For many, Easter Sunday marks a return to in-person worship

Hundreds of people light candles in pews inside a church
Hundreds of people light candles at the beginning of Easter Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minn. For many U.S. Christians, this weekend marked the first time since 2019 that they gathered in person on Easter Sunday.
(Giovanna Dell’Orto / Associated Press)

For many U.S. Christians, this weekend marks the first time since 2019 that they will gather in person on Easter Sunday, a welcome chance to celebrate one of the year’s holiest days side by side with fellow congregants.

Notable events included a 6 a.m. sunrise Mass outdoors near the waterfront in South Boston, and a joyous, hug-filled service at St. Peter Claver, a historically Black congregation in St. Paul, Minn.

Another mostly Black congregation, Watson Grove Baptist Church in Nashville, had hoped for an outdoor service at a downtown park. But rain forced a last-minute change of plans, and about 700 mask-wearing worshippers met instead in the church’s sanctuary for what senior pastor John Faison said was by far their biggest indoor gathering during the pandemic.


“We hadn’t seen a crowd like this for two years,” Faison said. “Eyes were lighting up. People just felt good.”

The pandemic erupted in the country in March 2020, just ahead of Easter, forcing many churches to resort to online or televised worship. Many continued to hold virtual services last spring after a deadly winter wave of the coronavirus and as vaccination campaigns were still ramping up. But this year, more churches opened their doors for Easter services with few COVID-19 restrictions, in line with broader societal trends.

Among them are Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston, which since last June has required most churchgoers to attend Mass in person — though those with health risks may still watch remotely, and pastors have been asked to make space for social distancing in churches.

MC Sullivan, chief healthcare ethicist for the archdiocese, said celebrating Mass communally is important to how Catholics profess their faith. Church attendance has been trending upward, and parishioners are excited to gather again to commemorate Christ’s resurrection.

“It has been quite wonderful to see how well-attended Mass is right now. ... It seems to have brought a lot of people back to the idea of what’s important to them,” she said.

These women went through spiritual journeys that were sparked, sped up or heightened by the pandemic.

April 9, 2022

At St. Peter Claver in St. Paul, there was whooping, applause and exultant pounding on the wooden pews when the Rev. Joseph Gifford told more than 200 faithful that the church’s usual sign of the peace was back — no more pandemic-era nodding or mild handshakes.

“The place just explodes,” said longtime parishioner Lynette Graham. “When he said we could do it, people were all over the church,” hugging each other.


Another highlight of the service: the first performance by its Cameroonian choir — with its spirited drumming and West African melodies — since the pandemic hit.

“We’re back and He’s risen and it’s huge,” choir director Brendan Banteh said. “The ministry in our culture is very celebratory, being one in church — the choir, the priest, the people. Not being able to come to church had created a disconnect that we had never experienced before.”

Brendan Banteh directs the Cameroonian choir for Sunday morning Easter service at St. Peter Claver in St. Paul, Minn.
Brendan Banteh, right, directs the Cameroonian choir for Sunday morning Easter service at St. Peter Claver in St. Paul, Minn. Easter marked the choir’s first appearance since COVID-19 hit.
(Giovanna Dell’Orto / Associated Press)

Purpose Church, a nondenominational congregation in Pomona, had held its Easter services virtually or outdoors the last two years because of the pandemic.

On Sunday, nearly 4,000 congregants came in person to the church’s newly renovated sanctuary for three morning services, with many still watching virtually and others seated outside watching the proceedings on a 40-foot LED screen. This was also the first service in two years featuring the full 150-member choir, band and orchestra, said Tina Tong, worship producer for the 152-year-old church.

“It’s a sweet homecoming in so many ways,” she said. “We’re gathering in our new space, which is also special.”


A much smaller Southern California congregation — about 25 people — gathered on the beach in Pacific Palisades for a sunrise service conducted by pastor Joe Ramirez, founder of Revive LA, an inclusive Lutheran congregation.

“We watched the sun come up, talked about the resurrection and shared the message that hope is alive,” he said.

Because of the pandemic, “Our congregation has gotten used to being outside because people are more comfortable, and they can bring their pets,” Ramirez added. “We had three dogs at this morning’s service.”

Since at least 1935, worshipers have gathered at this spot off Cima Road, six miles south of Interstate 15, to celebrate the Christian holiday in front of the humble cross at Sunrise Rock.

April 5, 2021

In Minnesota’s Twin Cities, there were differing approaches to COVID-19 precautions as Easter arrived.

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, which became a community hub during protests over George Floyd’s killing in 2020, ended its mask requirement as of Palm Sunday and returned to shoulder-to-shoulder communion at the rail instead of in the pews.

Ingrid Rasmussen, the pastor, said Easter attendance was expected to be similar to pre-pandemic levels — but split between those in pews and those joining remotely.


Christ Church Lutheran, an architectural landmark also in Minneapolis, was taking a cautious approach to loosening COVID-19 protocols — masks and social distancing measures remain in place.

“The gift of being in the same physical space for the first time in three years is so grounding and beautiful,” said Miriam Samuelson-Roberts, the pastor. “We do not take it for granted.”

Hundreds of people lit candles in the vast Cathedral of St. Paul after Catholic Archbishop Bernard Hebda blessed the fire and lit the Paschal candle to open the Easter Vigil service late Saturday.

Archbishop Bernard smiles before blessing the fire and the Paschal candle
Archbishop Bernard Hebda, left, smiles before blessing the fire and the Paschal candle at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minn.
(Giovanna Dell’Orto / Associated Press)

The century-old cathedral echoed with the singing of the congregation as candles flickered in the darkness. Well past 8 p.m., wide-eyed children fascinated by the little flames and the cantors far outnumbered people wearing masks — the archdiocese rescinded all COVID-19 protocols on April 1, while allowing the faithful and individual parishes to retain precautions if they wished.

In New York City, Middle Collegiate Church gathered for its first in-person Easter service since 2019, only not in its historic Manhattan church, which was destroyed by fire two Decembers ago.


While the church rebuilds, it’s sharing space at East End Temple — at a time when the synagogue is observing its own holy days of Passover.

The Rev. Jacqui Lewis, Middle Collegiate’s senior minister, said attendance in the 190-person temple was capped at 150. Those leading the service, plus choir singers and musicians, took rapid coronavirus tests.

Dell’Orto reported from St. Paul, Minn., and Bharath from Orange County. Associated Press reporters Luis Andres Henao in Pennsylvania and David Crary in New York contributed to this report.