Cambridge Religious Centers Rethink Daily Practices in the Wake of Coronavirus Pandemic


Harvard-affiliated religious leaders and Cambridge religious centers are rethinking how they will approach their services and day-to-day conduct in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Following a state-wide ban on gatherings of more than 25 people and Harvard’s recent decision to send students home, the University’s religious organizations and other local religious bodies are working to keep their communities connected while temporarily discontinuing their in-person services.

Memorial Church — an interdenominational Protestant church located at the center of Harvard Yard — cancelled all events at least through the end of April. The church is home to the interfaith network at Harvard, housing chaplains of different religious backgrounds.

Instead of in-person services, Memorial Church will record its Morning Prayers and make them available online. It will also continue to broadcast its Sunday worship service on WHRB, Harvard’s radio station.


Interim Pusey Minister Stephanie A. Paulsell said Memorial Church will find new ways of interacting and communicating with churchgoers, such as through daily emails containing music, student reflections, spiritual practices, and a prayer cumulative of the week’s prayer requests.

As the Christian church enters Lent — a period of penitential preparation for Easter — Paulsell said the church has been thinking about this year’s theme of Pilgrimage. The theme was originally chosen to reflect the church’s leadership transition as the University searches for a permanent minister.

“We had just passed the first Sunday of Lent when this all started happening,” she said. “The beginning of that journey is a journey in the wilderness, and we’re in it. We’re in the wilderness feeling our way along, trying to figure out how to accompany each other on this journey to Easter,” she said.

Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, the director at Harvard Chabad, said Chabad will not be conducting in-person events — including major events scheduled over the next few weeks — as they approach weekly Shabbat dinners and Passover.

“There are so many regular events that occur here and signature events that we convene as a community — none of which will be occurring until it is safe to do so,” he said.

Zarchi wrote in a follow-up email that Chabad will instead be sending “necessary elements required to conduct a Passover Seder” to students and their families.

“With the help of a caterer, we will ship Matzah and ‘Seders to go’ for all students and families who need it so that they can enjoy a healthy, Kosher, and happy Passover!” he wrote.

Zarchi said smaller discussion groups have already started communicating virtually. He added that while he recognizes students’ sadness and shock, he looks forward to when they can all celebrate again.

“We’ll come back,” he said. “We’ll have yet the happiest celebratory days for all seniors and grad students around the corner hopefully. But for now, of course, the central and primary message to a lot of students is that we ask them to please, please listen to guidelines of the authorities and just be safe.”

In an email sent over Harvard Hillel’s mailing list last Friday, Rabbi Jonah C. Steinberg — the executive director of Harvard Hillel — wrote that he was moved by the love, support, and care shown at Harvard Hillel over the past week.

“It strikes me that we will all remember this sudden exodus from Harvard for the rest of our lives,” Steinberg wrote. “By that I mean, let’s find a fleetness in our feet and a hurry in our hearts, amid our personal rushing, to be present for one another, now and in the time into which we are embarking.”

In a message to The Crimson, Bilal Wurie ’21, the vice president of the Harvard Islamic Society, wrote that the organization is “moving forward as best as we can” following Bacow’s announcement to send students home.

"Community is a core aspect of the Islamic tradition, so this change is definitely a substantial hurdle, but we will overcome it,” Wurie wrote. “Like the multitude of mosques across the nation, our on-campus Jumuah (Friday) prayers and future Ramadan programming have been cancelled.”

Wurie added that the Harvard Islamic Society has plans to engage virtually and “maintain strong ties” with its members in the coming months.

The Cambridge Zen Center — a Zen Buddhist center located near Central Square — wrote in a March 11 announcement that while they will be closed to the public until May 1, they will continue to post virtual content and attempt live streaming practices in the near future.

“This is uncharted territory for us, having been open to the public seven days a week for the last forty-seven years,” the announcement reads. “It wasn’t a decision made lightly, but when weighing the pros and cons of potential disease transmission, it seemed wise to err on the side of caution for everyone’s benefit.”

The center is one of the largest residential Buddhist centers in North America and houses over thirty residents and extended non-residential guests, according to their website.

Saint Paul Parish — a Roman Catholic church in Harvard Square that is home to the Harvard Catholic Center — announced on its website that all masses, parish gatherings, ministries, and events have been canceled until further notice. While baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals are allowed to proceed, attendance is advised to be limited to immediate family.

Senior Chaplain Reverend William T. Kelly said the church will remain open from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. for private prayer and will continue to operate its Saturday morning food pantry.

“We also have established a phone train to reach out to our homebound parishioners who may not have computer access,” Kelly said.

Kelly added that the church is using social media to reach out to parishioners, the Choir School, and Catholic Harvard students who are now spread throughout the world.

The Society of Saint John the Evangelist — a monastery located near Harvard Square — announced on its website that while the chapel was closed for the foreseeable future, members of their communication team were working to find ways to stream or webcast services.

In an email to The Crimson, David Vryhof, a brother at SSJE, wrote that they plan to record the service of Compline — the final church service of the day — and several hymns for their website.

“We hope these will serve as a helpful resource for those who, along with us, are weathering the current health crisis,” he wrote.

SJJE Superior James Koester said the twelve brothers in the monastery will continue to celebrate the Eucharist, a Christian ceremony commemorating the Last Supper.

“We gather five times a day in the chapel,” he said. “We’re carrying on our liturgical life but without a congregation.”

Koester said part of SSJE’s Rule of Life states that the brothers offer their worship on behalf of the world.

“We’re aware right now that usually the world comes through our doors and we worship with the world,” he said. “But right now, the world can’t come in through our doors so we’re holding the world up in our prayers.”

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.