Outdoor summer worship endures past Covid pandemic

By Kathy Henderson

“This is a congregation that thrives on connection,” stated Gwen Odney.

         Her comment made over afternoon coffee at the Finish Bistro in St. Anthony Park perfectly sets the tone for understanding why St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, 2136 Carter Avenue, started holding outdoor Holy Eucharist services on Sundays in College Park during the summer of 2020.

It gave the parish a way to worship together amid those scary early distancing days of the pandemic.   
         Under the leadership of the Rev. Blair Pogue and in consultation with the Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota, they limited that summer’s gatherings to 40 pre-registered people. Everyone wore masks. Individuals or social-bubble “pods” of two or three people stood six feet apart. No one sang. Music was instrumental only. Communion was pita bread in a plastic-covered paper cup.  Bulletins were in digital format. I

In the winter, parishioners stood out in the cold on the steps of the church, still masked, still self-distancing, for what more than one parishioner described as really fast, maybe 20-minute, Holy Eucharist services.

When worshipers returned to College Park in spring 2021, masks were no longer mandatory outdoors, and pre-registration wasn’t required unless you wanted to receive a paper copy of the bulletin.

Now, being a parish “that cherishes being together” is as good a reason as any. St. Matthew’s continues to worship together in College Park during the summer.

“I was excited in 2020 when we could worship together, outside in what God created,” said Vicki McKenna, who attended St. Matthew’s first Holy Eucharist service of the 2024 summer season on June 2 with her husband Dave. “I love being outdoors.”

 “We love the outdoor service,” echoed Elizabeth Hosch. “The sunlight, the mature oaks, the sounds of the neighborhood, all are a lovely change of pace and chance to be out in the world.

“My memories of outdoor worship during the early days of the pandemic are a bit fuzzy,” Hosch admitted. “There was a lot of brainstorming on how to keep our community connected while separate.

“There was such positive feedback [about the College Park location], and it was a great way to find joy in the scary changes that were happening in the world. It was always so nice to see familiar faces, even behind our masks and while wrangling small children.

“I think it became clear pretty quickly that outside church was going to continue beyond strict pandemic times,” she said.

That first Sunday of the 2024 outdoor season was what WCCO would have called a Top 10 Weather Day. Not too hot, slight breeze, plenty of shade.

Early-morning church volunteers were setting up the area beneath the shade of one of College Park’s majestic Bur oaks with a table for altar use, chairs for the clergy, bread and wine for communion, plus the mic and speaker system.

Music director J Michael Compton unpacked a French horn and a Rwandadrum from his car and greeted the musicians (members of the congregation) assembling with trumpet, horn and flute — and wisely using clothes pins to fasten their scores to the music stands.

As the time neared 10:30 that morning, ushers handed out copies of the church bulletin. In the same seating format as used since August 2020, congregants and visitors situated themselves in their preference of shade or sun in a semi-circle on College Park’s grassy slope near Doswell Avenue.

Out came camp chairs in hues from blues to oranges to sturdy Coleman browns, lawn chairs with pastel or red plaid webbing appeared, metal chairs and camp stools were unfolded, and colorful lawn blankets were spread out. A few brought along their dogs, ones that typically looked around, gave a couple of “woofs” and then stretched out and settled. Young children accompanied by watchful adults eagerly headed to the park’s play area or ran swiftly across the park’s expansive lawn.

From the church building, The Rev. Christopher Rogers’ crossed Carter Avenue and greeted parishioners as he walked across the College Park lawn to the makeshift altar; a green stole covered both shoulders. Rogers was not wearing green because he was outdoors, but because at this time in the church year calendar, green is traditionally worn to symbolize Ordinary Time, which is a time of spiritual growth. He started the service asking the congregation to keep Minneapolis police officer Jamal Mitchellin in their thoughts (Mitchellin was killed May 30).

Besides June 2 the first outdoor Sunday worship service for the summer for parishioners and visitors, it was Rogers’ first outdoor service as St. Matthew’s rector.

Originally from London, Rogers received a call (hiring process) from St. Matthew’s last fall when he was in the Twin Cities. Pogue, the former rector who served St. Matthew’s for 16 years, had accepted a call from the diocese and now serves as Cannon for Vitality and Innovation, Episcopal Church in Minneapolis.

St. Matthew’s only makes some minor adjustments from its indoor service for the outdoor setting. For example, to better accommodate an outdoor terrain without aisles, rather than having people come to the altar (table) to take communion, the priest and chalice bearer weave through the crowd bringing it directly to the individuals.

Outdoors also means no hymnals, no organ music, no formal choir solos, but “we sing as loud as we can,” said office manager Lars Christensen, who prepares the Sunday bulletin.

However, being outdoors does not mean the music director pulls out a summertime song list. Compton said that even though the worship is outdoors, “we aren’t changing anything. The hymns selected could be the same ones if indoors with a full choir.”

         Examples of the June 2 music includes the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” (c.1700s text by Charle Wesley and c.1800s tune by Rowland Hugh Prichard) and the gospel music refrain “Toimba” (“let’s sing” in Shonam, the language spoken in Zimbabwe) with words and music by church member Kennedy Nyenya.

Whatever music is selected, and whether it is accompanied by brass or string musicians, it’s said that people walking or jogging by the park often pause to listen.

And it isn’t unusual for people whose homes border the park to step outside to hear the music, too.

Kathy Henderson lives in St. Paul and is a Bugle freelance writer.

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