‘It lifts our spirits:’ Philly area celebrates Easter with bagpipes, wearing PJs in parking lots

St. Martin-in-the-Fields opted to offer Easter worship services online, but it also wanted to do something to help the neighborhood celebrate the day in person.

  • Peter Crimmins/WHYY

(Philadelphia) — Bill Richardson was trying to make Easter morning as normal as possible for his family, despite the global pandemic.

“We woke up, had bunny rabbit pancakes. Now we’re doing an egg hunt,” he said from the small front lawn of his house in Chestnut Hill, watching his two kids, ages 4 and 8, hunt through the shrubbery for plastic eggs. “Just trying to enjoy the fine day.”

What he didn’t expect was that a bagpipe band would march past his home on Willow Grove Avenue, dressed in full tartan kits and playing hymns. They were led by an Episcopal priest dressed in a black cassock and four-peak biretta hat.

It was a sight — and sound — the family never expected on their block on Easter. Or, frankly, ever.

“It lifts our spirits,” said Bill Richardson’s wife, Dipa. “It’s a great neighborhood. To see them do that is uplifting.”

St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church is just up the road from the Richardsons. Normally, it has a full house for Easter services, but this year the stone Gothic church was shuttered on the most sacred day of the Christian calendar to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

As many other churches, St. Martin-in-the-Fields opted to offer Easter worship services online. But the church also wanted to do something in real space and time, to help the neighborhood celebrate the day in person, while maintaining a safe distance.

“We couldn’t invite hundreds of people inside, so we had to figure out how to get that joy outside the building, and add that joy and fun to the neighborhood,” said the Rev. Jarrett Kerbel. “What says joy and fun better than bagpipes?”

Kerbel hired two bagpipers and a drummer to walk through the neighborhood Sunday morning to play music for people sheltering inside their homes. The sound of bagpipes can pierce the stone walls of Wissahickon schist.

“My wife, who has Scottish ancestry, talks about how bagpipes were meant to raise morale, stir the blood and scare the hooey out of the MacConnell’s in the next valley,” he said. “They’re also super loud. People can enjoy it from their living rooms as we march by. No one has to come out — that’s a safety factor.”

People did not stay in their living rooms, though, but rather opened their doors, looked out to the street and walked out onto their front lawns, many still dressed in their pajamas, to hear the music. Joggers and dog walkers stopped to whip out their cell phones.

Neighbors listening to the musicians playing Easter hymns in the streets.

Emily Cohen / WHYY

Neighbors follow their ears outside to find local Rev. Jarrett Kerbel, of St. Martins in the Field, with 2 bagpipers and a drummer playing Easter hymns in the streets in an attempt to bring Easter joy to Pennsylvanians under stay at home orders due to the Covid 19 pandemic. April 12 2020.

“I wanted to breathe the fresh air, and be with our friends and neighbors,” said Sarah Kalb, standing on her front walkway in her bare feet, hugging her daughter.

Neighbors saw one another in the sunlight, perhaps for the first time in weeks. They waved and said good morning to each other.

“I came out and it almost made me want to cry,” said Phoebe Griswold. “Here was something different, but it’s still Easter. I was extremely grateful to see people smiling and waving to each other.”

The leader of the band was Rod Nevin, of Reading. He selected about 20 songs from the St. Martin-in-the-Fields hymnal and adapted them for bagpipe.

It was an unexpected and welcome opportunity for Nevin, as the governor’s stay-at-home order has meant few in-person performance opportunities.

“I had a lot of gigs canceled around St Patrick’s day, of course,” said Nevin. “I played for one funeral since the start of the pandemic. I’m very grateful to play outside today.”

It was his first-ever Easter gig, but it may not be Nevin’s last. Kerbel beamed as he walked with the band through Chestnut Hill, watching crowds gather at every intersection and greeting them all. He mused that this should happen every year.

“They were instruments for troops marching,” he said. “There is a victorious element to Easter that we want to capture.”

Neighbors listening to the musicians playing Easter hymns in the streets.

Emily Cohen / WHYY

Neighbors follow their ears outside to find local Rev. Jarrett Kerbel, of St. Martins in the Field, with 2 bagpipers and a drummer playing Easter hymns in the streets in an attempt to bring Easter joy to Pennsylvanians under stay at home orders due to the Covid 19 pandemic. April 12 2020.

A bagpiper from Philadelphia, who wished to remain anonymous, wears a face mask while playing to bring Easter joy to a neighborhood in Chestnut Hill. (

Emily Cohen / WHYY

A bagpiper from Philadelphia, who wished to remain anonymous, wears a facemask while playing in a 3 person band to bring Easter hymns to a Chestnut Hill neighborhood in an attempt to bring Easter joy to the Pennsylvanians under stay at home orders due to the Covid 19 pandemic on April 12th 2020.

 

WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.

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