August 13, 2020

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Keeping the faith

As pandemic keeps church doors closed this weekend, spiritual leaders embrace opportunity to connect with congregants virtually, and meaningfully

It’s the morning of Holy Thursday, and the Rev. Canon Dr. Cathy Campbell is explaining exactly what’s about to happen. Well. she’s trying to. To be honest, she’s not quite sure; sort of winging it and hoping for the best.

"So, I was thinking we could have Richard play a prelude and a postlude on the organ, and we could do Allelujah, Christ is Risen, and then I’d deliver my reflection," she says.

Campbell, who wears a blue blazer, a denim skirt, a pair of bookish glasses and a perpetual smile, is standing in front of dozens of rows of empty pews in the Holy Trinity Anglican Church, a massive cathedral in downtown Winnipeg that has been standing for 136 years.

Scattered within the pews, with several metres separating them, are Richard Greig, a Scotsman who’s played the church’s 4,600-pipe organ since 1997; Johanna Mast-Kolb, a cheery Sunday-school teacher; and the Rev. Donald McKenzie, an affable man in blue shirtsleeves with shaggy, greyish hair.

Canon Dr. Cathy Campbell prepares and records her service with organist, Richard Greig. at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Canon Dr. Cathy Campbell prepares and records her service with organist, Richard Greig. at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

On this day, the trio make up Campbell’s de facto film crew as she produces what will be a Saturday evening address to the Holy Trinity congregation, sent out ahead of Easter Sunday: Greig is providing the soundtrack, Mast-Kolb is doing a bit of prop work and backup vocals, and McKenzie is the gaffer, the cameraman, and the lighting technician.

"What I want to do isn’t to recreate a service," Campbell tells the group. "We don’t have the capacity for that, and to me, it would feel wrong."

What she wants is to offer some sort of reminder that even if a congregation can’t exactly congregate, the church is still a rock, it is still standing there.

"And let’s hope that someone who isn’t centred in the parish gets something out of this," she says.

This isn’t the way Campbell had planned on conducting Easter services, but on March 12, the bishop sent out a notice saying that the next Sunday would be the last one with worship for the foreseeable future as the world grapples with the impacts of COVID-19.

"The church began the process of suspending regular life on the 16th of March," Campbell says.

Since then, life has been irregular for every church in the city, regardless of denomination.

Organist Richard Greig at a near empty Holy Trinity Anglican Church. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Organist Richard Greig at a near empty Holy Trinity Anglican Church. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Campbell and company have been forced to become more tech-savvy. A few weeks ago, the church’s website was a basic shell; now, it includes video recordings, prayer resources and even a link to the Bishop of Rupertsland’s Twitch streaming account — a sentence that feels as strange to type as it does to read.

And on Thursday, McKenzie sets up a halo light with a cellphone mounted to it, and Campbell, hoping someone somewhere will soon listen to what she and the gospels have to say, is about to begin talking.

McKenzie starts to record.


Two weeks ago, in a beige bungalow in West Transcona, Jeannette and Jack Foot were fiddling with their computer, and Sister Charlotte Leak of St. Joseph the Worker parish was acting as their personal IT department.

Jack and Jeannette Foot  have been attending St. Joseph the Worker together since the late 1950s. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Jack and Jeannette Foot have been attending St. Joseph the Worker together since the late 1950s. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

The Foots, who are 82 and 84, respectively, got married in July 1957 and began attending St. Joseph the Worker soon thereafter. They’ve been members as long as the church’s doors have been open.

For them church is more than a religious institution; it’s a place to see friends and stay in touch with their community. So when it was announced in March that mass would be suspended, they didn't know what would happen to their Sunday mornings. St. Joseph the Worker is a five-minute walk from the Foots' front step. Now, it might as well have been a five-hour drive.

"For the first time in my life, I won’t be in church on Easter," Jeannette says. "If I came out of the hospital, the very next day I’d be at mass. I seldom miss it. It’s just that important to me."

So she found herself on the internet, looking for a connection.

Eventually, their daughter, Lindsy Jennings, sent them a livestream of a service being conducted at Paroisse des Saints-Martyrs-Canadiens in St. Boniface. It was her playing the organ.

Jennings didn’t get much time to prepare. She received the sheet music Saturday night: I Am The Bread of Life, Come Back to Me, the Prayer of St. Francis, among others.

The next day, she arrived at the church, which was eerily empty. She sat down behind a two-tiered organ, a multi-knobbed-and-buttoned instrument she didn’t even know how to turn on. Once she did, the camera rolled, the sound guy held up a microphone and the deacon stood nearby to start the proceedings.

