For two months, all houses of worship in Massachusetts have had to close their doors to the community in order to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

But that is about to change, for some. 

Gov. Charlie Baker announced this week that all houses of worship may reopen their doors this Sunday as the state enters into the first phase of a four-phase process of reopening.  

The decision to include religious establishments as a part of the reopening package came after 260 religious leaders wrote to Baker requesting churches and temples be included in the first phase of reopening. 

"We have seen how marijuana dispensaries, liquor stores and abortion clinics have all been deemed 'essential,' but churches and other places of worship have not," the religious leaders wrote. "We are grieved by this, but we have been patient, and peaceful."

"We are asking you to trust us now, so we can better minister to our flocks and in turn assist you in our own small way in your efforts to serve the most vulnerable of the Commonwealth," the letter went on. 

As he plans North Shore Bible Church of Cape Ann's first in-person service in over two months, Pastor Phil Shearer  — one of the 260 pastors to sign the letter  — has a lot to be thinking about.

"We plan to do a lot of things," Shearer said, explaining that Baker published guidelines for congregations to follow as part of his reopening plan. This includes maintaining 40% capacity at services, disinfecting surfaces regularly, requiring face masks and practicing social distancing. 

Shearer is planning to have one service at 9 a.m., another at 11 a.m., and streaming them online this Sunday to mitigate overcrowding the pews at the church at 65 Eastern Ave. in Essex. 

In addition to taking precautionary health measures for those attending, Shearer is preparing to speak from the actual pulpit for the first time in a while. 

"In general, I will be focusing my sermon on living with purpose," he said. 

Although they have received the green light to worship in-house, other places of worship are choosing to remain online for safety's sake. 

Holy Family and Our Lady of Good Voyage parishes will not be filling their pews this Sunday, or until further notice. 

"In light of Governor Baker's plan to re-open the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Catholic Community of Gloucester and Rockport will now begin working with the Archdiocese of Boston to develop a plan for opening our churches on a limited basis with restrictions," the Rev. James Achadinha wrote in a note to his congregation. "Our overriding commitment will remain the health and safety of our friends, neighbors, and fellow parishioners."

The Rev. Dr. Timothy M. Ziegenhals of First Congregational Church of Essex has decided to keep worship virtual. 

"My own gut reaction is it is too early," he said. "I would like to see us wait another month and see how the virus reacts to the state reopening."

Ziegenhals said that as he converses with others a part of the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, they have been advised to be wise, respectful, and realistic when making decisions for their congregations. 

Although a representative from Temple Ahavat Achim of Gloucester was unable to return the Times' calls in time for publication, its website and voicemail states that it will remain closed until further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As some houses of worship will invite their congregations back inside and others serve from a distance for the time being, one thing is for certain: finding community is on everyone's priority list. 

"We are reaching out to our neighbors the best we can," Ziegenhals emphasized. 

Staff writer Taylor Ann Bradford can be reached at 978-675-2705 or tbradford@gloucestertimes.com.

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