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Friday, April 2, 2021

Here is the Church, Here is the Steeple: Supporting Sacred Places in the COVID-19 Era | By Danielle Lehr Schagrin

My dad taught me the old nursery rhyme: with his fingers laced inward, index fingers pointing up, and thumbs meeting, he’d recite, “Here is the church, here is the steeple. Open the doors, see all the people!” He would move his thumbs to reveal the “congregants” inside. Then, he would change the rhyme to describe church on Monday, this time lacing his fingers on the outside of his hands: “Here is the church, here is the steeple. Open the doors, where’s all the people?” Feigning shock, he would shift his thumbs to show his empty palms. 

This lighthearted rhyme has taken on new poignancy in the age of COVID-19. Although many houses of worship have remained open throughout the pandemic—often providing food, shelter, healthcare, and other essential services—others remain closed, opting to continue with communal worship via Zoom. Even with confidence in in-person worship on the rise in the United States, six-in-ten American Christians say they will spend another Easter worshiping at home, according to a recent study from the Pew Research Center. I’ll be one of them. 




It’s been over a year since I have set foot inside a church. I miss hearing the muted tones of the organ just before I enter the vestibule. I miss the smell of Easter lilies and old hymnals. I miss sitting in hued streams of light that pour through stained-glass windows. And while I’ll gladly continue to stay home until I am fully vaccinated, I won’t deny my eagerness to experience the unique spiritual comfort and awe I feel when I’m inside a church.


The absence has made my heart grow fonder for sacred places. Unfortunately, the antithetical adage of “out of sight, out of mind” may also ring true as church leaders anxiously wait to find out if their congregations will return after COVID. Without in-person attendance and regular income from collection baskets and parish fundraisers, our houses of worship face the possibility of permanent closure along with small businesses, museums, and other cultural institutions—but do we value sacred places as highly? 


Vanessa Avery, executive director of Sharing Spaces, Inc., encapsulated the value of churches in the Winter 2021 issue of Sacred Places magazine, a publication of Partners for Sacred Places. In her article about an interreligious church restoration project, Avery explained that “a church is not simply a body of believers, nor is it just stone and mortar. Sacred spaces demonstrate the history, interests, hopes, concerns, and values of the people who use them.” It is that combination of people and place, the meeting of the material and the spiritual, and the intersection of the past and the future that makes our churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and meeting houses worth preserving.





If you care about our historic places of worship and you want to communicate that value to others, there are a few things you can do to support the faith communities that maintain them: 


  1. Donate to a congregation’s historic preservation efforts. As many congregations and religious orders work to provide for the needs of their communities, vital maintenance and preservation work often goes undone. Ask your local place of worship about their preservation needs or consider donating to Partners for Sacred Places, which provides grant funds and training to congregations across the country. 

  2. Take a walk in a historic cemetery. In addition to being spiritually rewarding, visiting a local historic cemetery or churchyard is a great way to connect with your community’s religious history. Remember to be respectful and check the website or call ahead for visitor information. 

  3. Make your list of sacred places to visit. There are many religious sites in the Greater Philadelphia Area that welcome visitors for worship or guided tours. You may not be ready to visit just yet, but why not use this time to prepare? BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Robbinsville, NJ), Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church (Queen Village), The Miraculous Medal Shrine (Germantown), Beth Sholom Synagogue (Elkins Park), Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church (Society Hill), and the Arch Street Meeting House (Old City) top my “to visit” list. Remember to be respectful and check the website or call ahead for visitor information.


Which sacred places top your “to visit” list? What do you miss about attending in-person worship? What other steps can we take to support sacred places during these challenging times? Share your ideas in the comments below!

Danielle Lehr Schagrin grew up in the Episcopal and Roman Catholic traditions. She is currently Director of Development & Marketing at Cranaleith Spiritual Center, a mission of the Sisters of Mercy in Northeast Philadelphia. A public historian by trade, Danielle is interested in the intersections of faith, community, and historic preservation.


Photo 1:

Thanks to a generous grant from the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, the church where I was baptized (The Church of the Redeemer in Andalusia, PA) is taking this time to complete vital restoration work on its stained-glass windows. This project will make the church more comfortable and energy efficient when it reopens for in-person worship.


Photo 2:

Last Easter, my husband and I took a long morning walk around Lancaster Cemetery , a Victorian-era cemetery in Lancaster, PA. The site is open to visitors and is still an active burial ground.




Interfaith Prayer: Pathways Towards Peace and Reconciliation | By Msgr. Gregory Fairbanks

Pope Francis recently completed an Apostolic visit to Iraq. Among the many memorable moments in that historic visit, the one that stood out for me was the interreligious meeting on the plains of Ur, the ancestral home of Patriarch Abraham. Abraham is revered by three major world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

As I watched that important meeting, and listened to the words of the participants, my thoughts went back to the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi in 2011. There have been several of these events, begun by St. Pope John Paul in 1986. Subsequent gatherings have occurred there since then in 2002, 2011 and 2016. I had the privilege of having a small part in the 2011 gathering.

A few days before the 2011 gathering in Assisi, many of the participants (which included approximately 60 Catholics, 60 Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant Christians, 65 Muslims, 65 Buddhists, eight Jews, seven Hindus, six Shintos, five Sikhs, four non-believers, three Confucists, three Taoists, one Jain, one Baha’i and one Zoroastrian) began to arrive at the Rome Airport. Three Vatican offices coordinated the welcoming of the delegates. I was working at the time in the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, and my ‘desk’ had responsibility for Christians of the Reformed tradition, Baptists, Anabaptists, Church of Scotland and the Salvation Army. The airport was filled with delegates of all the world’s religions, all gathering in Rome. One of the delegates quietly remarked to me as he witnessed the arrivals of so many religious leaders that he was astonished that such a gathering could be “pulled off.” We spoke several times over the next few days, and my initial pride in the event gave way to a deeper understanding of one of the many roles of the Papacy – an office of unity.


As a Catholic, I look to the Catholic Church for guidance and teaching. I look to the Pope as a spiritual leader, the Vicar of Christ on Earth. I know non-Catholics would not acknowledge this, and that is OK. The Pope, however, is in a unique position as the spiritual leader of the world’s largest religion. The Catholic Church is “catholic” – the word catholic means universal. It is present on every continent and is in almost every nation on earth. It was a gift to be a part of such of a gathering – and to have meet and prayed alongside so many religious leaders. It was the most “catholic” (universal) thing I have ever done!

If we cannot pray together or alongside each other – how can there be peace on earth and goodwill towards all? We cannot solve all the world’s problems, but we can come together and pray for peace and understanding. That is being truly catholic.

It can happen – if we dare to try.


Monsignor Fairbanks is on Interfaith Philadelphia's Board, and is currently serving as the Dean of the School of Diaconal Formation and as a professor of Church History at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, PA.