Benicia, Sonoma and Vallejo.

The cultural hall was a place where “social distancing was easier to achieve, masks were provided and temperatures were taken.” Average participation in the Napa 1st Ward during the Zoom meetings was 120, he said.

The church continues to provide Zoom meetings and approximately 20 families continue to use Zoom for the meetings. In the chapel, masks are optional, but those who are not vaccinated are encouraged to wear them.

“My impression is that most of us survived the pandemic without severe hardships. Parents were grateful to have their children returned to educational facilities and although several of our members died during the COVID year-plus, none were identified as COVID deaths,” Brown wrote.

Holy Communion

Baptism and Holy Eucharist or Holy Communion are the two great sacraments of the Christian Church. Holy Eucharist is the continual remembrance of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection until his coming again, according to an outline of the faith or Catechism. Its outward and visible sign are the sharing of bread and wine (or grape juice) at the church altar.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, though, congregations were not supposed to gather in groups, either large or small, and although churches were closed, faith communities still celebrated Communion.

Brown of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints writes, “Priesthood holders were encouraged to bless and distribute the Sacrament in their own homes.” They would also bless and distribute the Sacrament to households without a Priesthood holder when requested.

In time for April 12, 2020, which was Easter, Owens of the St. Helena United Methodist Church writes, “We began the practice of bringing communion elements, juice and crackers, with a prayer and blessing to the door of each church member or associate.” This was done prior to the first Sunday of the month. “This enabled us to keep in touch a bit more and kept the communion process going, rather than losing it completely.” Owens blessed all the elements before they were packed up and delivered.

Grace Episcopal’s Clarke said during the church’s closure, people would drive to the church’s parking lot on Saturday to pick up already blessed bread to be taken home and shared during the following day’s Livestream service.

Today, with the church open, communion is held at both the 8 a.m. indoor service and 10 a.m. outdoor service. Communion includes just blessed bread.

“We believe that is full communion,” Clarke said. “It’s really lovely to be able to share Communion at the table together in person.”

As far as passing around a common cup of wine or juice, that’s not happening.

“People may feel uncomfortable for a longer time with a common cup,” Clarke said, adding church leaders will consider it when the bishop allows it and “as case counts go down and more people get vaccinated.”

At St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Calistoga, videographer Nathan Schwab brought his camera to the sanctuary and began filming Father Mac preaching and celebrating the Eucharist.

“This was huge both for me and for our congregation. It looked like church for the first time in months," Mac wrote. "Nathan continued to improve the technology and the quality of the projection at minimal expense and we were muddling along as best we could."

Holy Eucharist is a practice held “dearly by Episcopalians and is central to our weekly worship,” Mac wrote.

“While the passing out of the physical elements and coming physically forward to kneel at the altar rail was made unrealistic, I invited worshippers into a guided visualization of an experience that was so intimate and so oft repeated. It was not only better than nothing, for many, visualizing was as powerful, if not more so, than the physical act itself. Utimately divine union is an interior experience.”

Eastman said his Presbyterian congregation celebrated communion on the first Sunday of the month, which is their custom.

“We invited people at home to get a piece of bread or cracker along with some grape juice or wine, or even water, to participate with us in the sacrament,” Eastman wrote.

Summing up

Owens writes, “So much has changed in 14 months; today the world seems much tinier than in the past. Not physically smaller, but systemically smaller for it is painfully clear now that a cough, a sneeze or simply being near another can infect, even without any evidence of symptoms. This is hard to take in, to really get, as it goes against so many healthy societal beliefs, which we formerly took for granted in the beautiful Napa Valley.”

With the advent of fall, what’s going to happen to Grace Episcopal’s outdoor service at 10 a.m.? Clarke admits she doesn’t know, but the Grace team will reassess the situation in August, not only for service times but for children’s services, because youths 12 and older can be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“How do we gather in person that is good for them and feels safe for everybody?” Clarke asks. “We’ll have to see. Throughout the pandemic, we have been making decisions based on the data, not based on what we hope will happen, which has been hard.”

She said, “I don’t think anybody got COVID from gathering at Grace Episcopal Church. I’m really proud of that.”

Mac writes, “From my perspective, we seem to have weathered the storm for the most part. We have been traumatized on a global scale, to be sure. We will not get over all this quickly or perhaps ever. The phrase ‘back to normal’ does not apply.”

(Editor’s Note: Stoneberg is the former editor of the St. Helena Star and a member and Zoom master for St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Calistoga.)

Shawn Risko and Amy Hall of Riskula Art Glass have spent years repairing, restoring and rebuilding stained glass windows in Napa churches, homes and businesses. Take a look at some of their work.

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