Calgary churches adapt to COVID-19 restrictions as Advent season begins

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WATCH ABOVE: A Calgary minister opposes the Alberta government's recent COVID-19 restrictions, arguing it's not safe for churches to be open. As Carolyn Kury de Castillo reports, the Advent season will look much different this year – Nov 28, 2020

A Calgary minister is condemning the province’s decision to allow places of worship to remain open.

Hillhurst United Church is lit up with all the usual beauty of the Advent season but there won’t be anyone in pews to take it all in.

“It’s really strange,” said Rev. John Pentland, Hillhurst United Church minister, on Saturday. “We are used to an increase in attendance during December each week and then there are 1600 people who find their way through this building on Christmas Eve. We know that’s not going to happen. So there is a sense of loss of that.”

The northwest Calgary church hasn’t had regular in-person services since March — instead offering online services which have grown in popularity.

Pentland is disappointed with the Alberta government’s decision to allow places of worship to remain open at one-third capacity.

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On Tuesday, the government announced new restrictions in areas like Calgary and Edmonton and anywhere with an enhanced status.

Read more: Alberta enacts 2nd COVID-19 state of public health emergency. Here’s what it means

“The new restrictions that came out last week are really crazy. They say we could have 100 people in the sanctuary and that is ridiculous. It’s not safe or smart and that’s a big concern for me,” Pentland said.

“Being closed is the right thing to do for us. I think it’s theological and biblical to love your neighbour so I think closing is the right thing to do.”

Church staff said with so many elderly at risk and limited ventilation in the old building, inviting 100 people would be asking for trouble.

“Right now we’re not even able to go into each other’s homes,” said Anne Yates-Laberge, director of operations at Hillhurst United Church.

“Church is known for its hugging and close proximity and ability to be with one another together. That is the biggest super spreader event you could ever create at the highest season of the church.

“It would be the biggest disaster in my opinion. I was really disappointed by the decision.”

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Read more: Calgary man who spent 25 days in coma fighting COVID-19 cautions Albertans as restrictions ease

Mesfin Kibret and his family had to self-isolate for two weeks in August after an outbreak at the northeast church he attends.  Now he’s giving back to the community by volunteering with EthioCare, delivering hampers to others who aren’t able to leave their homes.

Kibret is happy the church is open again — with reduced numbers — so that people have a place to meet and pray.

“I am okay and my daughter is okay and I want to help other people,” Kibret said.

“People want to pray for Jesus Christ. People need it for the prayer; that’s why people ask to open the church and that’s why the church is open. Church is important.”

Read more: Volunteers assist Calgary church members diagnosed with COVID-19


At Hillhurst United, they’re getting creative by recording musicians, one at a time, in the church to add to their online Christmas service.

Pentland said the building is open in a different way this year.

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“We are trying very hard to continue the values of our community — hospitality, spirituality and social justice and when you take those values out into the world you were actually living your faith more fully.
So it’s tough but we are also in this together all of us.”

On Nov. 19, British Columbia banned all in-person services for two weeks due to the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in the province.