As the sun rose on the weirdest Easter ever, Joel Jadus strummed his guitar and crooned, “Morning has broken...”
The Rev. Serena Hemmer of the First Unity Church in St. Petersburg stepped up to the lectern in a nearly empty waterfront park in the city’s downtown for a sunrise Easter service. Last year, they had a few hundred congregants gathered on what is considered the holiest day of the year for Christians. Instead, the service had more than 1,200 views by mid-morning and 207 comments on its Facebook livestream.
Nearby at St. Paul’s Catholic Church, Monsignor Robert Gibbons usually holds two simultaneous Masses on Easter Sunday, one in the church and the other in the school gymnasium. Afterward, there’s a big Easter egg hunt for the children on the playground.
Instead the church was empty and silent on Sunday morning, open still for people to come in and pray, if they desired, in an echoey sanctuary. A big green bottle of Purell hand sanitizer was placed behind the vestibule that normally holds holy water.
Mary Reedy, 67, a St. Paul’s church volunteer who tends to the campus gardens, marveled at how the church still manages to support the community. Hundreds of cars queued up for Palm Sunday, she said.
“The nuns were lined up like prom queens but with their masks on," she said. "They chucked palms into the cars.”
For Easter Sunday, hundreds returned to drive through the campus for carefully wiped Easter eggs handed off from a safe distance.
“One thing is, we’ll get to see the parishioners. Everybody is really missing seeing everyone,” Gibbons said of his parish, where Sunday attendance runs up to 1,300 people.
At Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, ministers decided to cancel their plans for an Easter service in its parking lot. Out of an abundance of caution, service was offered online instead.
“I want to set an example to our community about what it looks like for the church to honor our government leaders and maintain an environment that is as safe as possible for our members and guests,” Pastor Corey Abney wrote in an email to the congregation.
At Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, church members wore masks and raised hands during a drive-in service on church grounds. Maime Lloyd and Evelyn Thompson flipped through their bibles as they sat back at a distance in lawn chairs, peering over their face masks as they followed along during the small service that was also streamed online.
At Bascom’s Chop House in Clearwater, the dining room would normally be packed on Easter Sunday, with servers in starched white shirts and bow ties gliding smoothly with oval trays. The diners would be dolled up in their prettiest Easter dresses and seersucker suits.
Instead, the upscale steakhouse offered a packaged Easter menu of salad, soup, a leg of lamb and prime rib, with sides of glazed carrots and garlic mashed potatoes and a chocolate torte for dessert. They were waiting for curbside pickup starting at 11 a.m. Sunday.
Bascom’s had nearly 150 dinner orders, their best day in a very long time, said Paul Bullard, managing partner of the venerable fine dining restaurant.
“We would normally have 400 people for the buffet during Easter afternoon and 200-300 for dinner at night,” Bullard said. “We have had to recalibrate what is success. I’m going to look at this positively.”
On St. Pete Beach, parishioners of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church were invited to drive around the circular drive off 85th Avenue. They could stop in front of the Parish Hall to find a wooden cross, where they could drop off greenery or get out of their cars to place flowers.
The “flowering of the cross” is a church tradition that has been traced back to the sixth century as a striking way “to symbolize the new life that emerges from Jesus’s death on Good Friday.”
Despite all the shock and changes this year, the Rev. Temple Hayes of First Unity Church back in St. Pete called it “the best Easter of my lifetime.”
“I find it exhilarating,” she said. “We have been forced to let go of greed, to find yourself, to let go of these false identities. Don’t miss a day. Be present.”
“It’s truly been a resurrection.”
Staff writer Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report.
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