Virtual Masses prove a hit with 2,800 views on Facebook

Donegal priest changes Mass times to suit Americans as online services go global

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Inside St Columba’s in Burtonport, west Donegal, a solitary priest stands on the altar and looks down on an empty church.

“It’s not the way it’s meant to be,” says Fr Pat Ward. “During Lent you would have maybe 50 people in the chapel in front of you for daily Mass, and I’m very aware that those are people who are being deprived of that now.”

Instead, Fr Ward has moved online; for the past two weeks, a live stream inside the chapel has brought daily Mass directly into people’s homes. On St Patrick’s Day, his use of the voice-recognition technology Alexa to play Daniel O’Donnell’s Hail Glorious St Patrick over the chapel’s speakers won him fans on social media around the world.

“On St Patrick’s Day it just dawned on me that if I plugged it into the sound system, she [Alexa] could probably play the music through the speakers.”

O’Donnell is a local; “I think that tickled people that I asked for Daniel’s version of it,” says Fr Ward. “He was very pleased with it himself.”

Fr Ward’s online Mass has proved a hit; on Monday, it was viewed 2,800 times on Facebook.

“I’ve never felt alone since this happened, because I get so many people commenting or asking me to pray for such and such a thing or letting me know they are in touch from different parts of the world – and that’s England, Scotland, Wales, America, Australia, Canada, everywhere.

“So even though there’s nobody in front of me, I’m very aware that I have a virtual parish.

“We even changed the time of Mass now [from 10am] to 11am to accommodate the Americans, so they wouldn’t have to get up at six o’clock in the morning.”

Funeral Masses

The end of physical attendance at Mass is just one of the ways in which daily life has changed as a result of measures to stop the spread of coronavirus.

In the Catholic Church, each diocese issues its own guidance to parishes; in Down and Connor and in Clogher, bishops have instructed that funeral Masses will no longer take place.

In Fr Ward’s parish of Kincasslagh, the last funeral Mass took place on Sunday. “I had to make it clear that was the last where the remains will come to the chapel,” explains Fr Ward.

“At the weekend the bishop contacted us and said that in light of the Taoiseach’s last statement, he felt it was proper now at this stage not to have funerals in the chapel.”

He has no doubt as to the impact this will have: “It’s devastating for Donegal.

“I’ve been in this parish for 23 years, and they have a really well worked-out system for wakes and funerals, and I think it’s really healthy the way that they do it, where you still go to the house and the coffin’s open and we say prayers and you have tea around it. It normalises the whole thing for all ages, but that’s been removed.

“There is a tradition here of celebrating the dead and gathering in their presence, and all that’s been taken from them and people find that really difficult.”

The thought that “if somebody dies now they’re not supposed to have a gathering at the wake, nobody will come to their house, I find them bereft and I find them grieving the fact that they haven’t got that experience,” says Fr Ward.

“They’re frightened if somebody dies they’ll be buried without the honour that would be due to them.

“I find it difficult too, but we’re taking steps to try to save lives. That’s what I keep in the back of my mind. The fewer gatherings, the more lives saved.”

In the community there is “a sense of fear, of foreboding”, says Fr Ward; yet there is also hope. “This too will pass,” he says.

Visits have been replaced with telephone calls. In this close-knit community, people who are on their own have always had the support of neighbours. “They mightn’t go into their house now, but they’re still getting their messages and looking after them.”

Parishioners, he says, have adapted. “People are finding a lot of consolation in faith, and gathering virtually for Mass seems to have taken off.

“I’ll stream it on Facebook, and you’ll see everybody saying ‘good morning’ to each other before Mass.

“It’s lovely, and I’ve said, ‘It’s like we were all standing outside the chapel and having a wee natter before we begin.’”

This remote, coastal community has had its challenges; “We can deal with hard times,” says Fr Ward. “But the fear of losing family members or members of the community is what frightens people and, realistically, you can’t say that’s not going to happen to us.

“That’s not something you can say to people at this stage.”

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