BOSTON -- For many U.S. Christians, this weekend marked the first time since 2019 that they gathered in person on Easter Sunday, a welcome chance to celebrate one of the year's holiest days side by side with fellow congregants.
Notable events included a 6 a.m. sunrise Mass outdoors near the waterfront in South Boston, and a joyous, hug-filled service at St. Peter Claver, a historically Black congregation in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Another mostly Black congregation, Watson Grove Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, had hoped for an outdoors service at a downtown park. But rain forced a last-minute change of plans, and about 700 mask-wearing worshippers met instead in the church's sanctuary for what senior pastor John Faison said was by far their biggest indoor gathering during the pandemic.
"We hadn't seen a crowd like this for two years," Faison said. "Eyes were lighting up. People just felt good."
The pandemic erupted in the country in March 2020, just ahead of Easter, forcing many churches to resort to online or televised worship. Many continued to hold virtual services last spring after a deadly winter wave of the coronavirus and as vaccination campaigns were still ramping up. But this year more churches opened their doors for Easter services with few COVID-19 restrictions, in line with broader societal trends.
Among them were Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston, which since last June has once again required most churchgoers to attend Mass in person -- though those with health risks may still watch remotely, and pastors have been asked to make space for social distancing in churches.
MC Sullivan, chief health care ethicist for the archdiocese, said celebrating Mass communally is important to how Catholics profess their faith. Church attendance has been trending upward, and parishioners are excited to gather again to commemorate Christ's resurrection.
"It has been quite wonderful to see how well-attended Mass is right now. ... It seems to have brought a lot of people back to the idea of what's important to them," she said.
At St. Peter Claver in St. Paul, there was whooping, applause and exultant pounding on the wooden pews when the Rev. Joseph Gifford told more than 200 faithful that the church's usual sign of the peace was back -- no more pandemic-era nodding or mild handshakes.
"The place just explodes," said longtime parishioner Lynette Graham. "When he said we could do it, people were all over the church," hugging each other.
Another highlight of the service: the first performance by its Cameroonian choir -- with its spirited drumming and West African melodies -- since the pandemic hit.
"We're back and He's risen and it's huge," choir director Brendan Banteh said. "The ministry in our culture is very celebratory, being one in church -- the choir, the priest, the people. Not being able to come to church had created a disconnect that we had never experienced before."
Purpose Church, a non-denominational congregation in Pomona, 30 miles east of Los Angeles, had held its Easter services virtually or outdoors the past two years because of the pandemic.
On Sunday, nearly 4,000 congregants came in person to the church's newly renovated sanctuary for three morning services, with many still watching virtually and others seated outside watching the proceedings on a 40-foot LED screen. This was also the first service in two years featuring the full 150-member choir, band and orchestra, said Tina Tong, worship producer for the 152-year-old church.
"It's a sweet homecoming in so many ways," she said. "We're gathering in our new space, which is also special."
A much smaller Southern California congregation -- about 25 people -- gathered on the beach in Pacific Palisades for a sunrise service conducted by Pastor Joe Ramirez, founder of Revive LA, an inclusive Lutheran congregation.
"We watched the sun come up, talked about the resurrection and shared the message that hope is alive," he said.
Because of the pandemic, "Our congregation has gotten used to being outside because people are more comfortable, and they can bring their pets," Ramirez added. "We had three dogs at this morning's service."
In Minnesota's Twin Cities, there were differing approaches to COVID precautions as Easter arrived.
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, which became a community hub during protests over George Floyd's killing in 2020, ended its mask requirement as of Palm Sunday and returned to shoulder-to-shoulder communion at the rail instead of in the pews.
Ingrid Rasmussen, the pastor, said Easter attendance was expected to be similar to pre-pandemic levels -- but split between those in pews and those joining remotely.
Christ Church Lutheran, an architectural landmark also in Minneapolis, was taking a cautious approach to loosening COVID protocols -- masks and social distancing measures remain in place.
"The gift of being in the same physical space for the first time in three years is so grounding and beautiful," said Miriam Samuelson-Roberts, the pastor. "We do not take it for granted."
Hundreds of people lit candles in the vast Cathedral of St. Paul after Catholic Archbishop Bernard Hebda blessed the fire and lit the Paschal Candle to open the Easter Vigil service late Saturday.
The century-old cathedral echoed with the singing of the congregation as candles flickered in the darkness. Well past 8 p.m., wide-eyed children fascinated by the little flames and the cantors far outnumbered people wearing masks -- the archdiocese rescinded all COVID protocols on April 1, while allowing the faithful and individual parishes to retain precautions if they wished.
In New York City, Middle Collegiate Church gathered for its first in-person Easter service since 2019, only not in their historic Manhattan church, which was destroyed by fire two Decembers ago.
While they rebuild, they're sharing space at East End Temple -- at a time when the synagogue is observing its own holy days of Passover.
The Rev. Jacqui Lewis, Middle Collegiate's senior minister, said attendance in the 190-person temple was being capped at 150. Those leading the service, plus choir singers and musicians, took rapid COVID tests.