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The pandemic has forced the closure of parishes and other churches across Canada. Although lockdown restrictions continue to be eased and churches are now open, health regulations remain in place and a likely second wave of COVID-19 is expected.

How can we reach parishioners and other people of faith in this context?

Bill Hatch, outreach coordinator for Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Toronto, details the ways in which the community is adapting to the new context in order to continue to offer masses, help the most vulnerable, and support expressions of community solidarity. Allex Laurin, marketing and communications manager at Martyrs’ Shrine, explains that even though the shrine is closed for the season, every effort has been made to transform the pilgrim experience into a quality digital format. These two examples show that even if the personal interaction is not the same as before, it is possible to offer online spiritual resources and even foster a strong community of people who help each other.

This shift to online tools is helpful not only now, during the pandemic, but will also be of value afterwards. Churches have become more connected than ever before and are reaching new and more diverse audiences.

Bill Hatch – Our Lady of Lourdes

How have you experienced the transition to working remotely?

It has certainly been a challenge, but we have also seen unexpected blessings emerge. At the beginning of the pandemic restrictions, for example, we started to organize Zoom meetings for our steering group (e.g., parish council, finance committee). This allowed us to meet more frequently as we sought to collaborate on the parish’s response to the crisis. We also noticed that being able to participate in meetings from home seemed to make everyone comfortable. It created a feeling of familiarity during the calls that improved the quality of the conversation.

How did you plan and implement new services such as online masses? What other parish activities have you adapted?

Making mass available through online streaming was a project we had been thinking about for a long time. As soon as the parish closed in March, we started filming, live-streaming, and putting our 11:30 Sunday mass online. We also started to organize a daily noon mass on Zoom during the time the church was closed. Even with the reopening, we broadcast live at least one mass a day from the church.

As it became clear that things would not return to normal anytime soon, we began to support the spiritual growth of our parishioners by offering online educational programs through Bishop Robert Barron’s “Word on Fire” platform.

We also used Zoom this spring as a platform for the parish Alpha evangelization course, which aims to present the basics of the Christian faith. Participants in the Alpha course came from as far away as New Brunswick, the Philippines, and Brazil.

To keep in touch with the parish community, we have moved from a weekly paper newsletter to an electronic newsletter—and we have been more active in corresponding by email with parishioners.

In terms of outreach, like many parishes, we have set up a ministry to put volunteers in touch with parishioners who are isolated for reasons of health or age, offering them either a friendly phone call or help in picking up supplies or medication.

We used our newsletter to solicit volunteers and had an excellent response rate. We were able to connect more than 75 isolated parishioners with volunteers.

Do parishioners appreciate the new services?

The response has been very positive! On the whole, people felt moved to get in touch with the parish during this period.

One woman who has been part of the parish for over 40 years said that through the daily Zoom mass she felt closer than ever before to the parish community.

One young woman said that the situation gave her the opportunity to watch Sunday mass at 11:30 a.m. with her parents (instead of going to church separately). Even Father John, our pastor, noted that he got to know the parishioners in a different and deeper way through the daily Zoom mass.

What worked well? What was the most difficult?

We are very grateful to the parish community for their flexibility and adaptation to the “new normal” and to the many changes in parish life, as well as to our way of communicating and reaching people. We are a small team, and there is always much room for improvement!

Allex Laurin – Martyrs’ Shrine

What impact has COVID-19 had on life at the shrine?

Normally, during the summer season from May to October, the shrine welcomes 120,000 pilgrims, and many more staff are hired (to organize pilgrimages, do gardening, manage the store, etc.). It’s very different this year since the shrine remains closed. Obviously, if we do not have pilgrims, we cannot hire our usual staff. But we are still very busy.

The main purpose of the shrine is its spiritual dimension. Given that people cannot be here physically, we had to change our way of thinking. We needed to find ways to continue to offer a spiritual experience, to transform what we are doing, what the pilgrims expect, into an accessible digital format. Our staff needed to change their approach because our service, our communications, our marketing… everything was geared toward in-person visits. In the absence of these visits, we needed to see what was left of the spiritual dimension.

We had to find out what people wanted. We needed to translate our typical way of interaction into a digital format—the emails we send, the message from the priest when someone asks for a mass, etc. We had to decide what to write and how to respond and transmit information.

This new reality—the absence of pilgrims—has led us to adapt to online masses. Prayer intentions can be sent through our website. All the services that can be requested from our office are available on our website (becoming a member, requesting masses, etc.).

What tools do you use?

I take care of all the technical aspects and use tools that are available for free. Our masses can be viewed on our website, but it is hosted on YouTube. There are more interactive platforms, but YouTube serves us well as a free tool. We have different types of cameras on the site, including a zoom camera that allows us to plug the audio source directly into the camera, which gives us very good sound quality.

Our masses are also available as podcasts on our SoundCloud account to allow people to listen to mass when they’re in the car or at other convenient times.

Does everyone know how to connect online?

We are not aware of any connection problems that have not been fixed. One member, for example, had to ask her grandson to show her what to do, and now she is able to watch mass every Sunday. Some people had a little difficulty, but they found help.

It is heartwarming to see that people are so willing to make the effort to stay connected to the shrine. If they feel that using our website is too complicated, they seek help, which just shows how motivated they are to continue this experience.

Even if we can’t reach 120,000 pilgrims as usual, we know that at least we’re able to reach the people most connected to the shrine.

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