'From darkness into new light:' Passover, Holy Week bring more meaning this year to area

Photo of Katrina Koerting
Bishop Frank Caggiano and Rev. Reginald D. Norman lead a ceremony at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Wilton last August.

Bishop Frank Caggiano and Rev. Reginald D. Norman lead a ceremony at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Wilton last August.

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

For many, Easter and Passover are times of hope — a message that’s more relevant now as the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out.

Last year, the onset of the pandemic forced churches and synagogues to close their physical doors and move online just before the holidays. But while this year still isn’t completely back to normal, it’s certainly closer to it as people can once again gather together in person to celebrate.

“We have a sense now of emerging from darkness into new light — and that’s Easter,” said the Rev. Alida Ward of Greenfield Hill Congregational Church in Fairfield.

It resonates with Passover too, which celebrates freedom and redemption.

“From the prospective of living through the pandemic, we have been through a traumatic year and are beginning to see what it looks like ‘on the other side,’” said Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn of TCS of Westport. “We are not quite there yet, but we believe the sea will split and we will be able to cross through it together.”

Passover begins at sunset on Saturday and Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday this Sunday, culminating with Easter the following Sunday.

Synagogues and churches throughout Fairfield and Westport are marking the religious days in a variety of ways.

The state lifted the capacity restriction on places of worship on March 19, but social distancing and masks are still required. Some religious leaders are still hesitant about moving indoors, preferring instead to hold services online or outside.

“It’s a ‘Hybrid Holy Week’ for us, and we’re looking forward to it,” Ward said.

The congregation will be able to gather for outdoor service under a tent on the Greenfield Hill green, worship in the sanctuary and online. The breakdown of events is listed on their website.

“We are very excited for Holy Week this year, remembering that at this time last year, we were unable to be together in this most sacred week,” Ward said. “So, it’s a joy to be able to plan in-person worship this year. At the same time, we recognize and honor the fact that many in our congregation prefer not to be together in person just yet.”

This Easter, all of the churches in the Diocese of Bridgeport will be open for in-person Masses, including those in Easton, Fairfield, Weston and Westport. People are required to register in advance in order to help with planning and ensure appropriate social distancing, said Brian Wallace, spokesman for the diocese.

“Over the last couple of months, we’ve seen a gradual but steady increase in the number of those who are attending Mass in-person,” he said, adding removing the capacity restriction is a welcome step. “In a practical sense, the new rule probably won’t have much impact on the smaller parish churches. In order to observe the six feet social distancing, they can only accommodate about 25 percent of normal capacity.”

The larger churches, such as St. Theresa in Trumbull where the capacity is nearly 1,200 people, will be able to welcome more people.

Wallace said this year is a stark contrast to last year when Holy Week fell during the state lockdown and Bishop Frank Caggiano celebrated the liturgies in a nearly empty cathedral.

“It was an historic and somber moment relieved only by the fact that thousands were able to watch the Masses through live-streaming on the diocesan website,” he said.

Most parishes and the main cathedral will still broadcast their services so people can watch at home, he said.

“This Easter feels much more hopeful,” Wallace said. “With the vaccine roll-out and other development, there is a cautious optimism in the diocese.”

Others echoed the new feeling of hope.

“This year feels calmer, more optimistic and more celebratory than last year,” said Samantha Stinson, director of education, ritual and music at Beth El Fairfield. “We had time to plan many activities for our congregants and are more confident in our use of technology.”

Beth El Fairfield will host a virtual second night Seder with Congregation B'nai Torah of Trumbull and lead the usual Pesach services, just not in person.

They also had several events leading up to the holiday, including a wine tasting of Kosher Israeli wines, a virtual fun house for religious school students and a virtual escape room created by Bagels and Locks games titled “Holiday Quest: The Missing Matzah!”

Wiederhorn said the vaccine will allow more families to gather on their own for Passover, but most synagogue-based celebrations will still remain virtual. He said TCS is planning to hold Sabbath and Passover services outside if the weather is nice and they’re discussing returning to in-person services indoor, most likely after Passover.

“Last year, we were still in the beginning stages of the pandemic,” he said. “There was so much uncertainty, anxiety and fear. This made celebrating Passover particularly difficult. Today, there is a feeling of optimism and hope for the future so I think we are psychologically, emotionally and spiritually approaching Passover in a much better place this year.”

Stinson said Passover always feels relevant because the themes of breaking bonds of oppression, finding freedom and wishing to be in a better place next year are always present in society.

But while last year held so much uncertainty and yearning, she said this year feels more hopeful.

“We are still chained by the limitations of the virus and its effects, but we can see the light at the end — or the promised land through the sea,” Stinson said. “At the end of our Seder, it's customary to say ‘next year in Jerusalem,’ but this year we'll settle for ‘next year in person.’”