Saint Mary's Catholic Church in Presque Isle on Friday, Sept. 4. Credit: David Marino Jr. / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — As Christmas approaches, Maine churches expect to see the usual rise in new parishioners seeking to celebrate one of Christianity’s most important holidays. Yet, with a 50-person limit at services and a surge in COVID-19 cases across Maine, Presque Isle church officials say this year’s Advent and Christmas services will be far from conventional.

While some states have deemed religious services “essential,” allowing them more leeway as they navigate COVID-19 rules on gatherings, Maine has not done so. In March, churches were forced to contend with a restriction from Gov. Janet Mills’ civil state of emergency prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people. That number later expanded to as high as 100, but currently sits at 50.

Aware of the risk of spread in a group setting, most church leaders have taken precautions to avoid an outbreak: asking those who feel ill not to attend and parishioners to maintain mask-wearing and social distancing. They have also revved up their presence on Facebook, by far the most widely used social media platform in Aroostook County.

Churches in Presque Isle will continue to hold services through December, but they will scale back the usual commemorations celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Many viewers will see their local pastor over Facebook Live in their homes rather than from pews.

An incident at the Framework Church in Presque Isle earlier in the month showed the risk of spread but also the power of preventative measures. A man who attended a service on Nov. 15 at Framework Church — a Wesleyan Church in Presque Isle — later tested positive for COVID-19. He informed the church of the diagnosis the next day.

Church officials were quickly in contact with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, who — after being told that everyone in the service wore face coverings and maintained social distancing — said there wasn’t risk for spread.

Though the official told The Rev. Bud Fancy that testing staff members for COVID-19 was unnecessary, they got tested anyway. Those tests, along with tests of other attendees who had the closest interaction with the man, were all negative.

“We wanted the community to know that we take this stuff seriously,” Fancy said.

Fancy said his church’s grand Christmas Eve service would be prerecorded and broadcast at 3 and 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve. An in-person celebration was impossible, as the church usually attracts 350 people, many of whom are not regular church attendees, Fancy said.

Advent services began at the Framework Church on Sunday, with plans to continue them until Christmas, though that could change if COVID-19 spread becomes worse or if rules from Mills became stricter.

“If the COVID-19 situation continues to get more complicated, we could step away from [in-person services],” Fancy said.

The Rev. David Raymond of the Roman Catholic Church’s Caribou-based Parish of the Precious Blood — which includes 10 Catholic churches across Aroostook County — said that religious services Catholics have “taken for granted” during the holiday season will be affected by COVID-19.

While Catholics are traditionally required to attend weekly Mass and celebrate holy days of obligation in the church, Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland Bishop Robert Deeley issued a “dispensation” — or exemption — from that requirement for Maine Catholics in March. Deeley recently renewed that exemption, Raymond said.

Raymond said the parish had followed all Maine CDC recommendations to prevent spread — including frequent cleaning and gathering limitations — and had increased its livestreaming operations during the pandemic. He said there were no plans to close any of the parish’s churches.

Church services have been the source of COVID-19 outbreaks in Maine and across the United States. One outbreak at the Brooks Pentecostal Church in Waldo County is linked to at least 62 cases, after between 100 and 150 people — mainly not wearing masks — gathered for an indoor service in early October.

While church officials maintain a spiritual drive to worship, they acknowledge that the pandemic makes regular business impossible. Most are praying for a quick end to the pandemic.

“The parish of the Precious recognizes that we are under restrictions because of the reality of COVID,” Raymond said. “We are doing our best and will continue to do our part to prevent the spreading of the virus.”

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