At St Eugene’s Cathedral in Derry, it feels as if normality has returned.
"It's just wonderful," says Leo Concannon. "I would go to Mass daily, and of course I've been watching it on the webcam. It's grand, but it's not the same. It's far better to be back, and to see people."
He and his friend Desmond Quigg are Eucharistic ministers.
“We’ve missed being here and doing the job we would normally do, but also we would socialise after Mass, and go and have a coffee,” Mr Quigg explains. “Being back is important because it’s about the social aspect as well as the church.”
Churches in the North voluntarily suspended in person gatherings in January to limit the spread of Covid-19. All denominations have now decided to resume services following discussions with the North’s Executive and public health authorities, but are taking a “cautious” approach.
Daily Mass started being offered in Catholic dioceses from Friday, depending on the circumstances of individual parishes and following a risk assessment, while the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist denominations have decided to wait until April 2nd.
For the Bishop of Derry, Dr Donal McKeown, the timing is perfect.
“There’s a great drama about the Holy Week ceremonies ... you can’t have a drama in an empty theatre, so you can’t really have the liturgical drama with any sense of participation in an empty church,” he explains.
Parishioners leaving 10am Mass told him of their relief and delight at being able to return.
“Being able to get to Mass, to be with others, to have that regular pattern in your day and to be able to receive Holy Communion is terribly important,” he says.
But for all the talk of normality, much remains changed. Social distancing requirements and Covid-19 regulations are being strictly followed; inside St Eugene’s, two out of every three pews is cordoned off and people no longer go up to receive Communion, but instead stay seated while the priest comes to them.
In some parishes, their risk assessment has included a consideration of their proximity to the border, where the Covid-19 rates have often been higher than elsewhere.
"Places like Strabane are being very cautious, rather than becoming a real focal point, because of course Lifford [in Co Donegal] is in the Derry diocese," says Dr McKeown.
“The churches in the North have been trusted by government to make decisions about closing and opening, which I think is a mature way of running a society, and I think we have to be very sensible and sensitive to ensure that we do not contribute to any possible super-spreader events.”
For this reason, First Holy Communions in the diocese have been moved from May and June to September, when the Bishop hopes celebrations can be held safely.
As he reflects on the year, says Dr McKeown, he is mindful of “just how much people have suffered, whether they’re churchgoers or not ... I think it’s important that we reflect on what people have lost and yet give some hope.”
An all-night vigil in the cathedral last night (Friday) marked the beginning of Holy Week; each parish has sent in the names of all those who have died in the last year, to be read out during the Stations of the Cross.
“That will be about 100 names for each of the 14 Stations, and for each of the parishes a rose plant has been brought up and then we’re going to build a memorial rose garden using the rose plants with the name of each parish on its rose.”
“It’s to do something symbolic, and it happens to coincide with the night of opening up,” says Dr McKeown.
Outside the cathedral, Emmett and Emma-Jo Mullan and their 18-month-old son Paul are delighted to be back at Mass as a family. In his job as faith development co-ordinator, Emmett has grown used to helping broadcast Mass from an empty church, but is relieved to have the congregation back.
“We could reach more people, we had thousands tuning in online sometimes, but people need to be able to gather as a community,” he says. “People have struggled during lockdown. They need that community, and they need that faith.”
"It's just great to be somewhere peaceful and to have that human contact with your fellow worshippers and with the priest and to receive the sacrament," says Erin Nelson. "It feels like a little bit of normality."