Rockaway’s Houses of Worship Keep  the Community Connected


As week nine of our quarantine commences, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is happily opening its doors to its Roman Catholic congregants. Unfortunately, Houses of Worship in New York City are not nearly as blessed. The Rockaway Times reached out to some of the spiritual leaders on the peninsula for an update on how they are coping and how they are uplifting the spirits of their followers during this challenging time.

Following stay-at-home orders, Rabbi Slome from the West End Temple has arranged weekly Zoom services every Friday night. Understanding that many people who belong to the temple spend most of their days on Zoom for work or school, Rabbi Slome makes it a priority to have their Zoom services abbreviated, lasting a little bit less than an hour in total. “We’re not a large community (75 members), but a lot of people show up for our Friday night services...We have probably anywhere between 20-30 people (and families) who attend every week,” Slome said.

Additionally, Rabbi Slome was happy to report that the West End Temple also hosts Zoom meets for their religious school on Sundays, as well as those children who are celebrating their bar/bat mitzvahs who meet with their teacher via Zoom every Wednesday. Rabbi Slome said, “I think one of the best things about our meetings on Zoom is that we get to see each other’s faces. I like to keep Zoom on after the service ends for a few minutes so people can speak with each other.” Aside from arranging Zoom services for members of the West End Temple, Rabbi Slome tries her best to keep in touch personally with members, especially those who are elderly or are living alone. “I just hope everybody is hanging in there, and finding constructive ways to manage this social isolation.” 

Another synagogue actively trying to stay connected with its members is Temple Beth-El of Rockaway Park. Rabbi Matt Carl told The Rockaway Times that he holds at least three Zoom services a week, as well as any additional Zoom services for special holidays such as Passover and Holocaust Memorial Day. “Obviously it’s not the same, but we’re getting together and singing shabbat songs over Zoom, and then I give a short sermon,” Rabbi Carl said.

Rabbi Carl also happily reported that from his perspective, he believes that people have been incredibly understanding and flexible to this new way of life. When shelter in place orders were first instituted in NYC, Rabbi Carl knew live streaming would be a challenge. He sent an email to all members of the synagogue explaining how they can join Zoom services. If they needed any additional help, he made himself available. Temple Beth-El is proud that it is now streaming  services nationally. Some of its members who are snowbirds attend weekly services from Florida, as well as Rabbi Carl’s parents who tune in all the way from California. “It’s almost a ‘fun’ thing now, because it’s keeping everyone connected...These people who can’t return back to Rockaway are now able to participate even more via Zoom,” Rabbi Carl said. And although things are going smoothly for their Zoom services, Rabbi Carl is already thinking about the high holidays and what they will do to celebrate once the city permits.

St. Rose of Lima Church has a unique challenge. Many of their parishioners are not fluent in English. Therefore, their Sunday Masses are streamed in three different languages: English, Polish, and Spanish. If you are unable to stream the mass live via Facebook, Pastor Rodriguez tapes them and puts them on YouTube. Parishioners can then watch Mass in the language of their choice at a time that is convenient.

Live streaming is also available through Facebook via Monsignor Richard Ahlemeyer. His Masses are both live and recorded from St. Camillus-St. Virgilius Roman Catholic Church. Parish members from both Rockaway Beach and Broad Channel are encouraged to stream these Masses and are also able to view Masses via the St. Camillus website which has links for NetTV and other services.

When The Rockaway Times reached out to the dynamic duo at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church by FaceTime call, we were met with laughter and smiles. Rev. William F. Sweeney and Rev. Jim Cunningham, better known as Fr. Bill and Fr. Jim, are using this time to show parishioners their humanity and compassion. “We’re finding out that what we’re doing is connecting people in the midst of isolation. They want to come to Mass, and be a part of something...People are balanced, happy, and not afraid,” Fr. Jim said in regard to their live streaming of Facebook masses.

Parishioners have noted how enjoyable it is that Mass is now “interactive.” What is meant by that, is the utilization of Facebook’s live chat. Once the streaming begins, parishioners comment about the altar, send well wishes, and make prayer requests. The priests respond during Mass, and will add the prayer requests to the petitions. Later, they read the chat and reach out to those in need. “We get a lot of phone calls, texts, and FaceTimes from parishioners that just want to talk and pray with us. Especially from families who have lost someone recently. They are allowed to bring their family outside the church, socially distanced, and we bless them before heading to the cemetery,” Fr. Jim said.

Both priests continuously try their best to come up with creative ways to reach out and stay in touch with parishioners. As Fr. Bill said, “It’s a new way of evangelization.” Each day on the liturgical calendar poses a new challenge, but that does not stop Fr. Bill and Fr. Jim.. This past Sunday, May 17, was the Crowning of Mary. Normally, this would have been done by the First Communicants. Instead, essential worker, Siobhan Keenan Fitzgerald, bestowed the beautiful flowers on the statue of Mary outside of Church, which was also streamed live on Facebook.

In the midst of this new normal, The Rockaway Times wishes to congratulate Fr. Jim on his 25th Anniversary of the Priesthood. This event was celebrated with a special mass on Wednesday, May 20. Additional celebrations are being planned post-quarantine.

 By Marina Cregan