Lindsy Jennings had one day to learn several songs for the following day's service. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Lindsy Jennings had one day to learn several songs for the following day's service. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I was sitting there, thinking about the fact there are a whole bunch of (strangers) out there," she says. "But I forgot and I just played. That’s what you do and that’s what the moment led me to. I even forgot the church was empty. It felt almost spiritual. I am not usually the kind of person who talks that way, but it was a different feeling."

She drove home afterward and immediately sent the link to her mom. Her parents spent several minutes on the phone figuring out how to turn on the volume, and then they were tuned in.

At the desktop, Jeannette was reciting the prayers as the livestreamers did, trying her best to stay engaged and sing along. She usually sings in the choir.

It’s not the same, but it will have to do.

The Foots will tune in again Sunday.


A short drive away, Father Peter Nemcek is alone.

Nemcek, 33, is the priest at the St. Nicholas Tavelich parish, a Croatian Roman Catholic church on north Main Street.

After joining the parish in July, Nemcek, originally from Slovakia, was just beginning to find his footing as a parochial administrator and looking forward to leading his first Easter services at the church — a major milestone for any religious leader.

Pastor Peter Nemcek of St. Nicholas Tavelich parish was set to conduct his first Easter service for his congregation. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Pastor Peter Nemcek of St. Nicholas Tavelich parish was set to conduct his first Easter service for his congregation. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

COVID-19 shook up those plans.

"Nothing compares," he says. "This is all very new, and I was never trained for anything quite like this. Like the rest of the world, I am trying to take things day by day and find ways to stay connected."

Nemcek continues to go to work at the church every day... his commute isn’t long; he lives in an attached building. But an existence that’s normally defined by interaction has now become one somewhat defined by isolation. The church is still open, but only one person is allowed inside at a time.

And isolation is the right thing to do, Nemcek says, but it flies in the face of what Easter normally is, an opportunity to gather. When you celebrate, you don’t celebrate alone, he says. This year, there isn’t much of a choice.

So he's been doing his best to connect with his parishioners. Phone calls and emails have replaced the face-to-face interaction he normally encourages, and he’s livestreaming his services, bringing the masses to unknown masses.

"It’s different, and it is sad, personally," he says. "I wish we could be together as a community for these high holidays, but I will accept the will of God."


Back at Holy Trinity, Campbell is looking straight into the camera in the big, empty sanctuary.

"This is such a strange and disruptive time we are in," she says.

"Because this Sunday is Easter, I felt that I would like to speak to you visually, with a voice and a person, and not just a written word. And so instead of an email note to you, we've gathered here to create a video, in the spirit of a letter to you. And I hope this all finds you well and safe, and in the spirit."

Canon Dr. Cathy Campbell believes a connection is still possible. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Canon Dr. Cathy Campbell believes a connection is still possible. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Campbell is riffing to no one in particular and everyone in the world all at once — an improvisation of immaculate proportions.

"And so I greet you, with the famous Easter greeting, with the way we greet each other on Easter morning. I say to you, Allelujah, Christ is risen!" she says.

"He is risen indeed, Allelujah," McKenzie replied, steadying his cellphone.

For a church so big to be so empty was incredibly strange, Campbell had remarked before starting her address. But somehow, the whole situation presented a strange irony to her. At a time when the world order has been so disrupted, and when people are being told to stay apart, connection was still possible.

"As we are distancing, we are being asked to understand the world," she said a day earlier. "Every corner of the world is touched by this, so at the same time we are at a distance, we are being invited to understand ourselves as a global community, and I think that's fabulous."

Campbell loudly concludes her message. It doesn't go perfectly; there are some "ums" and "uhs" she's hoping can be edited out.

"But I tell you, we don't strive for perfection," she says. "We strive for a clarity of vision."

She turns around and asks Richard Greig to begin a prelude. McKenzie unplugs his lighting rig, rewires it next to Greig's seat and sets up his camera.

Taking Campbell's cue, Grieg hasn't prepared much, either. Naturally, he improvises.

"It's sort of like a combination of a performance and a rehearsal," he says before sitting down.

"Now nobody can talk, because we will hear it on the recording," McKenzie says.

Greig begins playing, and the sounds he creates fill the massive space, rising to the ceiling and swirling in the air. He doesn't know exactly what notes he's going to play next, but he keeps playing, nonetheless.

For four minutes, Greig's fingers glide across the four tiers of keys, his feet pounding on the pedals. Campbell sits, nodding her head and smiling as the prelude reaches its closing crescendo.

"Well," she says. "Don't you wish everyone was here to hear that?"

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
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Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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