Greek community celebrates Easter in shutdown

Avleen K Mokha

Priest delivering a service during Holy Week.
Parish Priest Father Charalambos delivering a service during Holy Week. Photo: The Hellenic Community of Greater Montreal

The Hellenic Community of Greater Montreal (HCGM) manages two churches in Park Extension region, the Evangelismos church and the Koimisis Tis Theotokou church. As the COVID-19 pandemic gained momentum in Quebec, the HCGM began conducting church services by livestream on YouTube and Facebook.

Over 11,000 people follow the HCGM Facebook page. In an interview with Parc-Ex News, HCGM Executive Vice President Constance Karvelas recalled that one church service received around 20,000 views. The Evangelismos church in Park Extension is one of the six HCGM churches that are connecting with the parishioners online.

Clear directives from the Archbishop

Usually, members of the church gather during April to celebrate the rebirth of Jesus Christ. The ceremonies include a week-long period called the Holy Week, which ends on Easter Sunday.

The Greek-Orthodox Archbishop of Canada, Sotirios Athanassoulas, issued a letter on April 6 telling members of the community to not gather during Easter. In the statement, Father Sotirios said that the hellenic community will “precisely observe the directives and instructions of the Canadian government authorities.”

In order to follow governmental guidelines, access to the Greek church is restricted to the priest Father Harry Charalambos and his helper. This year exceptionally, the church did not issue palm branches, nor any holy oil, during the Holy Week leading up to Easter.

“Some parishioners are hurt by it,” Karvelas described. “We are counting on their friends and family to explain that this is no joke. Faith is fantastic, but this is not a time to be taking chances with people’s lives.”

The first week churches closed to the public, a few people came knocking on the door, demanding to be let in. “As painful as it was, the priests didn’t and can’t let them in,” Karvelas continued.

Maintaining communication and the family spirit

Karvelas is spearheading HCGM’s campaign on social media which aims to provide information about COVID-19 in Greek.

Primarily, HCGM livestreams services from one church and uploads services from three to four other churches on their Facebook page. According to Karvelas, the reception has been encouraging.

“We have discovered that we have done something great that will help our community long after COVID-19 is over,” Karvelas said. “In some ways, I feel that we have uncovered a different way that after COVID-19 is over, we can bring faith into different homes.”

“In some ways, I feel that we have uncovered a different way that after COVID-19 is over, we can bring faith into different homes.”

By live-streaming events on YouTube and Facebook, Karvelas believes that HCGM can connect with young families, older parishioners, or people that usually travel from far.

Coping with technology: Help for older parishioners

“This is a new experience because our faith is hands-on,” Father Charalambos said. To ensure that older residents of Park Ex could benefit from live-streaming, Father Charalambos prepared handouts to treat the environment of home as church during a session. These handouts were distributed as downloadable documents through social media leading to the Holy Week.

“I don’t want my parishioners to treat it like a hockey game,” Father Charalambos said. “I want to help them have the mindset of going to church.”

To enjoy the experience of streaming services online, Father Charalambos recommends allocating a small part of the house be a praying corner and to dress in church clothes. “You tend to lose yourself when all the days feel the same,” Father Charalambos said.

Some parishioners are understandably frustrated that they cannot access the Holy Light on Easter. However, Father Charalambos assured these parishioners that the church will always have a light that parishioners can receive once the pandemic is lifted.

Parishioners are responsive to the crisis

“The parishioners who I thought would rebel have actually locked themselves in,” Father Charalambos said.

As a priest, Father Charalambos follows the rules of the government and the rules of the Archbishop. The priest follows the stricter of the two judgements, unless there is a big difference. In those instances, the priest defaults to the laws of the government.

Father Charalambos recalled that older parishioners stopped congregating before the government officially banned public gatherings.

“Our Church has experienced persecution for the longest time,” Father Charalambos continued. “My parents’ generation has been through hard times. They have hidden under the couch in fear of the Germans during World War II. They have done ‘no church’ before.”

Suspended visits to senior homes

Father Charalambos usually visits parishioners long-term care facilities and seniors’ homes (CHSLDs). Due to the pandemic, no visitors are allowed. A significant number of older Greeks live in CHSLDs.

“Those are the people I feel for, because I cannot get to them in any way,” Father Charalambos said.

A severe outbreak of COVID-19 in a seniors’ home in Dorval killed at least 31 residents. The Ministry of Health and Public Safety has launched a police investigation to examine senior residences.

Even patients with conditions like dementia respond positively from being visited by a church member. “When they see the priest, their eyes light up,” Father Charalambos said.

Holy Week decorations at the Evangelismos Tis Theotokou Church
Holy Week decorations at the Evangelismos Tis Theotokou Church. Photo: Hellenic Community of Greater Montreal

Grief in the Greek community

The priest has attended a few funerals, all of them related to COVID-19.

According to Father Charalamos, the Greeks are suffering from the lack of otherwise extensive burial routines.

An Orthodox Greek service includes a viewing, which gives a community to pay proper respect to the dead and their loved ones. The rituals before the day of the viewing are also not done anymore.

The government mandates that burials take place directly at the cemetery. Usually, the priest conducts a set of prayers at the burial site, followed by a meal at the church.

“For a Greek, not getting buried in a church for any reason is not what they want,” Father Charalambos said. “Reducing the church burial to 20 minutes at the grave site is a big adjustment.”

Children’s show “glimmer of hope”

For grandparents that feel isolated, Karvelas said that hearing their children on the weekly radio show at MIKE FM gives joy. “It gives them a sense of normalcy in a very abnormal situation,” Karvelas said.

Each segment includes a section of students from the trilingual school that HCGM manages. Greek teachers at the school are leading this project, with animation by the radio host.

“Parents and grandparents are thrilled,” Karvelas said. “Their voices are a glimmer of hope.”

This article was published on April 17 for the PX News print issue. Click here to read the full issue.