APTOPIX Virus Outbreak California Easter

Pastor Nicolas Sanchez is seen on his iPhone used to live-stream in celebration of Easter Vigil Mass at St. Patrick Church in North Hollywood, Calif., on Saturday, April 11, 2020. The COVID-19 measures also have changed the way people worship, with churches and synagogues closed and many Passover and Easter services streamed online. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

In 2019, parishioners at Saint Augustine Church sat in the dark the sunset before Easter for a vigil on Holy Saturday. Father David Ruchinski stood outside the church across from the University of Florida’s campus lighting a candle from an Easter fire to bring into the church. 

Ruchinski started to say a prayer outside — the church overlooking UF’s football hub, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. That’s when country singer Garth Brooks took the stadium as his own and began singing to a crowd of 75,000 people. 

“Christ yesterday and today,” Ruchinski began to say to the church’s crowd, but he was interrupted by a roar from the audience down the street.

He thought he’d never have such an unusual Easter mass again. 

He laughed as he told an Alligator reporter the story but also felt disappointed since this year’s Holy Saturday tradition was just as unusual. His sermon was delivered to an empty church and livestreamed as COVID-19 concerns caused the place of worship to close to the public until further notice. 

And due to a stay-at-home order issued in Alachua County, only one person is allowed per every 1,000 square feet for businesses, including places of worship. Gatherings are restricted to 10 people and under. 

The service was livestreamed on Facebook and Instagram in both English and Spanish. Ruchinski delivered his sermon on camera, and a few other people were in the room to help him with the video and to read texts from the Bible.

More than 1,000 people watched the church’s live stream as he spoke to an audience whose faces he couldn’t see inside a church that is usually packed wall-to-wall.

“They could watch the pope do mass on video, they could watch a livestreamed mass from some celebrity priest somewhere, they could watch the livestreamed mass from their local parish or just skip it altogether,” he said. “But they didn’t because this parish is their house.”

During his livestreamed sermon, Ruchinski said the message of Easter is that “today ought to be different.” 

“Maybe this disruption in the normalcy of our lives puts us more into the frame of mind of those early Christians who went to the tomb that morning and found that something that they had never expected has happened,” he said.

Easter is always busy and full of family for Catholic UF student Makayla Denney. The 19-year-old nursing sophomore usually drives from Orlando, Florida to Sebastian, Florida in the morning to attend a church service with her grandparents. Afterward, she makes a cake in the shape of a bunny — coconut shavings, jelly beans and all — with her siblings and grandmother. At dinnertime, they usually sorted themselves to the kid’s table or with the adults to eat ham, potatoes, asparagus and turkey.

But this year was quiet. 

It was just her, her parents and her younger brother. They couldn’t go to her grandparent’s house. They couldn’t go to church. She couldn’t wear her Easter outfit, a pastel-colored romper she planned weeks before the holiday.

But she tried. She made a bunny cake without her grandmother’s help, saw a church service online, and attended a family Easter dinner over Zoom, a video conference provider. 

“I feel like this time is supposed to be a happy time, especially for the people in my religion, and we’re supposed to be celebrating,” she said. “But it’s kind of hard to celebrate when you can’t do the things you’re used to or the things that make you really happy.”

Despite some of the disappointment, Denney said she sees some positives in staying at home.

“This quarantine, in general, has given me a lot of time to reflect on my personal religion and been able to see where I can improve,” she said. “It’s given me the time and mindset to do that.”

Contact Kaelyn Cassidy at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @kaelyn_cassidy.