Shorter Mass and extra clothes: Churches look for answers to rising energy bills

Government urged to extend energy supports to parishes and local community facilities

A Dublin parish has introduced shorter Masses while parishioners have been advised to wear extra layers of clothing in church as Catholic clergy grapple with rising energy bills.

Fr Andrew O’Sullivan, parish priest of Rathmines and Rathgar in Dublin, said increased costs were making it financially difficult for parishes to continue heating buildings used not only by worshippers but also community groups and charities.

In terms of community centres, he said: “We are faced with the choice of charging more or closing our doors.”

Both areas under his responsibility have huge church buildings: the green, dome-capped Church of Mary Immaculate in Rathmines and the Church of the Three Patrons in Rathgar.

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“They are massive buildings with long-standing and very strong communities in both parishes,” he said. However, soaring energy costs had made running them “quite stressful” in recent times.

“Community life had become fractured by the pandemic and people are still hesitant about meeting but we are encouraging them to do so” for mental health reasons, he said. “There’s a huge transient population in Rathmines with a lot of isolation. Homelessness is also a problem in this part of the city.” Many homeless and isolated people frequented the churches “to keep warm and just to chat with people. It is a safe space,” he said.

“Groups are coming back to the parish centres but most people are struggling financially” so he was concerned that the nominal rent for use of such facilities to cover heat and light costs may no longer be enough. The parish centres host meetings for groups such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul and Alcoholics Anonymous.

Heating costs for the main church buildings were “colossal”, he said. In Rathmines “the dome above is warm, as heat rises, but the people below are freezing. The buildings are impossible to heat right now. We advise the people to wear extra clothes and we have shortened, respectfully, Masses and liturgies,” he said.

He felt the Government should recognise the importance of the churches’ contribution as keystone to so many communities and pointed out, for instance, that even such as grand-aid for solar panels was not available to parish centres.

He was speaking after Catholic bishops this week called for State energy supports announced as part of the Budget to be extended to include community facilities which are not grant aided, including parish centres, community halls and church building themselves. The bishops noted how “especially during winter church buildings are frequented by the homeless and vulnerable to keep warm and to be safe.”

It was the case that “with soaring heating costs, the numbers seeking to spend part of their day in such settings can be expected to rise dramatically. However, the related energy costs are also rising rapidly to the point where it is difficult to see how drastic closures can be avoided. To address this dilemma, we urge Government to make assistance available so that these vital community resources can remain open on a sustainable basis throughout this stressful period, and to offer grant support to equip such facilities to be more energy efficient in the future,” they said.

The auxiliary bishop of Armagh Michael Router expressed concern that some churches or community centres, particularly in rural areas, would have to close their doors because of the heating costs.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show, he said: “A lot of parishes would be struggling. Perhaps up to 25 per cent of parishes would be finding it tough to be financially viable at this stage.” He noted some parishes, for historical reasons, had three or four churches - “that’s quite a cost to the parish to keep that, particularly when we’ve experienced a pretty sharp decline in income because of the Covid crisis over the last number of years”.

Bishop Router said the statement from the bishops had been to draw the attention of the Government that while it had given “very welcome financial supports in the recent Budget to households, businesses, sports organisations and voluntary organisations who are facing the rapid inflationary energy costs”, there was a lack of assistance to community facilities which are not grant aided included in those would be utilities such as parish centres, community halls, church buildings and such.

“This is a perfect storm on top of the Covid crisis. We have seen income drop in recent years. Yes it is a major concern. People are struggling to pay their own bills. We cannot ask them to contribute any more to churches but we are asking those who can to be that little bit extra generous - not just to churches but to all the charities particularly St Vincent De Paul,” he said.

When asked if the bishops had yet received a response from the Government to their appeal, Bishop Router said no. “We might have been left out by mistake.”

In their statement at the conclusion of their Autumn meeting, the bishops also pointed out that next Saturday was National Traveller Mental Health Day and referred to “the high level of mental health problems and large number of suicides among Travelling people.” They referred specifically to the suicide rate of young Traveller men which is “seven times higher than in the settled community.”

The bishops also congratulated Teresa Devlin, chief executive at the National Board for Safeguarding Children, on her recent appointment to the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors. She is the second Irishwoman to be appointed to the Commission. Abuse survivor Marie Collins served on it for three years until 2017, when she resigned in protest at frustration of the Commission’s work by Vatican officials. Since when there have been significant changes there.

Ms Devlin highlighted how the Church in Ireland has made major strides in ensuring compliance with civil and Church child safeguarding standards.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times