Pauline O’Neill became emotional as she stood outside St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, watching hundreds of people flood out of Mass into the bitter cold. Many headed for the parish hall, where they warmed up with coffee and caught up with old friends, and then ventured onward to the main event: Philadelphia’s 250th St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

For many, including O’Neill, the march is a sacred tradition, one that like so many others has been put on hold for the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not being able to celebrate together was “awful, just awful,” said O’Neill, vice president of the Mayo Association of Philadelphia, which is comprised of people descended from Ireland’s County Mayo. But, she added, the break made Sunday’s reunion even more special. “As you can see, there are tears in eyes.”

O’Neill couldn’t put into words, she said, just why this celebration is so important to her.

“Because it is,” she said with her Irish accent and a shrug. “Everybody’s Irish on St. Paddy’s Day.”

Whether Irish or not, Philadelphians were greeted Sunday morning by the sounds of bagpipes and Irish dancing once again as marchers filled the streets from City Hall to Penn’s Landing for the first time since 2019.

The parade’s return came around the two-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed millions around the world and upended everyone’s lives.

In March 2020, the parade was the first major Philadelphia event to be canceled, a decision that would prove to be a local harbinger of what was to come as the virus spread. At the time, days before Pennsylvania and New Jersey shut down, there had been one confirmed case of the virus in the city and more than a dozen presumptive positive cases in the region.

City officials and parade organizers grappled with whether to cancel. Hours before parade organizers decided to call it off, Mayor Jim Kenney said of a cancellation: “I don’t see that happening. If we had a major outbreak and we had 100 new cases in Philadelphia today or tomorrow, yeah, but that hasn’t happened and I won’t speculate that it’s going to happen.”

In urging the parade’s cancellation, experts pointed out Philadelphia’s risk of repeating history from 1918, when it held a parade amid the Spanish flu pandemic. Epidemiologists said the gathering hastened the spread of the virus, which eventually killed 12,000 Philadelphians.

Nearly 77,000 people, including more than 5,000 Philadelphians, have since died from COVID complications in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, according to New York Times analysis of federal data.

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade was canceled again last year because of continuing health concerns.

» READ MORE: New Jersey and Philadelphia end their COVID briefings, underscoring officials’ desire to ‘move forward’

Since the omicron surge sickened record numbers of people earlier this winter, daily average case counts and virus-related hospitalizations in Pennsylvania have dropped to levels not seen since last summer, according to the Times analysis.

Although many officials have declared it time to “move forward” from the pandemic, some experts caution that the virus is not yet endemic. In fact, former President Barack Obama announced Sunday that he has tested positive for COVID, and nearly 2,000 people are still testing positive a day in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

On Sunday, however, the atmosphere in the city was one that felt largely back to normal. More than a week after the city lifted its indoor mask mandate, the vast majority of church-goers, parade participants, and spectators were maskless. Several participants and spectators said that, despite the hiatus, it felt just like any other St. Patrick’s celebration in pre-COVID times.

Bernard Carr, 65, originally of Germantown, traveled from his current home in North Carolina for the reunion, an annual event he said he had missed.

“It’s tradition,” he said, standing with friends in the St. Patrick’s Church parish hall after Mass. “We’re all Irish Catholics, so we had to go to Mass. It’s all about camaraderie, being with the Irish community.”

Along the parade route, it was a multigenerational affair for many onlookers who huddled together in 20-degree temperatures.

“We’ve been coming since I was a little girl,” said Tricia Bell, 43, of Northeast Philadelphia, who wore a shamrock hat as she stood with a group of relatives. Being back out this year, “It feels great. We’re so excited.”

Nearby, Bridget O’Grady Green, 33, of Fairmount, watched with her father, Joseph Patrick O’Grady, 61, of Drexel Hill, with whom she first came to the parade as a child. On Sunday, Green and her husband, Andrew, brought their daughters, Camille, 3, and Lucy, 2. The last time they were at the parade, in 2019, Camille was a baby, they recalled; now, she stood and watched the performers intently as she licked a lollipop.

Theresa Bullovas cheered on the groups marching with four of her high school friends from the Darby-Colwyn High School classes of 1975 and 1976, all of whom donned matching green headbands with shamrocks sticking out the top.

“We are Delco originals,” Bullovas said. “And very proud.”

The group has reunited every year since high school, often for St. Patrick’s Day.

“Because you can drink,” Loretta Sawyer said with a laugh.

“And for our heritage,” Bullovas added. “It’s Philadelphia!”

They had made a four-day weekend out of this year’s celebration. One of the women, Sawyer, made a traditional Irish dinner Saturday night, they said, and the crew planned to pub crawl after the parade.

Christi Armstrong, 37, of Southampton, took the train in from Bucks County with her husband, Jim, their friends, Susan and Jon Schimpf, and both couples’ children — five kids, in total, between the ages of 5 and 9. They were starting a new tradition.

“When I was a little girl, my dad and I would always come,” Armstrong said. “Now that it’s been a few years since we’ve been out doing things, we wanted to bring them,” motioning to their children.