Granada, Spain – Religious associations in the small southwest town of Aznalcazar were already in the thick of preparations when news arrived that Spain’s tens of thousands of traditional Easter processions were likely to be banned for the first time in nearly 90 years, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We had bought pretty much everything we needed, right down to the cloth for the uniforms for the penitentes” – the hooded and cloaked worshippers in the processions, Lola Diaz Montero, of Aznalcazar’s Brotherhood of Saint James, told Al Jazeera.
“We’d started cancelling Masses for Lent … before the state of alert was declared in the middle of March. Then the news came through that all the processions were going to be stopped too.”
Montero, the head of logistics of the Brotherhood, said an alternative for at least part of the association’s stock of Easter procession material was quickly found – one which highlights how religious communities in Spain are helping the country’s struggle against the pandemic.
For the past weeks across Spain, there has been a severe shortage of protective facemasks for the general public in chemists and other stores.
“One member, Antonio Jesus Diaz Ponce, had the idea of using the cloth originally intended for making our penitents’ hoods to make homemade protective ones instead,” Montero said.
“We’ve made them for pensioner – the local police take them round, cleaners, refuse collectors, anybody who needs them. The other day we handed over a box of masks to priests who work with a hospital because we realised that as they aren’t health workers, they wouldn’t be getting their own.”
Montero estimated the Aznalcazar Brotherhood has made at least 350 masks.
“Each volunteer seamstress makes between eight and 12,” she said.
Other religious associations in Spain are also working to battle the pandemic.
In the nearby regional capital of Seville, for example, the 18 nuns in the San Leandro Convent have given up making their traditional sweetmeats – their only source of income – to sew facemasks free of charge, and the Brotherhood of Nuestra Senora de los Reyes, which has one of the best-known Easter processions in the city, has paid for the cloth the nuns now need.
“One of the basic tenets of associations like ours is to help people and we’ve been doing that for years,” Jose Manuel Gutierrez, a long-standing member of the inner council of the Jesus Despojado Brotherhood in another southern Spanish city, Granada, tells Al Jazeera.
“But this year things are much worse, and much more help is needed.”
With their most high-profile public activity, the Palm Sunday procession, cancelled, behind the scenes members of his Brotherhood are “working alongside charities like Caritas and the local foodbanks”.
Using special police permits for front-line aid workers using vehicles, “they are driving around Granada taking provisions to the elderly or other people who can’t leave their homes,” said Gutierrez.
“It’s a very sad situation, people are suffering – they’re losing jobs, they’re dying and there’s a real sensation of powerlessness when facing this.
“So we’re trying to help people who don’t have the means to get through, above all those who are alone, like the old people who, at the drop of a hat, have found themselves without their carers.”
To make up for cancelled processions, some Brotherhoods have organised online religious ceremonies, including historical documentaries mixed with prayers, videos of last year’s parades and messages from their association presidents.
Some penitents have organised their own individual marches, remodelling processions in Lego, hanging religious symbols from their balconies, or marching around their kitchen table in their procession uniform.
Lockdown rules, however, look set to be strictly respected, as the death toll and the number of coronavirus cases continue to rise.
Police have told one local priest in the southern town of Puebla de Don Fadrique, whose plans to go through the streets in his own individual enactment of the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday was widely publicised, would not be allowed.
In southern Spain, where the Easter processions are traditionally the largest, local authorities for tourist-friendly cities like Malaga and Granada have said the economic effect of their loss runs into more than 100 million euros ($109m), while in Seville, the region’s capital, it has been estimated at four times that amount.
However, as Montero says: “At the end of the day, our brotherhoods aren’t just there to parade around the Virgin Mary or Jesus. And right now, what better use could there be for the cloth we’re not using in the processions?”