Irene plays havoc with Sunday routines

Most clergy opt for safety over full pews

By Kathy McCabe and Neena Satija
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / August 29, 2011

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The imposing shadow of Hurricane Irene tested the patience, if not the faith, of clergy and churchgoers throughout Greater Boston yesterday.

Facing howling wind and heavy rain, many churches took the unusual step of canceling or curtailing worship services on a Sunday in August. Churchgoers were left to decide whether to trek out for morning worship. One small church in the Merrimack Valley turned to Facebook for divine intervention.

After canceling its morning service, leaders from Calvary Baptist Church in Haverhill posted a video of one of its choirs singing Psalm 91, and later e-mailed the words to congregants, asking them to meditate on the scripture: “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.’’

“We really felt it was a good way to reach out to [members] on a day when we couldn’t gather,’’ said the Rev. Gregory Thomas, pastor of the congregation that draws from the Merrimack Valley and southern New Hampshire.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, the region’s largest religious denomination, let parishioners decide whether they felt safe enough to attend Mass. Many opted to stay home.

Three parishes in Dorchester that normally attract a combined 1,200 churchgoers on Sunday had only 350 yesterday, said the Rev. John J. Ahern. “It was significantly less than usual,’’ Ahern said yesterday afternoon. “People were smart. They didn’t come out if they didn’t feel safe.’’

For the first time since a blizzard seven years ago, Trinity Episcopal Church in Copley Square in Boston canceled its four services yesterday. “It was strictly for safety reasons that we closed,’’ said the Rev. Pamela Foster, the summer vicar at the historic church. “We didn’t want our parishioners or staff to be blown across the Back Bay.’’

Across Boylston Street, the Old South Church opened for its 9 a.m. service amid driving rain and wind. Expecting a smaller gathering, officials held the service in the chapel.

“In our 340-plus-year history, we have worshiped through snowstorms and hurricanes,’’ said the Rev. Nancy Taylor, the senior minister.

But she let parishioners, many of whom live within walking distance of the Back Bay church, choose whether they wanted to venture out on a wet, windy morning. “We don’t expect anyone to risk life or limb to get here,’’ she said.

Harry Huff, the church’s music minister, arrived soaking wet in a blue raincoat, clutching a cappuccino. Within minutes, he had changed into a shirt and tie, ready to take his seat at the piano.

“I keep a suit in my office just for days like this,’’ he said.

Daniel Bergstresser, a church trustee, drove with his daughter Mae, 3, from their home in Jamaica Plain.

“It wasn’t raining hard, and the service is early so we decided to come,’’ Bergstresser said, holding his little girl, who was dressed in a pink and orange raincoat and yellow rubber boots.

Amid strong winds, the Rev. Jonathan Eden presided over a service at Christ Church in Cambridge. “I was trying to be prayerful, but there were these big gusts of wind outside,’’ he said.

The service, usually attended by about 300 people, yesterday drew only 30. At the end, Eden asked people to follow the advice of state officials and stay off the roads - an edict he could not follow until he drove home from church.

“But then I’m hunkering down,’’ he said.

In Bridgewater, a power outage forced St. Thomas Aquinas Parish to start the 10 a.m. Mass in candlelight. “That’s how the early church did it,’’ said the Rev. Bill Devine, the pastor. “I think a lot of parishioners actually liked it.’’

In Boston’s North End, the 11 a.m. Mass at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church on Hanover Street drew only about 24 people instead of the 70 who usually the attend the only Sunday Mass there.

The Rev. Kevin Hays offered prayers for people who lost their lives as Hurricane Irene barreled up the East Coast. He also said he opened Mass by thanking “all the courageous souls who showed up today.’’

The Carifio family walked to Mass from their home on Commercial Street. “We never miss Mass,’’ said Tony Carifio, 73, who collects offerings at the Sunday service. “But today, it wasn’t hard to get here. It seems like we escaped the worst of it.’’

Kathy McCabe can be reached at