As church attendance lags, many Tampa Bay faithful return for the holidays

Followers kept away by the pandemic have been slow to come back, but the season draws many to the pews again.
At St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, poinsettias adorn the altar as family members, seen in the background, show up for a baptism Thursday.
At St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, poinsettias adorn the altar as family members, seen in the background, show up for a baptism Thursday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 23, 2021|Updated Dec. 23, 2021

When St. Paul’s Catholic Church reopened its doors last year, parishioners kept away by the pandemic began to slowly drift back.

About a third showed up at first, then more after the Diocese of St. Petersburg in May reinstated the general obligation to attend Mass, allowing an exception for those still unable to come or uncomfortable with attending for health reasons.

Still, into the fall, attendance stalled at about two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels. So at the start of Advent, St. Paul’s pastor Monsignor Robert Gibbons sent a letter to parishioners.

“Now is the perfect time to return,” he wrote. And some people have.

While attendance remains down overall, St. Paul’s and other churches across the Tampa Bay area are seeing a slight uptick as the holiday season reaches its apex. Many continue to offer services online.

Related: Across U.S., houses of worship struggle to rebuild attendance

The factors that have kept parishioners away vary, Gibbons said. Some have health concerns, others have simply fallen out of the habit. But Christmas, he said, is bringing more people back.

“Something vital and crucial to our faith is missing when we don’t have that communal dimension to it,” Gibbons said. “It’s important to gather as a community and be drawn out of our individuality.”

Nothing replaces the feeling of being able to see and hear other congregation members, said Rabbi Philip Weintraub of Congregation B’nai Israel in St. Petersburg.

“These last two years have redefined, ‘together,’” he said.

For elderly members who had difficulty making it in person and those in other locations, the congregation found ways to help them feel part of the community.

For Hanukkah, Weintraub said, about 130 people assembled outdoors for latkes and donuts and music, lighting the city’s largest Menorah. The first in-person Shabbat dinner was limited to 60 seats and quickly reached capacity.

The uptick has been gradual, but “people are excited to see one another again,” Weintraub said. “It’s a blessing to be together physically.”

Rev. Ginny Ellis, the interim pastor at First Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg, has noticed people laughing in church, and sharing cookies and coffee after services.

“I think people have been hungry for fellowship,” she said. “The joy in the room is palpable.”

While attendance hasn’t reached pre-pandemic levels, about 150 showed up at last week’s service. That number had been well under 100 before Thanksgiving.

The church lifted a mask-required policy in mid-November, but Ellis, who closely monitors COVID-19 numbers, said they may have to have a conversation soon in light of the omicron variant.

Still, she said, part of the season is giving the gift of health to one another. And while the online option isn’t the same, she said, it offers a way for more than 85 others to tune in.

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“There are people who have risks that would make being with us difficult,” she said. “I think it makes a huge impact for those who have been lonely.”

At the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg, Rev. Ralph D’Elia, who still makes visits to the homebound, said the point is not just to bring people back to the pews but to do it safely.

The cathedral’s hand-sanitizing stations remain and more services have been added.

“I think people have seen that it’s important to be part of a community and to have that human connection,” D’Elia said. “I can sense that there was something lacking.”

Rev. Hector Cruz at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Tampa said that, while about half the parishioners have returned in person, the omicron variant has some second-guessing whether they should. He is grateful for the opportunity to worship in person but advises parishioners to get vaccinated and wear masks.

“The coronavirus has no religion,” Cruz said. “It is present in our churches, malls, stadiums. Don’t think that because we are in church, we are spiritually protected.”

Still, he said, the ability to worship and sing together, particularly around Christmas, is meaningful.

“Although God is everywhere … it’s a very different meaning to be together and feeling the presence of God among us in community,” he said.

Rev. Gary Dowsey, with Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Dunedin, said attendance has picked up with the holy season and the arrival of snowbirds, though people generally have been slow to return.

He suspects lingering political divisions may be a contributing factor. While Pope Francis has encouraged vaccination as an act of love, some followers have been influenced by political statements regarding vaccines.

“It’s unfortunate, because it’s a health issue,” Dowsey said.

While crises often lead people back to church, ongoing turmoil can sometimes change their relationship with their faith, he said.

“We change when our habits change. Some people may have reassessed values. You don’t know what goes on in people’s lives,” Dowsey said.

But many still find solace in their faith, he said. ”Our doors are open to everyone ... Worship is taking us to the table of the source of love.”