Latter-day Saints suspend all worship services worldwide due to coronavirus; other Utah churches cancel services, too

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Two Latter-day Saint chapels built adjacent to each other on Angel Street in Kaysville. Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014.

Editor’s note • The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here.

To help combat the coronavirus pandemic, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is suspending public gatherings of church members worldwide “until further notice,” the Utah-based faith said in a statement Thursday.

That means canceling all Sunday services and midweek activities for more than 30,000 congregations across the globe, not just in the faith’s Beehive State headquarters.

The sweeping move extends beyond the recommendation of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who earlier in the day called for an end to all gatherings — including houses of worship — in his state of more than 100 people for at least two weeks.

Other religious leaders in the state responded accordingly — even as Christian churches prepare for Holy Week next month and their most sacred holiday, Easter.

Bishop Oscar A. Solis, who oversees Utah’s 300,000-plus Catholics, announced on the diocesan website that all Catholic places of worship and religious programs will be closed March 13 through 31.

“Catholic school facilities will close,” Solis said, “and instruction to students will be provided remotely.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Students from The Madeleine Choir School receive their ashen signs of the cross during noon Mass on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020 at the Cathedral of the Madeleine.

Bishop Scott Hayashi, leader of the state’s 5,000 Episcopalians, proposed to his clergy that they discontinue services in all 24 congregations, starting Sunday and ending on Palm Sunday, April 5 — and they all agreed.

The clergy’s “overarching concern was for the safety and well-being of the people,” Hayashi said. “We are devising ways to serve the spiritual needs of our people, especially those who are isolated.”

The cleric encouraged his priests to reach out to provide groceries to those in need, to continue telephone contact so no one feels abandoned, and to remain in the churches in case people came there to pray or meditate.

“Our primary moral motivation,” Hayashi said, “is the primacy of love for the neighbor.”

The bishop himself has to “self-quarantine for two weeks because of a developing dry cough,” he said in a Facebook message. “I took the COVID-19 test, but results will not be back until tomorrow.”

As of Thursday, Hayashi said, he “feels fine and is not alarmed.”

The mandatory five daily prayers will continue at the Utah Islamic Center in Sandy, Imam Shuaib Din said Thursday, but Muslims do not have to go to the mosque to do them.

But Din later said that the mosque decided to cancel Friday prayers at the center.

“Though that is a serious step,” the imam said Friday morning. “We want to comply with the governor’s recommendations and follow what other religious groups are doing during this [coronavirus epidemic].”

All other nonmandatory activities have been canceled,” Din said, including an Islamic knowledge contest that was expected to draw 300 participants from around the region.

Services at Christ United Methodist Church in east Salt Lake City will continue this weekend, with livestreaming available to attendees who prefer to do that, said the Rev. Rusty Butler, noting that a total of about 250 people participate in three services each Sunday. “It’s a fluid situation, and we will reevaluate for next week.”

The Greek Orthodox Church of Greater Salt Lake will continue to have Sunday services at Holy Trinity Cathedral in downtown Salt Lake City and Prophet Elias in Holiday, the Rev. George Nikas wrote in a letter to parishioners.

The church has asked, however, that those who are vulnerable “please refrain from attending church during the next few weeks.”

The church has canceled Sunday school classes, the fellowship hour after services as well as several upcoming events for youth groups, Lent and Greek Independence Day on March 25. “Due to the sudden shortage of sanitizing lotions,” the letter added, “we encourage everyone to bring their own and use accordingly.”

At Salt Lake City’s historic Calvary Baptist Church, with its new pastor, the Rev. Oscar T. Moses, all activities on Saturday and worship services on Sunday have been canceled, according to the church’s website.

“This includes choir rehearsals, play rehearsals, meetings, 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. worship services,” the website says. “The building will be closed. We will broadcast sermons from Pastor Moses and additional announcements on our YouTube channel on Sunday at 11 a.m.”

First Presbyterian Church in downtown Salt Lake City has decided “to worship virtually (livestreaming) for the next several weeks,” said the Rev. Steve Aeschbacher, the church’s interim pastor.

The Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple in South Jordan has postponed its 25th-anniversary celebration, which was scheduled for Monday, said Neale Neelameggham, “until the [coronavirus] situation has resolved.”

The temple will also livestream some of its “pujas,” or worship rituals, he said.

As for Utah’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced in a news release that “beginning immediately, all public gatherings of church members are being temporarily suspended worldwide until further notice.”

That includes stake conferences, leadership conferences and other large gatherings; all public worship services, including sacrament meetings; and local congregational activities of branches, wards and regional stakes.

Local Latter-day Saint leaders, where possible, should meet “via technology,” the governing First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said. “Bishops should counsel with their stake president to determine how to make the sacrament [Communion] available at least once a month.”

A day earlier, top Latter-day Saint leaders announced that next month’s General Conference would be off-limits to the public at downtown Salt Lake City’s 20,000-capacity Conference Center. The five sessions instead will be a strictly virtual experience, viewed by the faith’s 16.3 million members either online or on television.

Latter-day Saint authorities, led by 95-year-old President Russell M. Nelson, moved the global religion toward a “home-centered, church-supported” approach when they previously reduced the Sunday meeting schedule from three hours to two and introduced a member-ministering program. Now that model will be put to an extreme test, for a time, with no Sabbath services.

“We encourage members in their ministering efforts to care for one another. We should follow the Savior’s example to bless and lift others,” they said in their release Thursday. “We bear our witness of the Lord’s love during this time of uncertainty. He will bless you to find joy as you do your best to live the gospel of Jesus Christ in every circumstance.”

The church also has been adding to its list of closed temples for weeks now. More than a dozen are shut down, but scores more remain open in Utah and around the world.

Unlike regular meetinghouses, these temples, which often involve more than 100 people in religious rituals that require hand touching, are seen as “Houses of the Lord,” places where devout Latter-day Saints take part in their faith’s most sacred ordinances, including eternal marriage.

Tribune editor David Noyce and reporter Kathy Stephenson contributed to this story.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)