For churchgoers during the Covid-19 pandemic, a deadly lesson from the 1918 flu

San Francisco: The congregation of the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption praying on the steps, where they gathered to hear mass and pray during the influenza pandemic of 1918.

(CNN)To gather or not to gather has been the question at the forefront of the minds of today's religious leaders and their church members.

During the 1918 influenza pandemic that ultimately killed 50 million to 100 million people, different answers to that same question resulted in either collective well-being or widespread, devastating loss.
During the 1918 influenza pandemic, religious institutions worldwide closed their doors to save lives.
The US Supreme Court recently decided 5-4 to grant religious organizations in New York state relief from restrictions on the number of people attending religious services. In light of this development, looking back a century can offer guidance for religious institutions deciding to stay shuttered or reopen.

    Self-inflicted decimation

      In 1918, many churches around the world closed their doors to save lives. Without financial support, some churches eventually closed permanently, while others survived with dropped-off donations and serving as hospitals instead of sanctuaries. For some families, the home became the altar.
        Those who refused to adapt to the pandemic reaped the consequences.
        "Churchless" Sundays left towns quiet in 1918.
        In Zamora, Spain, "mass gatherings were positively encouraged — and at 3 per cent, or more than twice the national average, Zamora had the highest death rate of any city in Spain," wrote science journalist Laura Spinney in her book "Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World."
          In September, a local bishop rebelled against health authorities by ordering evening prayers for nine days "in honour of St. Rocco, the patron saint of plague and pestilence, because the evil that had befallen Zamoranos was 'due to our sins and ingratitude, for which the avenging arm of eternal justice has been brought down upon us,' " Spinney wrote.
          On the first day, "he dispensed Holy Communion to a large crowd at the Church of San Esteban. At another church, the congregation was asked to adore relics of St. Rocco, which meant lining up to kiss them," she wrote.
          "Organised religion shaped the pandemic much more obviously then than now, and it was more likely to take precedence over public health," Spinney told CNN via email. "In the pages of Zamora's newspapers ... a notice announcing an upcoming mass at one of the city's churches was printed next to a warning to avoid crowds. Nobody seemed to notice the incompatibility of the two."
          A month later, Spinney notes in her book, the bishop wrote that science had proven itself ineffective and that people were beginning to "turn their eyes instead toward heaven." People continued to attend gatherings in packed cathedrals and streets. When health officials tried to prohibit gatherings, the bishop accused them of interfering in church affairs.
          Not attending church services meant that some people took up other activities on Sundays.
          By mid-November, Zamora had seen more illness and death than any other Spanish city. Although priests and parishioners lost their lives, Spinney wrote, the bishop praised those who had placated, in his words, "God's legitimate anger" by attending services. The bishop's followers didn't hold him accountable but rather revered him, and he was awarded for his efforts and remained bishop for nearly a decade longer.
          Across the globe, villagers dwelling on the Seward Peninsula of Alaska were also experiencing the tail end of their pandemic nightmare around the end of November.
          On the last Saturday of the month, two visitors from Nome, Alaska, attended a standing-room-only service in the small local chapel. The Nome visitors relayed that many people back home were sick, but no one was seriously alarmed, wrote Gina Kolata, a science and medicine reporter for The New York Times, in her book "Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It."
          Two days after the service of singing, prayer and feasting, villagers became sick with the flu. Of the 80 local Eskimo villagers, 72 died and their bodies were left frozen in igloos. In one igloo, dogs had scavenged corpses.