Returning to church and experiencing a more normal way of worshipping side by side with fellow church members has been “wonderful,” McHenry resident Jean Grandt said.
“You know, it’s so good that you can hug somebody now. You don’t have to hit elbows or fists. You can enjoy the other [church members] again,” said Grandt, 89, who has been a member of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in McHenry since 1951.
Area church leaders said since the beginning of this year, in-person worship attendance and other church activities are returning to more pre-pandemic numbers. Easter had the best turnout since 2019, church leaders and members said.
The Rev. Mark Buetow, pastor at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, said this Easter’s service, which was livestreamed in 2020, brought out more worshippers than in 2021.
Last year, a limited number of people were allowed inside and they had to be socially distanced, sitting with three pews in between and wearing masks. Holy Communion continued with its typical use of individual cups for its parishioners and the chalice. However, during the pandemic, the chalice was additionally sanitized with extra alcohol, which will continue, Buetow said.
“That is the Lord’s sacrament, and I don’t think he wants to get us sick,” he said with a chuckle.
This year also marked the first time since Easter 2019 that the church held its traditional Easter breakfast. It was the first time the church sponsored any sort of large, in-person fellowship event in three years, Buetow said.
“It was wonderful,” Buetow said. “[Church members] were just glad to be together and be sitting across from each other with a plate of eggs and a cup of coffee. We hadn’t done that in so long.”
Other church activities, such as Bible studies, ladies’ guild and the quilting club up until just recently, were limited to online or canceled.
Throughout the pandemic, Buetow said, his main goal was making sure everyone stayed healthy while they continued to praise Jesus, whether through livestreaming services or limiting in-person service with masks and social distancing.
The livestreamed services were appreciated, Grandt said, but it wasn’t the same.
“You can study [the Bible] yourself, but when you’ve got someone else to talk to about it, it really is encouraging and it does build your faith,” she said. “You miss the people. It’s kind of like a family, and you miss being with them.”
The Rev. Bob Jones at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Crystal Lake said slowly it seems members are returning to church. Church groups and retreats also are seeing more attendees. Easter had more in-person worshippers than 2021, and in 2020, Easter Mass was livestreamed.
From March 2020 to that May, all Catholic churches in Illinois followed the law and services were livestreamed, he said. But even after Memorial Day weekend, they could only allow in a small number of worshippers and all were masked and social distanced. There also was extra cleaning of the pews between services.
Today, much of that but for the communal cup, “has gone by the wayside,” said Jones who joined the church last year after serving 13 years at St. Katharine Drexel Church in Sugar Grove where he dealt with the initial months of the pandemic.
At first, it was difficult as a church to juggle the rules over masks but, Jones said, “we worked through that struggle.”
Numbers of in-person Mass attendees is increasing at St. Thomas, though Jones said “we are not out of this.” He said he thinks COVID-19 will be around for quite some time. If people are not sure about the virus, they are welcome to wear masks without any judgement, he said.
“Our church encourages it, and I think the majority of health professionals encourage it,” Jones said. “The main reason is for selfless reasons, not for us but for [the health] of others.”
St. Thomas is not fully back up to pre-pandemic, in-person worshippers, but Jones said he does “see a gradual uptick, and Easter was more like normal Easter services.”
Although some still are watching services online, one of this year’s Easter weekend masses had about 800 people in church, almost full. Jones said he hopes to get those who “drifted away” from church to come back.
Invitations have been sent out to people inviting them to return, but other than that Jones said he is “praying that we get more of them back.”
“I think for the most faithful people, it is everything to be able to come back together,” Jones said. “They really missed it. Being in person is important [for that] sense of community. It’s hard to get that when you are at home.”
At Willow Creek Community Church Church in Huntley, Pastor Todd Katter said all worship services, small groups, child and student programs and fellowship has resumed as “normal. This summer the church will offer summer camps and other weekly programs to foster “connection and support.”
During the pandemic, the church followed all the rules, and they still strive to create an environment where people feel safe, Katter said. Today, at Willow Creek, masks are optional and hand sanitizer and individually wrapped communion elements are provided.
Katter said he was “grateful” during the pandemic that so many church members remained engaged digitally. Video viewing still is available in the atrium.
“During this last season, we’ve reached out to serve our community like never before and have many important ways to keep doing this in the future,” Katter said.
During the pandemic, Katter said he was grateful to see how God moved and how “people showed up for each other.”
He pointed to efforts like food drives and delivering doughnuts to first responders, as moments where he witnessed church members “step up to serve the needs of our community like never before.”
Still, the weight of the pandemic was and will continue to be felt.
“Unfortunately, the pandemic brought a lot of loss and division to our country and world at large. We are deeply saddened by the lives that were lost,” Katter said. “Many also experienced the loss of jobs, child care and stability. While we are relieved to be at this stage in the pandemic, feeling like things have turned, we would be remiss to not acknowledge the toll it has taken.”