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‘Worship is essential’ : Anchorage church on capacity limits

The St. Nicholas of Myra Byzantine Catholic Church gathers for liturgy while having to adhere to a 15 person capacity limit.
The St. Nicholas of Myra Byzantine Catholic Church gathers for liturgy while having to adhere to a 15 person capacity limit.(Taylor Clark)
Published: Aug. 16, 2020 at 5:16 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Under the latest Anchorage Emergency Order, churches and other types of gatherings are once again put on capacity limits. Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said that the vast majority of churches are complying or working with the muni to figure out a way to hold services. One following the mandates the best they can while still holding services is the St. Nicholas of Myra Byzantine Catholic Church, led by Father Joseph Wargacki.

Under the order, 15 people are allowed at indoor gatherings. On Sunday’s liturgy, there were 11 adults, five children, and one infant present in the main chapel, including people helping with the service. Father Wargacki said they’re doing what they can to keep folks safe, but the number of people inside at one time can fluctuate.

“I’m not the police officer you know?” Wargacki said, “And of course we have some kids who are going in and out and in and out, and that might bump the number up one or two or what have you. But I think most people are respectful of that and are trying to do their best to comply.”

During the service, the members of the church had access to hand sanitizers and the church had masks for those who didn’t have one. The pews have been marked for social distancing, and people were complying. Father Wargacki of course delivered the gospel from the front of the room, while most of the people stayed in the back.

Additionally, Father Wargacki said they aren’t turning people away after 15. However, instead of putting them in the chapel, they’ve set up a large room on the other side of the church with a closed circuit television streaming the service from a distance.

He said they will go along with the mandates as long as they are able to provide their service and worship to some level, but has some criticisms of the emergency orders.

“I think that people really ought to think it’s - to a certain degree - a violation of our constitutional right to gather,” Wargacki said, “but in any case, we’re being respectful to our local government and to the decisions being made.”

With some positive outlooks in recent coronavirus case numbers, Wargacki isn’t anticipating that they’ll have to stop coming to church on Sundays again. If it were to come to that, he explained that the way he and other devote Catholics see it, there is a higher authority to consider than the municipality.

“All authority comes from God,” he said, “and so God is the highest authority, and that authority is given not only to me as a priest, but it’s also given to our civil authorities as well.”

So he said they’ll comply with the mandates until the mandates don’t comply with the Bible.

In his eyes and so many others who are leaning on their faith during the pandemic, he said that being able to worship isn’t just helpful but an obligations

“Worship for Catholics in general, and especially Byzantine Catholics is essential,” he said, “It’s just as important as going to the bank or going to the grocery store or going to - you know doing all these things in our life that promote our well being.”

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