Priest arrived to lead Ravenswood church as pandemic hit Chicago; three weeks later, his congregation vanished
Interim Rector Stephen Applegate said he has no “pandemic handbook” to refer to when preaching to a congregation that’s not allowed to come to church.
The woman Stephen Applegate replaced at the pulpit earlier this year liked to pop champagne corks at baptisms, write rock-themed Christmas pageants and almost single-handedly saved the church from extinction 27 years ago.
Rev. Applegate, a soft-spoken New York native, made his debut at All Saints Episcopal Church in Ravenswood in mid-February before a congregation still reeling from the loss of that beloved priest, Bonnie Perry, who left after being named bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan.
Three weeks later, Applegate’s voice echoed in a church of empty pews.
Applegate, 68, is an itinerant man of the cloth. But even for someone whose job is to wade into sometimes messy situations — say, when a former priest has been accused of theft or sexual misconduct — there is, as he puts it, no “pandemic handbook.”
“The first task we have is … to get to know the congregation as quickly as possible and to be known by the congregation as quickly as possible,” he said, speaking from his home at the rectory last week. “How do you be [a] church when all of the things we think about churches being aren’t happening any longer?”
To complicate things further, the only other paid clergy on staff, Associate Rector Andrew Rutledge, has held that position since last June — his first post out of theological school. Rutledge lives with his husband, also a priest, in southwest suburban New Lenox.
But Rutledge said he realized — even before the pandemic swept through Illinois — that he wouldn’t have the luxury of settling in. Perry was elected bishop during his first day on the job.
“This parish doesn’t want some anxious, young new priest who is worried about everything,” said Rutledge, 37, a nurse for 10 years before he became a pastor. “This parish needs someone to be positive through this difficult time.”
So for the past 10 Sundays, church has come to the congregation via Facebook, with Applegate the “talent,” and Rutledge, more or less, the producer/director. Gone is the sanctuary, the communal breaking of the bread. Applegate stands in the rectory dining room in front of faux stained-glass windows that his wife, Terry, made from multi-colored construction paper. She is the lone singer during live hymns — other than people who might be singing along at home. Applegate, who used to play in an alt-country band, sometimes accompanies on guitar. Much of the service is prerecorded, including, one Sunday, when Rutledge stood beside a fallow field, a breeze ruffling his white robes, as he read from the Bible — stopping from time to time to let rumbling trucks pass.
Hearts and smiley-face emojis bubble up in the margins on the Facebook page, the virtual stand-in for a congregation’s murmur of approval.
It doesn’t always go according to plan. Applegate stood at a sideways pulpit for several minutes during one early Facebook service until someone texted him to say the camera needed to be adjusted.
“Let’s just say that none of us had a course in livestreaming services in seminary,” Applegate said.
And there’s a certain sterility he must overcome.
“The coping mechanism is imagining the faces you know and care about who would normally be there, instead of looking at an iPhone,” he said.
Mashell Gellman, a church member for five years, said she understands Applegate is doing his best, but she’s not a big fan of All Saints’ online service.
“You keep seeing Stephen running back to his computer and turning the camera to look at the screen. To me, that’s annoying,” Gellman said, adding, “I will deal with online because we have to, but the minute church re-opens, I’m going.”
And there are some things Facebook can’t do — at least not while there’s a shelter-in-place order in effect. At least four baptisms at All Saints have been postponed.
There’s also no substitute for a pastor making a hospital visit before a parishioner’s surgery — or, perhaps, when death is near.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, All Saints offered a prayer service at a senior center on the North Side. One man who regularly attended became infected with the virus a few weeks ago, Rutledge said. When it became clear the man wouldn’t survive, Rutledge wanted to offer him some final words of comfort.
But Rutledge wasn’t a relative, so he wasn’t allowed to visit or even to talk to him by phone.
“I needed to be at his bedside,” Rutledge said. “That’s where I should have been, and to not be there is so difficult — and to know that he died without anyone around him.”
Editor’s note: Stefano Esposito attends services at All Saints Episcopal Church.