Northern Ireland

Delight and relief as Catholic churches re-open ahead of Palm Sunday

Mass at St Mary's Church in Belfast city centre as Catholic churches in the north re-opened their doors. Picture by Hugh Russell
Mass at St Mary's Church in Belfast city centre as Catholic churches in the north re-opened their doors. Picture by Hugh Russell

THE oldest Catholic church Belfast saw queues of people eager to return to Mass yesterday following the return of public services.

Fr Tim Bartlett, administrator of St Mary's in the city centre, said it was a privilege to be able to hold a public Mass for the first time since January.

"You could see the smiles on everybody as they were leaving," he said.

"It was really, really wonderful to see."

Although Catholic churches in Northern Ireland were allowed to hold public Masses from yesterday, ahead of Palm Sunday, parishes have made their own arrangements and some have decided to delay their re-opening.

The Church of Ireland, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches in the north will resume in-person services from Good Friday on April 2.

Churches in the Republic are still open for private prayer but no services can be held until at least Easter Monday.

The north's four largest churches voluntarily suspended services in January following a surge in Covid-19 cases.

Among the parishioners at St Mary's yesterday was organist Margaret McCrisken.

The 92-year-old, who has played the organ at the church for 50 years, said she was "delighted" to return.

Fr Bartlett said although there was "a sense that we're not there yet, we're so glad to be back for public worship".

He said it was hugely important for Catholics to be able to receive the Eucharist, particularly during Holy Week next week.

Fr Bartlett said parishioners prayed yesterday for businesses who are "yearning to open up".

"We prayed in particular for those who are suffering because their businesses are closed," he said.

St Mary's will celebrate one weekday Mass, at one o'clock, rather than its usual two Masses. The number of people in the church is restricted to around 100 people in total.

"We were full to capacity and had to close the doors just before the Mass started," Fr Bartlett said.

"People were very understanding."

He said the re-opening of Catholic churches yesterday was a "very careful, cautious first step" in the wider relaxation of restrictions.

"We appreciate the privilege of being the first to be allowed to express our religious freedom (and) come back to public worship," he said.

Mass-goers will experience a very different Holy Week, with ongoing social distancing, dry fonts, and no washing of feet on Holy Thursday.

Easter celebrations - the most important in the Christian calendar - have been disrupted for two years in a row amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

Last year, pews were empty across Ireland after services went online during the first wave of the pandemic.

Fr Martin Magill, parish priest of St John's on the Falls Road in west Belfast, said the re-opening of churches was very welcome.

"We were facing into such uncertainty last year," he said. "This time it feels as though we've been getting back to what we had in the past."

He said parishioners will experience an unusual Holy Week next week.

"On Holy Thursday, the washing of the feet is a really important part of that but we're not doing that this year," he said.

"We don't have the full richness of the ceremony. On Good Friday, for example, there is no veneration of the Cross. Holy Saturday also has restrictions. That is to acknowledge the fact that we are still in these very strange times."

Fr Magill said his church had been divided into 36 spaces, each of which can accommodate up to five people from the same bubble.

Parishioners can book a space for Mass online via the church's website, a sign-up sheet or by ringing the parish office.

He said some parishioners were keen to return to Mass while others were more cautious.

However, he said people had got accustomed to restrictions including the wearing of masks in church, the lack of holy water in the fonts and the ban on the sign of peace.