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Athlone parishes decide not to resume public Masses just yet

By Cian Molloy - 09 July, 2020

Almost every parish in Ireland will have a public celebration of Sunday Mass, but it looks like Athlone will have several exceptions with four parishes planning on keeping their doors closed for a few more weeks.

The churches planning to remain closed on Sunday are: St Peter and Paul’s Church on the western side of the Shannon, in the Diocese of Elphin, St Mary’s Church and the Church of Our Lady, Queen of Peace, in Westmeath and the Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnois. The fourth church is the Church of the Franciscan Friary in Athlone town centre.

At present, the Friary, is not planning to host public Masses until Monday 20 July, but a meeting to discuss the continued closure is taking place tonight.

There has been concern at the relatively high-levels of COVID-19 infections in the midlands. In the week following St Patrick’s Day and the start of travel restrictions, Westmeath had the second highest infection rate of any county in the state after Dublin. On Sunday 10 May, Roscommon had the highest new infection rate – with Dublin remaining the hot bed for transmissions.

A limitation of county-based statistics is that they do not help identify localised areas of infection, particularly with cross-border conurbations like Athlone town.

A HSE Infographic showing that County Cavan has the worst COVID-19 incidence rate and that rates are higher in the Midlands than elsewhere.

Infection rates in the Border Midlands West (BMW) region continue to be of concern. Cavan county has the worst new coronavirus infection rate in the country. More infections per head of population have been recorded in this border county, which forms the bulk of the Kilmore Diocese. Cavan’s infection rate is worse than Dublin’s.

Fr Pierre Pepper, a curate at St Mary’s in Athlone, said: “The rules that would allow us to open with more than 50 people are impractical for us. We would need to have different sections with a maximum of 50 people in each section and the people in each section observing social distancing of two metres between each other, plus then an additional four metres social distancing between each of the individual sections of 50 people. That is unworkable.

“There is a requirement that each section would have its own exit and entrance – one of the churches in the town only has two entrances.

“Rather than turn people away, we decided that it would be better if we continued with the suspension of public celebration of Masses for the time being. We are still continuing to broadcast Sunday Mass on Athlone Community Radio.”

Fr Pierre said he understood that there was a great Eucharistic yearning among the people. “The nearest comparable thing to the way people are feeling now is the way people missed not being able to celebrate Mass during Penal times. Church historians will be talking about this in hundreds of years time.”

A spokesperson for the Elphin diocese said they believed that St Peter and Paul’s was the only Church in the diocese where Mass was not being celebrated publicly on Sunday.

A Kerry Diocesan representative said they believe all parishes in the diocese are celebrating Sunday Mass this weekend. But this advice was given: “I would double check the parish website or the parish newsletter to make sure – parish newsletters are available via the diocesan website.”

In Waterford, all parishes are due to celebrate a Sunday Mass – but there may not be a Mass in every church in every parish. Additionally, if people are nervous about going to Mass, Bishop Phonsie Cullinan counselled them: “I wish to remind all parishioners that the Sunday and Holy Day obligations are dispensed with for the time being.”

He added: “As we return to public Mass let us be careful; let us not rush back into trying to have things exactly as they were. Our ways of gathering, our ways of interacting with each other will be different now. The threat from the virus has not gone away. While great progress has been made we need to be careful and observe social distancing and common-sense hygiene regulations and look out for each other, to ensure that all are safe. Also, I urge people who are vulnerable or with underlying conditions or who have flu-like symptoms to pray at home.”

In Dublin, not all parishes had a Sunday Mass last weekend – with the 50-person limit on indoor gatherings only being lifted late on Friday evening, many parishes did not want to open their doors and have to turn people away. “They’re all back this weekend,” said Annette O Donnell, Director of Communications for the Dublin Archdiocese. “It’s been harder to reopen the smaller churches than the large ones, in terms of maintaining social distancing, which is why in some parishes the chapels-of-ease are not opening yet. But as far as we know, barring any extenuating circumstances locally, I think we are all back this weekend.”

The HSE issued a new version of its COVID-19 guidance for religious services yesterday. In particular, the 2.0 version of the document contains up-to-date advice on infection prevention and control. The guidance can be downloaded here.

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