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Northland churches revel in Easter plans a year after COVID-19 pushed holiday online

“It’s the most popular time of year, more popular than Christmas for people to participate."

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Eastridge Community Church lead pastor Tom Asbury poses for a portrait in the sanctuary Thursday afternoon. Eastridge is holding five Easter services this Sunday to help the congregation stay distanced. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

For many churches, last year’s Easter services were online only .

There were virtual gatherings in the Twin Ports, and drive-by and radio broadcast services on the Iron Range.

This year, with loosened restrictions and a surge of vaccinations across Minnesota, Northland churches prepared to observe the holiday (a little more) in person.

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Eastridge Community Church Lead Pastor Tom Asbury talks about the children’s room in the new expansion of the church Thursday, April 1, 2021. The church completed its years-in-the-works renovations on a lobby, coffee area, children’s worship space and additional classrooms before the shutdown last March. This weekend may be the first time many members will see it, he said. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

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Returning Eastridge Community Church members may be in for an overdue surprise this weekend.

“We were going to open a 4,000-square-foot expansion last Easter,” Senior Pastor Tom Asbury said.

The Duluth church completed its years-in-the-works renovations on a lobby, coffee area, children’s worship space and additional classrooms before the shutdown last March, when every church in the country had to adjust its prayer nights, small groups and Sunday sermons due to the pandemic.

When one of your central themes is gathering people into a room, churches have had a really tough go of it, he said.

People haven’t felt comfortable coming, but as vaccines have rolled out, it’s been a blessing to see regulars peek their heads back in, Asbury added.

After reopening in June, Eastridge has seen a steady increase of a few hundred in person and online. Today, the services stream on Facebook Live, YouTube, Vimeo and another church platform — a shift from one year ago.

“We were not livestreaming at all before the pandemic began. It's been an interesting thing to learn,” he said.

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Eastridge Community Church Lead Pastor Tom Asbury uses the sink in the hallway of the new expansion Thursday, April 1, 2021. “This’ll be the first summer where there’s not a bulldozer on our property,” he said. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Asbury has been at Eastridge for 11 years. In that time, they’ve added an office and a day care center.

“We’re bursting at the seams with children,” he said.

Church staff have seen job shifts, but are continuing to prioritize safety and moving the church forward.

It has been a difficult and fruitful year, he said.

For his Sunday sermon, Asbury’s focusing on restarting.

“It’s basically what Easter’s about, but I think we as a people need a chance to start over," he said. "It’s been a year and you can hold onto the difficult, and you can hold onto the conflict or the loss, and we get that, but it’s also a chance for you to say, ‘That happened, and now what’s my life going to look like going forward.’”

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Father Justin Fish of Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Cloquet stands at the altar in front of an empty sanctuary March 22, 2020, at Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Cloquet. Services are canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Clint Austin / 2020 file / News Tribune)

For Easter 2020, Father Justin Fish was in the church by himself, a shift far from custom.

“For Catholics, we have a big triduum service. It’s Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil on Saturday night and Sunday morning Mass.

“It’s the most popular time of year, more popular than Christmas for people to participate,” he said.

This year, Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Cloquet will be back to some normalcy with four days of liturgical celebrations culminating with an 8 a.m. Easter Mass at Holy Family Parish.

Having the triduum — the evening of Holy Thursday to the evening of Easter Sunday — taken away last year has helped reinforce its importance.

“We have so many physical signs and symbols, we have a really bad religion for social distancing," Fish said. "Catholicism is an incarnational theology, so we need to be together. We believe (Jesus) is truly present in the sacrament of the Eucharist."

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Catholic Mass is canceled in the area, the result of the pandemic. "The Eucharist of Mass is the center of our faith. Everything we do revolves around that," said Father Justin Fish of Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Cloquet. Fish blesses the host March 22, 2020. Fish says Mass on his own, and the church is remaining open for prayer and confession. (Clint Austin / 2020 file / News Tribune)

Queen of Peace Catholic Church reopened about two months after the News Tribune’s visit in March 2020. “To be here when it’s so quiet is kind of strange,” he said at the time.

This week, Fish recalled going to church solo before they were able to open at one-third capacity in June.

The church has seen about 40 in attendance, far from the 250 of its 600 maximum.

The church’s numbers are still down from last year, but have picked up the past few weeks.

“We got our shots, so we’re coming back. That’s been nice to see,” Fish said.

And things are moving along.

Its Catholic school was able to open in the fall, and it had a good turnout of students.

Queen of Peace will host a couple of weddings that were postponed to this summer.

And for their first Easter back, Fish’s aim will be on the Resurrection, not the pandemic.

“We hear enough about that everywhere else. My plan is to focus on why we’re here together, that Jesus has risen,” Fish said. “I’m more excited this year than maybe the first year I was a priest.”

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