When the Church of St. Martin-in-the Fields’ Easter processional marched by, neighbors came out onto their porches. Folks walking their dogs made their pets hold up. People nearby called out “thank you!” With the passersby not wearing masks, you could see whole faces light up. Some spectators even held each other close as they listened.
Church officials called it a socially distanced parade. The revelers — a rector, two bagpipers and a drummer on snare — were making their way around a portion of Chestnut Hill. The bagpipes could be heard from blocks away. Hymns that could reach people from afar were, of course, the goal, for on this holiday of considerable religious tradition, a deadly virus had made most places off-limits, including churches.
“Honestly, it started off as a little bit of a joke in a letter I wrote to the parish. I was just trying to find a way to say, ‘What can we possibly do?' We want to follow the rules, and keep people safe,” explained the Rev. Jarrett Kerbel, the rector at St. Martin-in-the-Fields. “And so I just thought, well, bagpipes! They’re loud. You can hear them inside your house, even if you don’t come out.”
Before the spread-apart march officially kicked off, the trio of musicians warmed up with Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9,” less formally known as “Ode to Joy.”
“You can’t have an organ? Get a bagpipe,” the rector reacted in approval. He didn’t play an instrument, but recorded the performance on his phone as the group moved through the sunlit neighborhood.
As the Fifield family saw the parade coming down the street, they played along with a flute and tambourine.
Jenny Gellhorn, 38, was hiding Easter eggs with her daughters Cecily, 7, and Louisa, 5, when they heard the stirring, low-rising melodies and went to find the source. Gellhorn’s husband, Alfred, is a doctor who was called for a month-long assignment treating COVID-19 patients in New York. With him away, life at home has been hard. The Easter procession for them was unexpected and heartily welcomed.
“It's such a treat to see so many people and to see neighbors. This is actually the first time I met the woman who lives across the street from us,” Gellhorn said. “And it's just a reminder that we're not alone, to see people smiling. It made me quite teary.”
When the Episcopal church reached out to Roderick Nevin, the Reading-based bagpiper who led the musicians Sunday, he didn’t need convincing. It was a chance, Nevin explained, to spread happiness. And it was a chance to play, which Nevin hasn’t done in some weeks because of the pandemic. When they reached the corner of Willow Grove and Germantown Avenues, they performed a rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
“It was a blast,” Nevin said after the march. “It was more fun than we’ve had in a month.”
St. Martin-in-the-Fields prerecorded its three Easter services, with Kerbel posting videos of musical selections on Facebook. Along the walk, he mentioned wanting to do this again next year.
“There’s no greater surprise in human history than Easter,” the rector said. “So if I can surprise some of our neighbors with some joyful, loud music that they don’t see coming, I feel like I’ve done some Easter work.”