Rev. Michael Sevigny of Prince of Peace Parish administers ashes to a parishioner at noon Wednesday in the parking lot of Holy Family Church on Sabattus Street in Lewiston. The observance of Ash Wednesday, the seventh Wednesday before Easter, was held in a cold wind that forced Sevigny to pause to get gloves. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — The Rev. Daniel Greenleaf has seen the governor’s latest executive order on allowable capacities inside Maine churches. He’s done the math and he’s done the research. 

Greenleaf, pastor of Prince of Peace Parish, is not pleased. 

Gov. Janet Mills’ executive order last week updated the gathering size limits for houses of worship to 50 people or five people per 1,000 square feet of space, whichever is greater. 

For all but the state’s biggest churches, that means no change at all, according to Greenleaf. They had been hoping to increase the number of people they can have at church services.

“In talking with the bishop, I think it’s only changed for 10 churches in the entire state of Maine,” Greenleaf said Thursday. “All the other churches, they have to remain at 50 so it wasn’t helpful. It really did nothing except for the megachurches.” 

The Prince of Peace Parish includes five area Roman Catholic churches: the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Holy Cross and Holy Family in Lewiston, Holy Trinity Church in Lisbon Falls and Our Lady of The Rosary in Sabattus. 

For Greenleaf and his worshipers, it’s more than simple disappointment. There’s also the question of why. Why are Maine’s capacity limits more strict than in other parts of the country, including some states where the COVID-19 numbers are worse? 

In states such as New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont, churchgoers are limited to percentages of their usual capacity. In New Hampshire, for example, it’s 50%. In Massachusetts, churches are limited to 40% of their usual capacity. 

“For us in Maine, it’s capped at 50 people, so we’re looking at 10% capacity,” Greenleaf said. “At other churches, like Holy Family, it’s below 10%. So, we are way stricter than any New England state. At least give us 25%. We’d still be lower than every other state. 

“I don’t think we’re asking for special treatment,” Greenleaf said. “But why can’t we do what Vermont is doing? Or Massachusetts or New Hampshire or Connecticut?” 

For Greenleaf, it feels like churches are being particularly hobbled by harsh restrictions, especially when it’s much easier for social distancing inside a church, as opposed to a department store or restaurant where people are moving about. 

“We follow pretty strict protocols,” Greenleaf said of his church services. “They sit down, they leave their masks on the entire time and then they continue to socially distance. You can go to a restaurant, sit down for two hours and take your mask off. You can have more people in a restaurant and you’re there longer than you are with us.” 

Ultimately, Greenleaf is disappointed in the way Gov. Mills has treated houses of worship since the pandemic began. 

“There’s been lots and lots of discussion about it,” Greenleaf said. “It’s really not fair and I don’t understand why she’s getting away with it.” 

Others, meanwhile, are perfectly OK with whatever Mills decides is best, and especially because she bases her decisions on advice from the CDC. 

“We are very supportive of the CDC and the governor in their efforts to keep Mainers safe,” Jane Field, executive director of the Maine Council of Churches, said. “The seven denominations that are represented by the council are mainline Protestant. So there’s a doctrinal and liturgical difference between us and the Roman Catholics. So that might explain why most of our folks are going right along with the guidelines. Most of them really, frankly, aren’t even meeting in person at all.” 

Since the pandemic began, most of the 437 churches under the umbrella of the council switched to online worship, Field said. She has heard few complaints from worshipers included in the council about that method. 

“For us, it is not an infringement on our right to religious liberty,” said Field, also a parish pastor. “We’re worshiping, we’re having more people come sometimes. Last night was Ash Wednesday. I had more people at my Ash Wednesday service online than I’ve ever had in person. It’s just not cramping our style. It’s forcing us to be creative, and nimble.” 

Field said Mills did not consult with the Maine Council of Churches before issuing her latest order. 

“No, and we wouldn’t expect her to,” Field said. “We look to the CDC, and obviously, their guidance to the governor, to tell us what to do. We’re not telling them what to do. This is a science-based response to a deadly epidemic and our pandemic, and we’re eager to get the best science-based advice we can to keep our people and our communities safe.” 

In Auburn, the Rev. Donald Cougle of First Assembly of God Church, sees the executive order as a step in the right direction. 

“We certainly welcome any easing of restrictions for houses of worship,” he said. “More than ever before people need their faith and the ability to worship together. This is an encouraging step in the right direction and can be done safely and responsibly.” 

Religious leaders from other denominations say the pandemic has allowed them to be more flexible and adaptable. Jehovah’s Witnesses, which have meeting places in Lewiston, Auburn and several other area towns, switched to online worship at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis and have not resumed in-person services.

“As much as we long to meet together, life is far too precious to put at risk,” Robert Hendriks, U.S. spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, wrote in an earlier news release. Virtual meetings, Hendriks said, “have proved to all of us that it’s not about where we are physically. It’s about where we are spiritually. In many ways we are closer as a spiritual family than ever before.”

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