A collaboration between The GroundTruth Project and Religion News Service provides on-going coverage of how faith communities are adapting to COVID-19. A story about St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles reveals how the church has found hope, inspiration, and lessons from its experience with the 1918 Spanish Flu, finding novel ways to build relationships and expand aid to the greater community.
“Suddenly there’s all of these relationships flowering, and I think that is going to transform us into a church that’s better equipped to sustain one another through the ups and downs of life.”
At the height of the influenza pandemic in 1918, the Rev. John Misao Yamazaki stopped holding services at St. Mary’s Japanese Mission, the Episcopal church in Los Angeles he helped found more than a decade prior. Before mandatory quarantines were enacted, Yamazaki began visiting homes to pray for sick children and families.
More than a century later, in the midst of another global pandemic, the Rev. Laurel Coote, Yamazaki’s successor at what is now St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, stands in the quiet sanctuary livestreaming images of its empty pews and stained glass windows to her congregation via Facebook.
“I felt compelled to come into the sanctuary so that I could sit in its beauty and its silence and stillness. And I know that you’re missing it too, and so I thought, let me share it with you today,” Coote says in the video. “Christ is alive in this holy place.”
Historical records unearthed by the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles show scenes of quarantine in the winter of 1918 and 1919 similar to the ones unfolding today: church doors shuttered, congregants in masks, clerics visiting sick patients. The experiences of older, traditional churches like St. Mary’s, logged in yellowed histories and faded black-and-white photographs, show how American religious institutions once weathered a crisis strikingly similar to this one.
“The example that was set by congregations and individuals during the 1918 pandemic has been a source of encouragement in the present time,” said Canon Robert Williams, the historian for the Episcopal Church’s Los Angeles Diocese. “A number of our great-grandparents withstood the influenza outbreak, and their example shows us that we can withstand the challenges of the present day.”