Worshipers at St. Agnes Roman Catholic Cathedral in Rockville Centre spoke with Newsday's Chelsea Irizarry on Friday about the importance of going to church to celebrate Jesus' birth on Christmas Day, even in a pandemic. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The millenia-old tradition of celebrating Jesus’ birth was commemorated Friday on Long Island and across the world, but the coronavirus pandemic shrank Christmas gatherings.

Family get-togethers, if occurring at all, were smaller. Church services, ordinarily one of the year’s most crowded, were socially distant, or entirely virtual, due to the pandemic, which has sickened 18.7 million Americans and killed 329,355 of them.

Bishop John Barres, in his midnight Mass address delivered at St. Agnes Cathedral, invoked the place in Italy where the Nativity scene originated almost 800 years ago by St. Francis of Assisi — the current pope’s namesake.

"This Christmas, in our world laden with the Crosses of COVID-19, political and economic turmoil and transition, racism, financial hardship, and so many other societal ills and challenges, let us remember this lesson from Greccio, Italy: Christmas is an event to be lived," Barres, the bishop of Rockville Centre, said to sparsely filled pews, in a homily that was also streamed online.

A Christmas Day fire struck at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church on Hempstead Turnpike in Levittown. Firefighters brought flames under control by the afternoon. The fire had started in the church roof, a fire chief said.

And at St. Francis Hospital in Flower Hill, the heart hospital of Catholic Health Services, emergency department medical assistants Suzy Krasner and Samantha Sanky helped collect gifts for children — six giant boxes of baby toys, leap frogs, arts and crafts supplies, toy cars, dollars, a basketball, sports gear, hair styling tools and other items.

The gifts, destined for children on Long Island, were collected in boxes placed around the hospital, to be distributed by the Marine Corps Reserve’s Toys for Tots program, which dates to 1947.

Parishioners arrive for Christmas Mass at St. Agnes Cathedral on...

Parishioners arrive for Christmas Mass at St. Agnes Cathedral on Friday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

"Honestly, without sounding cheesy, it felt really amazing to do something that brought nothing but happiness to everyone affected by the pandemic and hard times," Krasner said. "It’s been a rough year for our department at work and this felt amazing to do this holiday season."

Long Island has about 1.8 million Christians, of whom 1.5 million are Catholics, according to the most recent tabulation by the Association of Religion Data Archives.

More Americans search for "church" around the time of Easter — the celebration of what Christians believe was Jesus’ resurrection — and Christmas than at any other times of the year, according to a 2014 Pew analysis of Google Trends data.

The St. James Lutheran Church in Suffolk County was among Long Island churches that streamed services, with some in the pews and others watching on YouTube. Others offered a hybrid as well and posted the archived footage on the web.

Indoor gatherings — particularly where there is singing and chanting — have been found to pose an increased risk of virus transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In all venues, risk can be reduced by masking and distance.

Among Long Islanders who didn't forgo in-person worship, there was a sense that virtual worship was insufficient.

"It’s Christmas Day, it’s time to go to church," said Christopher Vaccacio, of Merrick. "COVID can’t hold you back from going to church and praising God."

Vaccacio attended the 11 a.m. service Friday with his wife, Jogatta, at St. Agnes.

Vaccacio, a restaurant manager, said a tough 2020 has extended to the holiday season. He mentioned order cancellations, corporate party cancellations and the difficulties of working around state-ordered capacity caps for indoor dining, meant to stop the spread of the virus.

"We are fighting though, keeping everybody working … Praise God and hope, that’s all you can do."

Cilotte Lovinsky, of Baldwin, also attended services at St. Agnes Cathedral with her three sons, twins who are 10 and a 13-year-old.

The family wore masks to the service and said they were confident that the church, which appeared at about a third full, was safe due to its COVID-prevention practices.

"We are here to celebrate Christmas. We are happy to be alive, we are happy to be healthy," Lovinsky said. "This is the house of the Lord. … There is no place we would rather be right now."

Jim Marski, of Lynbrook, a U.S. Air Force veteran who served from 1967 to 1971, said he recently began "getting back to church" and took inspiration from a sermon preaching spirituality and patience in 2021.

Marski, like others who attended services at the cathedral, said their Christmas celebrations would be more low-key than in the past, in order to comply with state law and to minimize the risk of contracting COVID.

Marski, asked how he would celebrate the holiday, said he and one or two friends would get together at his home.

"I’m going to be having my martini, or a beer, on my deck today," he said with a laugh.

Cecilia Jalbuena, 70, of Island Park, said she’s optimistic for the future.

"I always feel it’s going to get better," she said. "We just have to trust in God. He is still in control of everything."

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